Lowering Activation Costs

More on the differences between Motivation & ACTIVATION

© By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Foundational Concepts of the Intentionality Series


From my favorite illustrator, Phillip Martin

From my favorite illustrator, Phillip Martin

As I illuminated in earlier posts of this series of articles – ABOUT Activation, Is Activation “Seeking System” Dependent? and Procrastination: Activation vs. Motivation – struggles with activation are a common occurrence in the ADD/EFD/TBI population.

In our community (prevailing “wisdom” notwithstanding), glitches in the arena of activation are more likely to be behind what is often mistakenly assumed to be “procrastination”  than a need for motivation.

What’s the Difference?

Many (if not most) of the “get it done” gurus blithely assume that insufficient motivation is a primary source of the problem.


For them, maybe, but my extensive experience with hundreds of individuals with Executive Functioning struggles of all types doesn’t support that simplistic conclusion.

In the population I work with and support, I see more than enough “motivation” coupled with way too much heartbreaking agony over struggles with activation.

  • ACTIVATION refers to the initiation of an action — the process that gets you up and doing, apart from what inspires you to WANT to be up and doing.

Wikipedia says, “Activation in (bio-)chemical sciences generally refers to the process whereby something is prepared or excited for a subsequent reaction.

That definition works for our purposes well enough – as do a number of explanations of terms outlined in various Wikipedia articles on the chemical process – so let’s explore their concepts a bit more.

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A BIT about Chemical Activation

Another adorable Phillip Martin graphic

Another adorable Phillip Martin graphic

The branch of chemistry that deals with the chemical activation topic is called chemical kinetics.

The chemical activation process is a good metaphor for neurological activation, especially since the former branch of science seems to be where the term “activation” originated.

Since we’re looking at BRAIN chemistry, the concept is more apt than not as a way to describe what it takes to propel my fellow “alphabeters” forward.

In chemistry, activation of molecules is where the molecules enter a state that allows for a chemical reaction.

The phrase “activation energy” refers to the energy the reactants must acquire before they can successfully work their magic spells on each other to produce a chemical product, that is, to reach the transition state, the threshold where things begin to happen.

The energy needed for activation can be quite small and the molecules may have enough energy just from thermal fluctuations the molecules have naturally.

In other words, lots of reactions don’t have to be heated to proceed kinda’ like those “easily motivationally inspired” folks that have little in common with most of the readers of ADDandSoMuchMore.com!

We’re more like the reactions that really, truly need a bit of “heat” (or help from another catalyst) to jumpstart the process, unless conditions are otherwise perfect for activation to occur on its own (as with fascination, for example).

Another Chemical Illustration

Intended to illustrate a completely different principle, a wonderful graphic on a page about chemical activation from the University of Florida Chemistry Department serves our purposes well indeed.

click image for source

click image for source

The hitch in the Motivation Hypothesis git-along

The fella’ pushing the rock, hoping to relocate it from Point A to Point B, certainly seems motivated, doesn’t he?

But there also seems to be an obstacle in the way – the hill.

No matter how “motivated” he is, if the poor guy lacks sufficient “strength” to push the rock up the hill to be able to push it over, it’s simply not gonna’ happen.

  • As with most physical illustrations of all sorts of problems, very few people would argue with my assertion that were we to watch the lad struggle and fail to get the rock to the top of that particular hill, we would be looking at a clear example of “can’t” vs. “won’t.” 
  • Unfortunately, brain-based struggles rarely provide clear illustrations!

So let’s go back to chemistry for another set of comparisons.

The main factors that influence chemical reaction rate include:

The main factors that influence neurological reaction rates include**:

  • the physical state of the of the person hoping to activate,
  • the concentration/distraction level of the person expected to activate,
  • the physical conditions in the environment in which the action is expected to take place, and
  • whether or not any catalysts (or impediments) are present in the “formula.”

Like I said, ACTIVATION struggles can be a BEAR!

I’ll unpack these ideas in a future article, so stay tuned.

Getting Things Done — more than motivation

Lack of motivation has RARELY been my own particular stopper. If I hadn’t been BORN inspired I’d probably have become a ward of the state long ago!  Few people work harder than I do.

Yet I frequently struggle with the initiation part of the “wanting to do/getting it done” equation.  I have had numerous conversations with clients, students and colleagues to let me know that I am not alone in that struggle.

A great number of people have no problems with activation. Few of those “great number of people” are members of The ADD Lens™ Club, however.

  • Those lucky folks whose biggest problem is an underdeveloped “wanting to” muscle take functioning for granted.
  • They have observed that, once they are sufficiently motivated to take something on, moving into action is a relatively simple process.
  • When they are not getting things done, their logical assumption is that they need to find sufficient motivation and all will be well.
  • They truly believe that’s all there is to it — God bless their judgmental little hearts!
click image for source

click image for source

What works for “them” seldom works the same way for us.

I have rarely been successful explaining that their attempts to motivate us actually have the opposite effect – so they continue to beat us bloody with the motivation stick.

It seems difficult for those who rarely experience a glitch in their activation neurochemistry to understand (or believe) that there are more than a few individuals for whom NO motivation would be sufficient to tip the inertia/action balance — at least not without efforts to handle additional mitigating factors. 

Said another way:

There are a million ways to get things done,
but NONE of them involving sight will work for the blind man.

  • No amount of “wanting to” will change that fact.
  • Nor will enumerating consequences or threats of punishment.
  • Holding out promises of potential rewards for accomplishment makes no sense at all, which most people understand without explanation.

An impaired ability to see is simply believed by those with visual acuity because the impairment appears, paradoxically, to be visible**.

  • No matter how well they manage without sight in a sighted world, when the visually impaired hit something they can NOT manage nobody accuses them of “faking it,” laziness, or excuses making in service of some sort of secondary gain or neurotic conflict.
  • Yet it seems difficult for individuals with neuro-typical functioning to understand or believe in the existence of an impaired ability to ACTIVATE — because, or so it seems to me, the process itself is “invisible.”

Check out THIS POST or THIS ONE to experience the reality
of follower ScarlettRegina – who IS “visually impaired.”

So the articles about Activation Struggles are my ambitious attempt to take a look at what’s going on with all of us who struggle in this arena in an attempt to make the invisible “visible” – to see if we can find some ways to work with them and around them to access our considerable gifts.

Along with blogger Sebastian Marshall** I believe that there is a “cognitive cost” to doing as well as a similar cost to not doing, and that these “activation costs” vary from person to person, from circumstance to circumstance, and can change over time.

**Check out his excellent posts – quite a few linked below as Related Content –
along with the content and comments left by his delightfully active reader community

I also agree with Sebastian’s assertion that

“. . . we can reduce some of [the costs] by planning our tasks, work lives, social lives, and environment intelligently.”

[For] others, it’s good to just be aware of [them] so we know when we start to drag or are having a hard time.”

Reducing Maintenance Costs lowers Activation Costs

As Sebastian puts it, “Taking on any project, initiative, business, or change can generate these maintenance costs from thoughts re-emerging.”

In other words, Open Loops can be deadly for focus and activation.

No matter whether you are one of the quirky citizens of Alphabet City or as neurotypically straight-arrow as they come, lowering activation costs makes a great deal more sense to me than attempting to increase “motivation” as an attempt to increase the “willpower” that might lead to activation.

All of us here on earth will, from time to time, find ourselves faced with essential tasks we consider deadly dull, or a day when our energy for living seems to be missing.

Why not set up as many things as possible to be “easy by default?”

I have observed that the energy that comes from completion – even the completion of the teeniest portion of a tiny task, is one of the concept keys that could unlock a vault of solutions to a complex puzzle.

But wait, there’s MORE . . .

In my experience, not only does completing an activity seem to reduce the maintenance cost of “undone to-dos,” it actually serves to prime our brains for additional completions.

  • Action begets action – momentum at work.
  • Continuing in motion is not nearly as difficult as getting started in the first place!

Since one of the best ways to reduce Activation Cost is to put a task on autopilot, the articles in the Habit Series work in tandem with the Activation articles, so don’t miss them.

The activation cost of a consistent, deeply embedded habit is zero. It happens almost automatically.”

The activation cost for most people in the United States to exercising is fairly high, and most people are inconsistent about exercising. However, there are people who – every single day – begin by putting their running shoes on and running. Their activation cost to running is effectively zero.  ~ Sebastian Marshall

MORE to  Come

Stay tuned for more on this topic – including some coaching-focused Activation “tips and tricks” that have worked for me and for many of my clients.

Meanwhile, please DO take the time to explore some of the Related Content articles that are already here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com — and click a link (or several) to see what Sebastian and his community have to say on the Activation topic.

As always, if you want notification of new articles in this series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too) STRICT No Spam Policy

If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related Articles on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(in case you missed them in the article above)

Related Posts from Sebastian Marshall (et.al.)
(Discussion is also available at LessWrong):

BY THE WAY: I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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  13. janetkwest says:

    Great insights again Madelyn. I was a “lazy” child myself. The older me realizes that I wasn’t lazy at all, just not interested or attentive. My hope is that in the future this will be more understood so other children won’t label themselves as such. Like you mentioned, no one would scold a child for being blind. They would assist that child. I listened to a podcast today with Adele Diamond. She’s a Neuroscientist and she spoke about child development and this same subject. http://www.onbeing.org/program/adele-diamond-the-science-of-attention/121

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Janet – how exciting to see your smiling face!

      I lost i-net service immediately after posting and JUST got it back (they are coming to my new digs Friday afternoon to see why the darned thing’s not working right because tech support couldn’t get me up over the phone.)

      Voila – somebody did something meanwhile and — yours was the first comment I saw. I’m especially grateful for the link (I’m such a neuro-geek ).

      Between the mugging and the unplanned move, I’m MONTHS behind (and still unpacking), but as soon as things settle down at all, I’ll bop over to see what you’ve been doing while I’ve been “away.” Hope all is glorious. Thanks so much for reading and commenting here.



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