Making a new habit is a lot like striking a match. Both can result in powerful changes but only if you muster enough energy to make them happen.
This concept of “activation energy” was the subject of a fascinating blog by psychologist James Clear, who compares changing habits to initiating chemical reactions. Drag a match softly across a striker and nothing happens. Fail to apply enough effort to change a behavior and… nothing changes.
Every chemical reaction requires a minimum amount of activation energy to get it started. Some reactions require more energy than others. Chemists long ago learned that adding certain substances called catalysts could lower the activation energy requirement. The catalyst is not consumed in the reaction; it just makes it happen faster.
Clear notes that the toughest part of achieving goals is often mustering the energy to making the habits necessary to achieve the objective. The more ambitious the goal, the more activation energy we need. Making the habit of doing one push-up per day doesn’t take a lot of motivation, 100 per day is another story. So, he suggests, find some catalysts to lower the required energy. If your goal is to exercise in the morning, layout your gym clothes the night before. Want to watch less television? Put the TV in the closet. Trying to eat healthier but you’re crazy busy? Consider using one of the new services that delivers ready-to-cook healthy meals to your home.
Chemical reactions also have intermediate steps, all of which require their own activation energy. Habit making is the same way, according to Clear. He suggests looking at your habits and identifying the intermediate steps that are most energy consuming. If rush hour traffic is frustrating your daily trip to the gym, consider working out at home.
Clear’s advice is very useful for anyone establishing or ramping up a personal finance strategy. It’s easy to get pumped about saving $1 million for retirement, tougher to make the habits necessary to achieve that goal. But there are catalysts that can make it easier. Here are two:
Pay yourself first. You can’t spend money you never see. Sign up for your company’s 401k and your contribution will go straight from your paycheck into your retirement account. If you don’t have a 401k, make arrangements to have your savings direct-deposited into a retirement savings or brokerage account.
Gather your info. We waste a great deal of time and energy tracking account balances from checking, savings, brokerage and debt accounts. Simplify that process by linking all your accounts to a site like Wela or Mint. Their tracking tools are powerful and free.