How overcoming “activation threshold” can make you ultra-productive

Ever put off a task for hours (or days or weeks), and then you sit down, start working on it, and realize it’s not that hard?

Or you’ve had an unproductive day, and then you finally sit down to focus and end up in a peak flow state and get hours of work done.

The truth is: it’s often easier to work than it is to start the work.

As Paul Graham writes In his phenomenal article on How to Do Great Work:

“It will probably be harder to start working than to keep working. You’ll often have to trick yourself to get over that initial threshold. Don’t worry about this; it’s the nature of work, not a flaw in your character. Work has a sort of activation energy, both per day and per project. And since this threshold is fake in the sense that it’s higher than the energy required to keep going, it’s ok to tell yourself a lie of corresponding magnitude to get over it.”

This idea of work having an “activation energy” has been embedded in my mind ever since I read Graham’s article.

I think about it frequently when I’m tempted to procrastinate. I know that if I just sit down and start, then my worries, my overthinking, my analysis paralysis—it will go away.

Combine this understanding of work activation threshold with the rugged discipline of “doing the work that’s in front of you.” (Instead of trying to seek the shiny object or elusive answer). And I guarantee you’ll be more productive.

Here’s some ways to cross that activation threshold with ease:

  • Use a stopwatch, not a timer. Set a 15-min minimum. This way you’ve committed to doing something easy (15 mins of work), but you’re also not capping your flow state. You’ll likely hit the 15-min mark and feel great, and keep going. Some of my best flow states have come out of periods where I didn’t want to work at all.
  • Remind yourself that it’s really not that hard. It might be boring, but it’s not hard. Some work is, yes. Most is not. It just doesn’t provide the same dopaminergic reward that procrastination-related habits do.
  • Track your time. Do it for a week. Use a spreadsheet or a notebook. The simple act of tracking your time will force you to cross this activation threshold barrier more frequently, because you’ll be hyperaware of how you’re spending your time.
  • Get accountability. 

Quitting caffeine – my thoughts so far

Mid-June I decided I was going to quit caffeine. At least for an extended period of time.

I had my first cup of coffee at 17 and thought it was disgusting.

Somehow I ended up at a point where, a month ago, I was drinking 3 cups before 10:30am (granted I was waking up at 5:30am, but still).

I’d never felt the need to stop or taper back because it doesn’t affect me too badly. I don’t get anxious or jittery.

But I did start to wonder what life would be like without it. I also felt like I was “mastered” by it, and I don’t like that idea.

So I decided to taper back and quit completely.

I immediately went down to 1 cup per day. Wasn’t too bad.

And then tapered down over the last month. It should have been 2-3 weeks but I screwed up in the middle after back-to-back 4 hour sleeps + a 15-hour hunt in the mountains which left me exhausted (and I needed to work the next day).

I’ve been off completely for the last week. Here’s where I’m at:

  • I miss the “intensity” that comes with caffeine. But not that much.
  • I’m sleeping better than ever. I had my first 9 hour sleep in months.
  • I don’t get tired in the afternoons anymore. In the evenings, I feel tired but not exhausted. I can still focus. But I fall asleep instantly (whereas with coffee, I’d feel exhausted in the evenings and still not be able to fall asleep quickly).
  • I’m more calm and focused.
  • I’m still having the odd cup of decaf because I have a deeply embedded work/coffee ritual.

I plan to stay off it for a few months. That might end up being forever. Who knows.

BTW, I’m not saying you or anyone should quit coffee. It’s a vice that has helped propel civilization forward so there’s something to be said about consuming it.

The best of what I’ve consumed in the past two weeks

Not personal-dev related, but I really enjoyed watching Peter Santenello’s videos exploring Appalachia. This one and this one.

Thanks for reading! Talk soon.


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