Activation theory is essentially based on the idea that there is a minimum amount of energy or desire needed for you to start a task. For example, if you have set a goal for yourself and you want to go out to the gym or go out and exercise, activation theory explains that the amount of energy for you to shut the TV off and get off the couch is the energy that’s required for you to start that task. If you are thinking that you are going to go to the gym when you feel like it, it becomes very challenging. As what I’ve explained, activation theory suggests that you are not going to feel like going to the gym very often. The more barriers that you have in place to actually get yourself off the couch and get to the point where go to the gym, the harder it’s going to be for you to start that task.

So let’s say we go back to the example of you going to the gym. You’re sitting on the couch, you want to exercise. You have the treadmill in the living room and the only thing you need to do to start exercising is to get off the couch, walk five steps over to the treadmill and turn it on. You don’t even have to turn the TV off. You can still see it and enjoy watching your TV show while you’re exercising. The amount of activation energy for you to get to that point is extremely small.


Now let’s imagine that you have another example, where you’re getting off the couch and you have to go exercise or you want to go exercise, but the gym is a drive that is 45 minutes away. Now, the amount of energy that you’re going to need to accomplish getting off the couch, doing everything else, getting dressed to go outside, getting into the vehicle, driving the 45 minutes just to reach the point where you’re actually going to start working out, becomes a massive amount of energy that is going to make it far less likely for you to actually do anything.

When you add in external factors, perhaps it’s winter and it’s cold outside, you have to put on a lot of clothes, it only expands on the amount of energy that’s required for you to do what you’re supposed to or do what you want to. So it’s far harder for you to achieve your goals.

A key factor in helping someone change their behavior is going to reduce the activation energy required for someone to actually change their behavior. Another way of looking at it is activation energy is the smallest energy required to start a chemical reaction. When you have a chemical reaction there is a change that takes place and some energy is required for that to happen. For example, you are cooking or boiling eggs. The egg turns from a raw egg into a cooked egg from the energy of the boiling water. So the activation energy is the amount of energy required to start the water boiling and to change the eggs from a raw egg to a cooked egg.

It takes a lot of energy to get started but once you’ve started doing something, it’s a lot easier for you to keep going. When we go back to the exercise example, the hardest part may be you actually getting off the couch and heading in the direction of rather going to the treadmill or going to treadmill in your living room or to actually go to the gym outside. Because now, you’re off the couch, you’ve made the decision and made a commitment that you are going to follow through on this task.

It can be a lot harder for you get started than for you to want to keep going.

A key factor in looking at the activation energy is the amount of energy you need just to start – without focusing on the idea that someone is going to feel like they are ready to do something. That can still change from day-to-day. It can be impacted by a lot of other factors that are going on that you don’t necessarily have control over. Perhaps there’s things going on in their personal life, the didn’t get enough sleep last night, all of those things are going to factor in whether or not they feel like they’re ready to make a change in their behavior. Therefore, if you can make the amount of energy required for them to change that behavior as easy as possible, then they’re going to be much more likely to do it.


Now let’s use the example of a PPE. You want someone to wear protective eyewear when they are operating on the grinder. You can have two scenarios. You have someone who has the protective eyewear. In order for them to use the grinder – they actually have to physically pick up the eyewear to move it. Now, they’ve got the eyewear in their hand. The activation energy for them to actually put it on their head is a lot easier than if they had the protective eyewear back in their locker, in a separate building or maybe it’s in another shop and they’re going to start using the grinder. Now they realize that in order for them to get the eyewear, there’s a whole other series of steps. Just like the person driving across town to go to the gym that is 45 minutes away. It becomes a lot less likely that they’re going to do that. So you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to start the right behavior.

If you’re waiting for the time when you feel like you’re ready to act, it’s not going to happen. It’s not something that you consistently base the idea on – of changing someone’s behavior. There are so many other factors that can have an impact on it. It’s not going to be reliable and feeling like doing something so that you could overpower all the other obstacles in your place becomes an insurmountable task.

A great way to think in terms of activation theory or activation energy is a chemical reaction. One of the most common chemical reactions that you have in your house that you do on a daily basis is that you’re cooking something. Activation energy is the amount of energy required to start boiling the water to transform the eggs from being raw eggs into cooked eggs.

Going back to the example of the personal protective equipment, you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to do the right behavior. Do not focus on whether or not they are going to feel like doing the behavior. Focus on reducing the amount of energy required to do the right behavior as much as possible. Make it as easy as possible for them to wear the personal protective equipment. Make it extremely handy. It has to be available at the time that they need it. You’re then going to greatly increase the effectiveness of encouraging that behavior versus trying to leave the situation exactly the way it is and have it so that someone actually has to work extremely hard to get to the point to do what they’re supposed to do.