Spoon theory describes a visual metaphor for your daily energy capacity. It was coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 to help others understand what it is like for her to have lupus. In this representation, you start your day with some number of spoons of energy, and you plan your activities so that by the end of the day you haven’t run out of spoons.
The important part of the message is that folks who are suffering from chronic illnesses have fewer spoons each day, or the consequences of running out of spoons are more dire for them, so they must be cautious and deliberate about their daily commitments.
But we all have spoons, and we can all manage them better.
The key concept in spoon theory that resonates with me is that each spoon is representative of physical or mental energy. Everyone accepts the idea that a short burst of physical exertion can require a longer period of recovery; that physical energy can be faster to burn than to regenerate.
For instance, if you take a walk around the neighborhood (and you do not suffer from a chronic illness), you probably finish feeling only slightly tired, whereas if you were to run a 200 meter sprint at your maximum speed, you may feel like you have to lay down for a while to return to “normal.”
But few people realize that mental exertion is like this, too. The more, and harder, you think, the more time you need to recover, and the harder it may be for you to focus on other tasks until you do. Perhaps you’ve observed this when it has happened to you in the past.
Writing a trivial email, inviting people to calendar events, or scanning news headlines are relatively low-energy tasks. Composing a multi-page proposal for a high-risk development effort, or reading a dense technical text, are high-energy tasks.
Too often, we budget our time without budgeting our energy. Consider what you have to do tomorrow, or throughout the week, and try to spread out the high-energy tasks. Buffer them with low-energy tasks. If you can, schedule the high-energy tasks at times of day when you have more energy.
Keep an eye on how many spoons you have, and don’t run out.