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Activation Energy: Why Getting Started Is the Hardest Part

Starting any complex or challenging endeavor can be a daunting task. It often feels like an uphill battle, especially when it comes to breaking the inertia of inactivity. Just as some of us need a cup of coffee to transition from sleep to an active state, chemical reactions also require an initial push of energy to get going. This fundamental concept is known as activation energy. While this idea originates in the realm of chemistry, its application extends to various aspects of our lives. Understanding activation energy can help motivate ourselves, drive change, and even increase our productivity. In this article, we will explore the concept of activation energy, its application in chemistry, and how it can be used as a mental model in daily life.

How Activation Energy Works in Chemistry

Activation energy is the minimum amount of energy required for a chemical reaction to occur. To grasp this concept, let’s first consider how chemical reactions work. Imagine lighting a fire. You intuitively know that certain heat is needed to start the flames. Putting a single match to a large log is insufficient, and using a flamethrower would be excessive. The amount of heat required to ignite the fire is an approximate representation of activation energy.

For a chemical reaction to take place, existing chemical bonds must break, and new ones must form. Importantly, a reaction will only proceed if the resulting products are more stable than the initial reactants. In the context of fire, the reaction converts wood into more stable carbon dioxide (CO2), releasing heat in the process. Activation energy, in this scenario, corresponds to the initial heat required to ignite the fire.

The Arrhenius Equation

Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, in 1889, established the concept of activation energy. He developed the Arrhenius equation, which relates temperature and reaction rate. This equation is crucial for understanding chemical reactions and determining the energy needed to initiate them.

In the Arrhenius equation:

K represents the reaction rate coefficient (the rate of reaction).

A stands for the frequency factor, which signifies how often molecules collide.

R is the universal gas constant, defining the relationship between energy and temperature.

T denotes the absolute temperature (usually measured in kelvins).

E is the activation energy.

The Arrhenius equation helps calculate not only reaction rates but also the activation energy required for a specific reaction. It is a versatile tool used in various branches of chemistry.

Why Activation Energy Matters

Understanding activation energy is essential as it provides us with control over our surroundings. Consider a simple example: a book on a desk. We know that the book is flammable, but it won’t spontaneously combust at room temperature. It requires an external source of energy, such as a match, to provide the activation energy for the reaction. Our intuitive knowledge of activation energy keeps us safe in everyday situations.


In cases where chemical reactions necessitate a substantial amount of energy, it can be challenging to control them. Increasing the temperature may not always be practical due to costs, safety concerns, or impracticality. For instance, reactions within our bodies cannot rely on high temperatures as an energy source. In such scenarios, reducing the activation energy required becomes crucial.

This process of lowering activation energy to expedite a reaction is known as catalysis. A catalyst is an additional substance that facilitates the reaction but is generally not consumed in the process. Catalysts create an alternative pathway with lower activation energy requirements, enabling more particles to react. They are used extensively in industrial-scale reactions to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

Application of Activation Energy in Daily Life

Activation energy is not confined to the realm of science; it can serve as a practical mental model for various aspects of daily life. Here are some examples:

Getting Started: Just like chemical reactions, many daily tasks and endeavors require an initial push or activation energy. Consider the process of writing an essay. Each student may require a different form of activation energy to begin, such as inspiration, a looming deadline, or a motivating factor. Recognizing the need for this initial energy can help individuals kickstart their tasks effectively.

Motivation: Understanding the concept of activation energy can help individuals motivate themselves and others. For instance, setting incentives or rewards as catalysts for completing tasks can reduce the overall effort needed. An example is using the promise of dessert to encourage kids to eat their vegetables. Once the initial hurdle is overcome, the task often becomes more manageable.

Making Significant Life Changes: Major life changes, such as quitting an addiction, leaving an unhealthy relationship, or making lifestyle adjustments, often require a substantial amount of activation energy. This energy is typically generated by reaching a “breaking point,” a threshold beyond which change becomes imperative.

Productivity: In a work or productivity context, recognizing the activation energy required to start a project can help individuals better plan and allocate resources. By understanding the energy needed to initiate a task, you can make the process more efficient and effective.


While activation energy may be a concept rooted in science, it is highly applicable to our daily lives. It doesn’t take a deep understanding of chemistry to grasp its basic principles. Activation energy serves as a useful mental model, reflecting how the world around us often requires an initial push to get things moving. Recognizing the need for this initial energy can help us become more efficient, motivated, and better equipped to handle complex tasks. From igniting a fire to motivating ourselves and making substantial life changes, activation energy plays a significant role in our daily experiences.

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