Ignition Costs

Zachary M. Cochran
3 min readJul 12, 2018

Starting a project takes mental effort, which can be minimized by changing our perspective.

It can be daunting to start a new project, like finding a new job or developing a new skill. We resist starting because the amount of energy we think it will take is overwhelming. Unless we light (or our boss lights) a fire behind us, we stay motionless. Like car engines, we need our batteries to give us enough juice to start things moving.

It takes far more force to start an object rolling than to keep it rolling. Mental work is similar — there is a higher required energy cost to start something than to keep it rolling. In The Now Habit, the author explains why people procrastinate. When we conflate what we do with who we are, our anxiety kicks in and paralyzes us. If we fail our project, we feel like we’re failures at life.

The author of The Now Habit creates a useful mental picture. It’s as if our project is to walk a wooden board fifty feet long and one foot wide. Under normal circumstances, at ground level, we can do this with no problems. However, in our minds, we elevate the board to hundreds of feet off the ground. Something we can easily do becomes a life-threatening challenge! It’s no wonder we fear starting a project if we look at it like that. The solution is to imagine a strong and supportive safety net three feet below your board. Failure is an opportunity to bounce back (and have fun in the process), not a death sentence.

The key to overcoming ignition costs is to increase the energy you apply to something until it exceeds the amount of energy required to get it rolling. The trick is to lower the cost of starting.

With mental work, we have an advantage if we’re trained to use it. Like Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back, we can use our minds to lift rocks. While gravity will keep a physical object weighing a ton, a mental object that seems like it weighs a ton can be lightened just by changing the way we think about it. In the coaching world, we call this mindset coaching. Overcoming our ignition energy requirement is a mental game.

Perhaps your printer has broken, and you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of spending an hour on the phone with the manufacturer. Lower your ignition cost by dialing the number on your cell phone, get put on hold, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and hide your phone. If you’re still on hold music 30 minutes later, you can 1) smile and listen in because you’ve just skipped 30 minutes of distracting hold music, or 2) call back because they answered within 30 minutes and hung up once they realized you put them on hold. Either way, you’ve mentally cut your wait time from 60 minutes to under 30 minutes.

Perhaps you’re resisting initiating an emotionally difficult conversation with a trusted colleague. Lower the energy cost of starting that conversation by imagining how it will improve your relationship. Or if you’re still worrying, consider the worst-case scenario and run that by a friend whose opinion you value — they can help prepare you for a more realistic outcome.

Think of an area of your life where you’re having trouble getting started.

Now spend a minute thinking about how to lower your ignition cost.

If that helps you feel better about getting started, congratulations! You’ve just performed mental telekinesis to overcome your ignition cost.

Now start. 😊



Zachary M. Cochran

I think a lot + write about #careers #entrepreneurship #wisdom #productivity #grief #Christianity #NYC #parkour + more. To learn more, visit zacharycochran.com.