The Thermodynamics of Our Lives

I majored in chemistry.

This fact becomes less and less relevant as time passes, but it still gives me a leg up in reading about scientific breakthroughs and explanations. 

Why did I major in chemistry? I was “good at” math and science in high school; I was interested in environmental concerns; I was told my career options would be more plentiful with a B.S. than with a B.A.; these things happen when you’re young and impressionable.

One of the required courses for chemistry majors was—and, I assume, still is—Thermodynamics. This is a course which describes and explains the way energy moves in the universe, using broad concepts that I could barely understand at the time. Now, years later, I have developed a love of complicated information, elegantly stated, describing broad concepts.

A primary broad concept of thermodynamics is entropy.

Entropy is, for our purposes, the tendency of things to become disordered. In the world of thermodynamics, it works like this: As time passes, entropy increases within any system—unless (or until) that system is already completely disordered, or unless work is done to bring order to that system. See? Complicated information, elegantly stated.

Here’s how this information about entropy plays out in two “systems” in my life:

As I go about living in my house, it becomes dirtier and messier over time. But, if I put things away, vacuum, wash off dirt, and generally do work on the house, I can make it clean again (this is how I view housework—a fight against entropy!).

If I watch a lot of emails arrive in my inbox and do nothing with them, my inbox turns into a sea of unread messages. Then I do the work of reading an email, and then another one, replying, archiving, recording information. And as I do this work, magically there is order (maybe even harmony) in my inbox, as communications become sorted into various categories.

I can also take a step back from specific examples like housework and emailing to look at the various parts of my life: my career, my relationships, my physical environment, etc. I find that when I am inactive in parts of my life, my inaction is the same as not doing work—which leads to increased entropy. Then, as I do work to bring order to any part of my life, my life as a whole also becomes more ordered. Once I fight off the entropy that results from my own inaction, things start to fit in where they should, and everything becomes clearer.

This also happens in life coaching. A client who works with me on one aspect of her life (say, her career) often finds other aspects of her life (her relationships, or her health, or the amount of fun she's having) start to align with what she values most. And she gets closer and closer to the life she really wants. 

Sometimes, this improved alignment that comes from doing this kind of work feels like magic. But check it out—it’s science!

“What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (1928-2015)

How I Get Up in the Morning