How Your Work Is Like a Chemical Reaction

There was a period of about three months in high school where I thought I was going to go to college to get some kind of chemistry degree. All that really means is that I can cobble together enough chemistry related facts to make this basic metaphor about chemical reactions, activation energy, catalysts, and doing great work. Join me on this ride down memory lane and into basic high school chemistry!

First, I want you to think about what it feels like when you're super engaged in your work and everything is flowing extremely well. You probably feel like you're being swept along with relatively minimal effort and you're just guiding the overall trajectory of the work. It's a great feeling and it's basically what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. What if you could get this feeling every single time you sat down to work? How awesome would that be? The problem, though, is figuring out what to do to make that happen more regularly.

Activation Energy

Think about finding flow in your work as being similar to a chemical reaction. In a chemical reaction you may take two seemingly inert chemicals, combine them, and suddenly you have an explosion. Picture vinegar and baking soda. On their own, they aren't anything special. Combine them, though, and you get a volcano. Your work can be like that, too. You may sit down at your computer to work on your latest project and not be feeling particularly motivated or inspired but every once in awhile you're able to find the groove and can explode into your own version of a violent/productive chemical reaction.

In order for a chemical reaction to occur, however, a certain amount of energy has to be applied to get it started. The amount of energy varies depending on the materials involved, but the overall concept is called "activation energy." Activation energy is the minimal amount of energy needed to start a chemical reaction. I think the same idea can be applied to finding flow in our work where the work explodes out of us like a chemical reaction. Sometimes we need a lot of energy to get the reaction started and sometimes we need less.

Activation energy can take many different forms for the typical knowledge or independent worker. Merlin Mann of Back to Work says he has to move his fingers on the keyboard for 11 minutes before any real writing happens. For me, I almost never find flow in my writing unless I spend 10-15 minutes with a clean piece of paper, a pen, and the creation of a mindmap/outline of what I intend to write. Merlin's activation energy is created by moving his fingers for 11 minutes and not worrying about the words that are being produced. My activation energy comes from getting my ideas out of my head and onto a piece of paper.

When you adopt this metaphor of needing activation energy before your work really starts to get going you can lower the expectations to getting started. I think a lot of our hesitancy and procrastination can come from dreading how it feels to be working when that reaction hasn't gotten started -- when we haven't hit the proper amount of activation energy. Instead of being willing to sit there and build up that energy we don't allow ourselves enough time to hit that threshold and get the reaction started.


A catalyst is a chemical that increases the rate of a chemical reaction. Keeping the chemistry metaphor going strong, there are "catalysts" we should be identifying and cultivating when it comes to how we work. One of my favorite catalysts is something called "front end decision making." This is a very simple idea which says figuring out the what of our work is distinct from actually working on our work. When I've clearly thought about what it means to work on a project (essentially giving myself a very discrete and clear next-action) then it's much easier for me to get engaged with the work itself (the chemical reaction starts much easier). Another example of a catalyst in my own work experience is working in an environment that promotes deep concentration and focus. I've been crafting my home office for optimal engagement with what I'm doing and I've found it's much easier for me to find flow when I work there than in a busy café.

A few other catalysts from my own experience include:

  • Knowing my tools (hardware and software) so well that they seem to become an extension of who I am.
  • The practiced ability to concentrate and focus.
  • A deep sense of purpose and meaning behind a task or project.
  • Being well-rested and physically healthy.

When these catalysts are present getting my work done is much, much easier.

The next time you sit down to work try not to be frustrated if you don't immediately find yourself immersed in the task at hand. In order to find that flow you need to invest the proper amount of energy to get the reaction started. Start moving your fingers, start outlining your thoughts, or use any other strategy of your own creation, to start pouring energy into the project. Bring in a couple of the catalysts I mentioned (be well-rested, have a sense of why you're doing what you're doing and/or know your tools inside and out), or develop some of your own, and the next thing you know you'll find yourself and your work set on fire (hopefully metaphorically).

Another catalyst may be reading my guide to better work, Work Better. Signing up for my monthly newsletter gets you a copy of the guide in your digital reading format of choice.

Photo by Kelly Teague