The second law of thermodynamics states that “as one goes forward in time, the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same).”1
That’s basically a long way of saying that all things tend to move from order to disorder. This is one of the fundamental laws of the universe, and you can see its effects everywhere.
Entropy in a Cup
As a simple example, imagine that you walk into a café and order a cup of coffee. Normally, we don’t think twice about a simple cup of coffee, but there’s actually a lot of time and effort that’s gone into it.
The barista reaches for a cup he has cleaned and someone else has made. He then pours water that a power company has heated over coffee beans that got there due to the work of many people. Airplanes, ships, and trucks burned fuel to get them to the café, as well.
Once you get the cup of coffee in your hand, it’s a highly ordered structure in the universe. Its entropy is low.
Now, instead of drinking it, imagine what would happen if you just let it sit on the table for 30 minutes. After a while it gets cold. The heat energy moves from the cup and out into the room. That’s a gain in entropy.
If you leave the cup for several days, some of the water you paid for will evaporate. It will move from the cup and turn into water vapor in the room. That’s another gain in entropy.
Let the cup sit for years, and the material it’s made of will eventually break down and fall apart. This, too, is yet another gain in entropy.
From Order to Chaos
It’s the natural tendency of all things to lose order. Left to their own devices, everything will become less structured. Gardens get weeds. Cars rust. People age. Civilizations fall. Ancient ruins crumble. Even great mountains gradually erode and disappear.
And the same relentless force is present in all areas of your life. If you don’t move your body, you’ll lose muscle mass. If you don’t answer your emails, your in-box will flood. If you don’t nurture your relationships, they will eventually die out.
But the good news is that it’s possible to fight back against entropy. The barista can clean the cup and get it ready for the next customer. And you can expend the energy needed to maintain order in your life. It’s hard, but also meaningful, work. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.2
Pick Your Battles
Knowing that everything naturally moves from order to disorder, you can deliberately simplify your life. Let go of everything unimportant so you can spend your limited energy where it truly matters. Carefully choose the areas where you want to fight entropy and tend to them consistently.
Not only will it make you more focused and efficient, but also happier and more fulfilled.