The Medium Spoon

Have you ever heard of “spoon theory?” Ever since I first heard this term for this concept, I’ve found it extremely helpful. Basically the concept uses spoons as a metaphor for all the mental energy it takes to make active decisions throughout your day. (“Spoons” are definitely a component of Juice then!) The concept was originally used to help people understand the specific struggles of those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, but let’s be honest – everyone has limited spoons, so the concept is helpful to everyone. Different people might have different amounts, but no one has infinite.

I love this concept because it’s easy to understand and the analogy holds up well. Have you ever found yourself at the end of a long day, completely unable to put thought into something that you know is routine for you? You’re out of spoons. It doesn’t matter that eating a bowl of cereal is easy in a vacuum; you still need a spoon to do it.

Different people replenish their spoons in different ways. Some people need sleep; others need a particular kind of R&R. But until you get more, you’re going to have a really hard time doing anything, especially things that require active mental maneuvering.

One of my favorite little tricks about this analogy is that it helps you recognize that no matter how minor a decision is, it still takes at least one spoon. If you only want to eat one bite of ice cream out of the carton, you still dirty the same spoon as if you ate a whole bowl. That holds up for a lot of people – 10 small decisions don’t take the same mental energy as one big one. The ten small ones add up quickly.

My solution to this is just to not make as many small decisions as possible. I only own one kind of shirt, and I just have eight copies of it – one for each day of the week, plus a spare. I have a fridge full of meal-replacement shakes so I never have to decide what to eat – if someone offers me something else I’m happy to say “sure” and go with it, but I never have to do that thing where I moan “what do I want to eeeeeaaaaaat” for twenty minutes. Stuff like that. The kinds of small decisions we face every day, I just try to eliminate entirely by creating defaults that I can deviate from if I feel like it, but secure me against spoon depletion if I’m rationing.

I also have a very spoon-friendly policy that I adopted several years ago, and which has served me very well: I set my default level of “caring about stuff” to zero, and only increase it under very specific circumstances.

I’ve noticed that most people seem to have their default “caring about stuff” level set to 2 or 3 for everything. They care about what other people wear. They care about whether someone else said something they like or don’t. They care about the results of sports games. They care about whether the food they just ate tasted good or not. They care about whether or not they get a picture of something.

That’s so exhausting that witnessing other people doing it almost takes spoons away from me. Almost.

In both the short term and the long term, almost nothing matters. 99% of your daily activities won’t have any impact 100 years from now; probably not even ten. And any impact you do have 100 years from now probably won’t matter another hundred years after that. But in the medium term, you can do great things. You can raise a beautiful and wonderful family, you can explore great mysteries, you can produce inspiring art or knowledge. That medium term is the sweet spot.

The medium term is where you have the most leverage. The things you do today won’t matter much in a hundred years, but they can have tremendous impact on the life you and your loved ones are living in twenty. But the things that will create the best medium term are probably not the same things that most people care about in the short term. Lots of people care about short term junk like how many people like their social media profiles or whether they have to work on Saturday. Some people care about the great wide world a thousand years in the future, and they get frustrated at how little they can affect it.

Caring about the short term is like digging a hole in the sand at the beach. It’s so ephemeral and nothing you do stays or matters. Caring about the long term is like trying to move a mountain; you just can’t.

But caring about the medium term is like digging a canal. It’s hard, but it’s possible. It won’t last forever, but it will have a ton of value while it does last. It can make things easier for other people, maybe move the needle for the next person, but also provide value to you directly. Something like that is worth spending your spoons on.

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