Activation Energy

When you drop Alkali metals — elements like lithium, sodium, or potassium — in water, they immediately start fizzing and whizzing around. The reaction is instant, and it creates a hydroxide of the metal as well as hydrogen gas, which sometimes even ignites on its own.

Unfortunately, life rarely works that way. You can’t just throw a nickel on the floor and expect it to spontaneously self-multiply. Like many other chemical reactions, from lighting a match to starting a gas engine car, life requires “activation energy.”

Activation energy is the minimum of input momentum a mix of components will accept in order to start reacting with one another. It could be heat, motion, or electricity. Without the spark you generate by turning your key inside your car, the engine can’t light the fuel that’ll produce the fire turning shafts and rods and, ultimately, the wheels. If you throw noodles and veggies in cold water, everything will get soft but nothing will taste nice. A soup requires heat, and that heat must be maintained until the desired effect is achieved.

But life is bigger than chemistry. For me, morning showers are activation energy. Unlike potassium, I won’t self-combust once thrown into water, but the water itself does raise my energy levels. It allows me to keep reacting, functioning, for the rest of the day. I can skip the shower and see how far I’ll make it, but I can only blame myself if, at 7 PM in the evening, I haven’t done much because I never invested that first bit of energy.

When it comes to humans and habits, activation energy is more psychological than chemical. Sure, a bit of sugar helps if you don’t eat until lunch, but most empowering rituals work in other, more obscure ways. Why does stepping outside for 2 minutes make you happy? I don’t know, but I know you should keep doing it.

Activation energy rituals are the pluses on top of absent minuses: They don’t absolve us from taking care of the basics — good sleep, enough food, some downtime — but without them, we can’t go far beyond that baseline.

Your activation energy rituals might be quirkier than turning on the shower, but even if they are, embrace them. Work to find them, perfect them, and take pride in knowing your needs.

You are not a lump of metal, and there’s no single button you can push to blast yourself right to your destination, but there are buttons you can press. Even if the right combination is as complex as a rocket launch sequence, it’s worth learning and remembering it. After all, we have a lifetime to figure out what activates us — but only one life to do everything we want to feel active for.