How to overcome the activation barrier

How to overcome the activation barrier

It is ultimately liberating to realize that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to sit down and do it.

Why we procrastinate

You have a task to do. Maybe it’s a paper you have to write, a test you need to study for, charts you have to finish, or a presentation you have to prepare. It’s there and you know there is no way to expunge its specter from your life except by doing it. You also know that once you sit down and start working on it, that it won’t be nearly as horrendous as you think.

BUT there is an invisible barrier keeping you from actually sitting down and starting to work on it. Every time you think about starting it, you are either filled with dread or you find yourself inexplicably doing something else. You realize you simply must check your email, do the dishes, watch just-one-more-episode, check if someone has liked your most recent social media post, clean the attic, or get a head start on your taxes.

There is an activation barrier to getting started on tasks that we think will be unpleasant. As a former card-carrying chemist, I like to think of things in terms of free energy graphs. Imagine you have a project or task that is unfinished. You need to take it to the finished state. There is some activation barrier to getting it done.

Have you ever wondered why that is? What is inside that activation barrier?

Let’s imagine dissecting the activation barrier and seeing what is inside. If you did, you would find several things, but one of the most important is: a desire to avoid feeling a negative emotion associated with the task.

Avoidance of negative emotions

That’s right, much of why you procrastinate comes down to avoiding negative emotions. Depending on the task, the emotion you are avoiding may be boredom, insecurity, self-doubt, imposterism, fear of failure, frustration, betrayal, and anxiety, among others.

There are plenty of tasks we avoid because we know they will be boring. Think about the mundane task of paying bills or doing paperwork. Many people are chronically late on their bills or paperwork because they want to avoid the feelings of boredom and frustration.

Alternatively, you may procrastinate to avoid the feeling of insecurity and fear of failure. If you are worried you won’t be successful at the task you are working on, you will avoid feeling that insecurity by avoiding the task itself. If you are working on a paper you will submit and you are worried it will be rejected, a presentation you are worried will flop, or a new business venture you are worried may fail, you will likely experience self-doubt and fear of failure whenever you sit down to work on it.

So what do we do? We avoid feeling negative emotions by avoiding working on the tasks that induce those feelings.

“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” – Seneca

Practical Solutions

Here are two questions to ask yourself to start to overcome the activation barrier.

First, cultivate curiosity. When you notice yourself procrastinating, ask yourself why. What are the feelings you are trying to avoid experiencing? Is it boredom? Is it something deeper related to your own self-doubt, anxiety, or insecurity?

Once you’ve identified the feeling you are trying to avoid, ask yourself: “Am I willing to feel that feeling in order to get the job done?” When you phrase it that way you may realize that yes, you are willing to feel boredom in order to get this done. Or you may be willing to feel some insecurity in order to have a shot at successfully completing the task.

It is freeing to realize that you do not have to wait for the whim of feeling to fill your sails and drive you to action. You can act whether you feel like doing something or not.

Second, ask: “What is the immediate next step?”

If I have a paper to write, I will sometimes procrastinate on it to avoid feelings frustration, fear of failure, self-doubt, etc. One powerful way to overcome the tendency to avoid daunting tasks is to ask what the immediate next step is. For a paper, that may be to turn on your computer and pull up the file. Then ask what the next step after that is. It may be to identify the area you were working on last and pick one paragraph to work on. The immediate next step after that may be to write two paragraphs of the introduction or methods section.

By focusing only on the immediate next step, you break the activation barrier down into manageable pieces. In the immortal words of Anna from Frozen II: Do the next right thing.


Get curious next time you find yourself procrastinating and ask what emotion you are trying to avoid by avoiding the task. Then, ask what the immediate next step is.

Future posts will go into more detail about how to manage the thoughts and emotions that lead us to procrastinate. For now, put these two steps into practice and watch how you are able to lower the activation barrier to getting things done.

“The happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast – a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good… A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources.” – Seneca

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