Fight the Tide of Entropy



One of the promises of minimalism is that by choosing to own and do less, we make space for more comfort and calm, and time for the people and activities we really care about.  After all, why bother to declutter and curb shopping and strategically "miss out" on some events if doing so doesn't actually bring the energy, focus, peace, and contentment we desire?


Minimalism needs to be more than a self-righteous response to greed, thoughtless consumerism, and useless junk.  It needs to be more than a rigid control of the number of things we own or will allow onto our schedules.  Otherwise, minimalism becomes a dismal set of rules.  It becomes an excuse to opt out of life, rather than a way to deeply and intentionally enjoy more of it.


That form of miserliness is not what Maximum Gratitude Minimal Stuff is about, as I think you can tell if you've spent much time here.  But we do need our homes to provide a refuge from our always-on, high stress world.  We need to achieve a balance that amply meets our physical, emotional, intellectual, and social needs without spinning off into the chaos of too much of everything.


The idea of chaos got me thinking about entropy, and as I read more about it (refreshing my mostly unused and very rusty high school physics knowledge) I realized that chaos is not an accident.


Disorder is our default state.


Like it or not, order is always temporary.  Once-tidy rooms attract dust and clutter.  Tasks and information multiply.  Skin wrinkles and hair turns gray or falls out and never grows back.  Disconcertingly, we cannot expect anything to stay the way we leave it.


That could very easily seem pointless and sad.  What good is all of our effort?  But think about it.  A world without entropy would be static.  There would be no reason for investigation or learning.  No need for innovation or creativity. 


Many of us feel, at least vaguely, that we would like to "leave the world a better place."  As a result, we invent useful things or create beautiful ones.  We protest injustice or try to make better laws.  We raise and equip children, work to alleviate poverty, endeavor to preserve nature, or chase some other noble goal.  We all make efforts to reduce disorder.  The existence of entropy inspires us.


Science historian James Gleick has written,


Organisms organize....  We sort the mail, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, alphabetize books, create symmetry, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order....  It is not absurd to say we are reducing entropy, piece by piece....  It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe.


Of course, we can't actually prevent entropy.  It's a force much beyond us!  But can we understand it?  Can we use it to our advantage?


Because things naturally move toward disorder over time, we can attempt to create stability.  Stability, in this case, is not a stiff, constraining set of rules, but an adaptable system that responds positively to our energy inputs.


You see, undoing entropy (or restoring order) requires regular infusions of energy.  For example, when you set aside your tea or coffee to tend to a task, the heat from the liquid dissipates into the room, leaving you with a cold cup.  That's entropy.  But with an infusion of energy (say, a minute in the microwave), you can return your beverage to a comforting temperature.


Let me see if I can explain.  Recently, I had a cold, and because I also have asthma my airway became aggravated, and I developed a bad cough.  Coughing uses a lot of energy.  Now, if I started coughing during prayer time in church (a calm situation with low entropy), I made a noticeable disruption.  But let's say I'm standing in downtown San Francisco at noon on a Tuesday – a chaotic setting with a lot of entropy.  My coughing, which requires the same amount of energy as it does in church, has almost no impact.  The cough is the same.  But the entropy in each case is different, and the impact of the cough is affected by that.


Now think of this in relation to your home, or your desk at work, your email inbox, or your children's toy room.  You need to apply energy to get something done, or to restore order.  The higher the entropy in each "system," the less efficient your input of energy will be.  Apply ten minutes of your energy in a high entropy situation (one with many more objects, tasks, distractions, etc.) and you will see far less impact than the same ten minutes of energy would achieve in a low entropy situation.


This is why owning less, choosing fewer extra activities, and reducing distractions from TV, news, or social media can make such a positive difference to your ability to handle the complexities of life with composure and confidence.  Your supply of energy, attention, and decision-making ability has limits, but entropy is ongoing and infinite.


All things tend toward disorder over time, and sometimes you don't have much energy to counteract it.  You get ill, your child is ill, you have extra responsibilities at work, or you're preparing for a transition such as a move, a trip, a new baby, a new job, a new school year, or something else.  Chaos starts to take over.  But with fewer possessions, and some white space built into your schedule, you can manage.  In fact, you can do more than simply hang on and make it through.  You can triumph over entropy.


Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker writes,


The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving is to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.


Minimalism can help us accomplish that.




You might also enjoy my book Uncluttered: How Minimalism Helps You Create the Life of Your Dreams.

Uncluttered is a comprehensive handbook for a simpler life; a multi-faceted guide to help you:

  • remove the stuff that's bogging you down
  • uncover a cleaner, more spacious home that welcomes and supports you
  • escape the consumer treadmill
  • overcome bad habits and practice better ones
  • highlight your favorite belongings and memories
  • find time for what you care about
  • discover freedom, focus, and peace


Comments

  1. I want to thank you for this article about fighting entropy. I had never heard of the concept before, but suddenly it all makes sense. I understand the reason clearing clutter gives me calm and enables me to do more. I also am an oldest child and struggled with having to learn things for myself with no one to follow. I was fortunate to find my soulmate and to marry him which kept me from falling through the cracks and gave me self-esteem. In the ensuing years, like everyone, I have had many struggles and had the experience of clearing other relatives' homes of their belongings. Four years ago my life changed forever when my husband died. The thing about widowhood no one talks about much is suddenly you are no longer the same person. Your support system is gone, you are suddenly single, and you have to do. it. all. alone.
    Over the years I have routinely decluttered, but when your mate dies, suddenly there is a house filled with so many things you no longer need or even knew existed or what they are. Extra vehicles. tools. clothes no one can wear. paper. things they boxed away, 50 years of income tax records, etc. All your financial documents need revision. Who will inherit now that he is gone, who will manage your affairs if you're in a hospital or nursing home, and so on. And the investments have to be managed. And the will needs probating. And who am I now ? What do I want to do with the rest of my life? It all changes. The entropy, I have discovered, is not just in the home, but in my HEAD as well. The reduction of stuff in a closet produces a moment of calm. Now I understand why. I am working on the rest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Kathy, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment.

      I am not in your situation, but I have given thought to what it would be like to not only lose my wonderful husband Jon and miss his love and companionship, but also to suddenly have to handle every detail by myself without his help and input. I admit to my shame that sometimes when I'm doing some chore that I dislike I let myself feel that he "never does anything around here." Of course, that's not true at all, and I should never take all that he does for granted. I rely on him for so much, and I don't always acknowledge that. Thank you for the reminder.

      I wish you hope, peace, and confidence as you move forward. I know you can find your way.

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