The Concept of Entropy: Why Things Naturally Move to Disorder

the-concept-of-entropy

Everything we do in life will eventually require some sort of maintenance. If you buy a car, you’ll have to take it to the shop every once in a while for a routine check. If you’re in a relationship, you’ll have to occasionally get your head out of your phone and talk to your spouse. If you have a regular job, this will mean doing some sort of work to deserve your salary. Even having millions in your bank account doesn’t mean that you’ll live a carefree life forever. The lack of stability seems to be the only stable thing in life.

Why are things not stable?

Why can’t you buy a car or a smartphone and essentially have it and use it forever?

Firstly, because car companies don’t want your car to never break. After all, if their vehicles were indestructible, once handing a car to every breathing organism on the planet, they’ll go extinct.

Secondly, parts break. Nothing is everlasting in our universe and the components of a car will, at some point, start to malfunction.

But these are not the main reasons we can’t have an operating car for eternity.

From the physics perspective, everything tends to disorder. 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 why you can’t put together a broken egg, undo a broken vase and often times repair a relationship. Also, if billiard balls are not arranged, they’ll never arrange themselves. When you buy a Lego, you can’t expect the pieces to magically connect to one other if you dump them out on the floor.

Time is always moving forward and when an event passes, we can’t rewind and fix things. This idea of “irreversibility” is a central theme in the concept of entropy – the concept that measures the variables in a system.2

What is Entropy?

Imagine a modest apartment. There are only 3 rooms and 10 pieces of furniture inside. Say you want to redecorate. You are a new tenant and you don’t like the current configuration. How many possible arrangements exist given the number of rooms and the available possession? If you do the math, you’ll quickly come up with the answer – 66 possible arrangements.

But after running around the house with the lamp and the chairs for some time, you decide to add a couple of extra pieces – to make it look fancier. You go out and buy 3 additional pieces of furniture. Now, how many new possible arrangements do you think are available in total? Let me help, there are 105 ways to arrange 13 items in 3 rooms. By adding only 3 extra items, we increased the possible variants with 39.

That’s entropy – the number of possible configurations of components in a system.

That’s why you can’t unbreak an already broken egg. There are simply far too many possible components and only one correct shape- the broken pieces are the components and the model of the egg is the only possible (good) configuration.

But it’s not only arrangements. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

It’s also the flow of energy.

When Rudolf Clausius – the man who was able to document this concept – described entropy he said something along the lines: High energy things transferring energy to other items with low energy, in that direction. Never in reverse. Or at least not without some sort of effort.3

To give an example for the latter so you can better understand it, imagine a cup of water. To heat the water inside, you need to apply pressure (energy). When the water is hot, it emits heat to the surrounding environment – in this case, the air right above the cup.

We can make two conclusions based on these scientific discoveries documented by men smarter than me:

  • Disorder increases over time in everything around us.
  • You need to apply energy to keep things organized when time progresses.

Say you’ve arranged your apartment (by applying energy). You’re satisfied and you don’t think that you’ll ever again have to go through the process of putting the stuff around you in order. Of course, this is not the case.

You move one chair from room 1 to room 2 because you have guests. You go buy a new table because the old one broke. You get a new sofa because you have a child and now there simply isn’t enough room in the master bedroom for the three of you. On top of the extra items you occasionally obtain, you need to regularly clean your furniture to make sure that the dust your items collect won’t suffocate you to death.

In other words, you need to constantly exhaust energy to bring order in an environment where everything moves towards disorder.

Why Entropy is Important to Understand?

Since everything leans towards disruption and energy is necessary to keep things arranged and intact, it won’t take much mental effort to realize that the more things you have lying around, the more energy you’ll have to exhaust. At least, of course, if you want to have a clean house, a healthy relationship, or a thriving business.

Yes, this applies to business as well.

If you run a small coffee shop, adding just two additional flavors of coffee will force you to do all sorts of changes in your business plan – add them to your menu, store the new ingredients, teach the barista how to prepare it, market it to your clients, and so on.

And while these things might seem insignificant, add them to the list of other activities that are firmly anchored in your daily schedule. Soon enough, if more components are added to your daily routine, you’ll have less time to maintain what you already have established. Therefore, at some point, you’ll feel overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, and mentally incapable of handling even the smallest things requiring your attention.

How is Entropy Influencing Our Everyday Lives?

To keep things rolling, you need to apply pressure. To clean your room. To spend time with your family and friends. To go to work. To solve problems and to occasionally read a book or think about what you want to do with the rest of your life.

All of these things require energy (mental, physical, or both).

Considering that we have only 24 hours in a day, doing all of these things can crush you both physically and mentally.

On top of everything, if everything can go wrong it probably will. Not because you’re cursed by a wicked magician. But because there are far too many possible outcomes for something bad to happen and usually only one outcome where good things happen.

To explain, let’s go back to the apartment.

After a hard day of cleaning and arranging, you have all of your stuff organized and carefully aligned. All your child’s toys are in the drawers, the carpet is carefully resting on the floor, you even arranged your books alphabetically. Your place is picture-ready.

You moved from this:

To this:

Interestingly, even the slightest modification to the current setup will cause disorder.

Every time you move something, you’re causing disruption in your system. Eventually, things will again move to this:

That’s because the only possible way to have everything looking nice and cozy is essentially 1 – only one nice way to arrange everything. In contrast, there are nearly infinite ways where the pieces in your apartment are not organized.

That’s why life seems so hard at times. We overwork ourselves. Start businesses. Save money to ensure that our kids will go to the best schools only to wake up one day in a messy room and a questionable future.

But this doesn’t mean that we’re not good enough and that the universe hates us. In most cases, if things don’t work out as we expected, it’s simply because the chance of everything arranging in our favor is significantly lower compared to the possible options for things going wrong.

Strangely enough, even when the default state of the world is leaning towards chaos, we can still do something to mitigate the effects of the decay that is slowly but surely creeping in our lives.

How Can You Use Entropy to Your Advantage?

Taking advantage of entropy might seem impossible. After all, as we concluded, disorder is the normal state of things and no matter how hard you push yourself, things will eventually start to crack.

But discouraging you is the last thing I want to do.

Here are three things you can apply today to bring order in your life and benefit from the natural state of disorder:

  • Remove the unnecessary things in your life: The more stuff you have around you, the more energy you need to exhaust to organize them. And by stuff, I don’t mean just the things you have in your room. Here I also mean relationships, the way you spend your time online and offline, the work you do. When you have fewer projects, you’ll preserve energy and feel more comfortable. That’s the simplest thing you can do to concentrate your energy on the most important things in your life.
The more stuff you have, the more energy you’d need to exhaust to arrange them.
  • Remove friction for others: The best way to convince people to give you money (i.e. have a business) is by reducing the entropy in their lives. Every major online company is basically doing this. They are putting order in people’s lives. Removing some steps and making it easier for them to achieve a specific outcome. Think about it, why social media platforms are so widely used? Because they make it super easy for people to interact with other people. They remove the friction and add (artificial) stability. The same is true for every profession. Designers, at least good designers, for example, are able to organize a lot of things and create a single item that is easy to use. That’s why it’s so common to hear that, “they thrive in chaos.”
Good businesses are such that make our lives easier.
  • Focus on things with low entropy: If you’re working for a big corporation with certain rules and systems, it will be extremely difficult to convince the board of directors to do something new. Probably your suggestion is good, but there are simply far too many moving parts in that organization to make your idea a reality (too many people with different opinions). In contrast, your opinion will weight way more if you’re making the same suggestion in a company with, say only 30 people inside. Or in other words, if you apply a lot of force to small things you’ll make progress faster and feel better about the outcome. This means two things: 1) identify areas in your life that are chaotic 2) focus on “fixing” things that don’t require a lot of energy first to gain momentum.
Start from the easy side of things. This will help you get the momentum going.

Some Closing Thoughts

In our world, order is just a temporary state.

Slowly but surely, everything is moving towards chaos and exercising some control over your possessions (and not only) is required to make sure that things won’t fall apart.

Understanding this concept is of real importance if you want to feel in control of your life and make progress. Even if you consider yourself a proactive person with goals and ambitions. Even if you regularly exercise. If you have a business. If you have a good relationship. You need to understand that to keep these healthy, thriving, you need to the work, continuously during your whole life, if you want to keep what you currently have.

And when things go wrong, as this will inevitably happen, don’t get mad. Remind yourself that this is the natural state of things. Things always lean towards chaos.


Footnotes:

  1. Resource: LINK
  2. A system that undergoes an irreversible process may still be capable of returning to its initial state. However, the impossibility occurs in restoring the environment to its own initial conditions. Source: LINK
  3. This statement is a summary of parts taken from this article.