On sleepiness, activation energy, and flow

I noticed something noteworthy a few weeks ago.

It seems that if I sleep a little less than what is usually recommended, say approximately 6 hours instead of the usual 7-9 hours, I will find it easier to get started on tasks and keep the ball rolling throughout the day. In other words, sleeping less makes me more productive.

To be clear, this observation does not fit in the overall picture painted by modern science, which notes that adequate sleep leads to improved health and productivity.

Now, what I observe is more than likely to be a false impression—a mere feeling that I’m more productive when really I’m just as productive as usual or even less so—but it’s something I’ve been able to reproduce often enough to feel like there must be something going on here, as it’s something I can temporarily leverage and benefit from. It’s also worth pointing out that this very biased, non-scientific experiment on a sample size of 1 should not be taken seriously. I’m simply documenting what I’ve observed.


In chemistry, there’s a concept called “activation energy”, which is the quantity of energy that must be provided to a system in order to generate a reaction. Unless a system is supplied enough energy to pass the threshold required to get things moving, the system won’t budge, and will remain inactive.

Imagine standing at the base of a hill with a ball at your feet (this is the system). You want to kick the ball to your friend over on the other side on the mountain (this is the reaction). If you kick the ball gently, it will roll up the mountain for a few meters, then roll back down to your feet—insufficient activation energy to trigger the reaction. Only if you kick the ball strong enough will it reach the top of mountain and roll over to the other side.

Drawing a parallel with psychology and human behavior, we can use activation energy as a mental model for motivation and procrastination.

When faced with a given task, the human brain must come up with the required activation energy to get started and get the ball rolling onto the other side of the mountain. Without it, we remain still, unable to get started for a long period of time.


Analysis paralysis. Indecision & inaction. Overthinking and not moving. These are all related.

I sometimes get stuck and paralyzed by overthinking and overanalyzing a system. This indecision leads to inaction, why means I’m stuck at square one where I continue analyzing the situation, hoping eventually I’ll have enough information to get started.

In my experience, getting less sleep leads to a natural ability to short the above circuit and get moving immediately, while also reducing the time to reaching a state of flow.

If I dig in a little more, it seems to have to do with a desire to get it over with whatever task is at hand, and a drive to move on to the next thing quickly. This, combined with a willingness to be more scrappy resourceful as time passes, leads to a practical sense of acceleration that I haven’t been able to replicate in any other way.

If you’ve experienced something similar, I’d love to hear about it more. At any rate, I’m happy to discuss this further over on Twitter (@vaillancourtmax) or Hacker News.


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