Types and Tailcalls

The Two Levels of Energy Equilibrium

published on January 5th, 2017

In many life areas, I have noticed that there are two energy levels where I am in a sort of equilibrium, meaning a state that needs less energy to maintain than is needed to reach it. There is a low state which is undesireable, but easy to fall into and hard to get out of and a high state which is not easy to get into but at least easier to maintain once I am in it. Recognizing these two states as made transitioning and maintain the high state easier, but sometimes this concept still eludes me, hence this post.

The Two Levels of Energy Equilibrium

When I am working out on a regular basis I despise slacking of and not working out. Doing the next workout becomes so much easier. When I have my appartment in a clean condition I am much more likely to maintain it that way. When I am making good progess on a project I am motivated to work even more on it. When I am meeting a lot of people I am excited about this, enjoy myself and want to meet even more people.

When I am slacking of it is infinitely harder to get the energy together to acutally do a good workout, so I'll likely keep slacking. When my appartment is a mess the last thing I want to do is get up and clean it. When I have been procrastinating a task it becomes infinitely harder to actually start and do it, so I'll keep procrastinating. When I have crawled up in my bed the last thing I want to do is to go out and meet people even if it would make me feel much better.

In many life areas I have found that there are essentially two levels of energy equilibrium, a high state (first paragraph) and a low state (second paragraph). Once something is going really well (working out, cleaning up, working, social life) it is pretty easy to keep doing this or to do even better. Once something is going bad it is hard to muster the energy to change it, thus it will keep going bad or even become worse. I am calling the states equilibrium as they are (to a degree) self maintaining, they require less energy to maintain than to achieve.

Recognizing this fact has helped me to leave the low state and to stay in the high state longer. Not to the degree that the low state has lost any attraction, but knowing that there is a high energy state that is not (too) hard to maintain once you've reached it gives me an answer to the question "how do some people even do that?" which in turn encourages me to leave the low state.

I am not quite sure why this happens exactly. I think at least part of the reason for the two attraction points are self confidence (high in the high state, low in the low state), energy (high in the high state, low in the low state) and general inertia and habits (it's easier to keep doing what you have been doing).

How to Stay in the High State

One of the problems that I have found is that I tend to fall out of the high state after a while, requiring a significant energy investment to get back into the high state (usually after bemoaning life in the low state for a while). The the high state has some attraction and is easier to maintain than to achieve, but it is not unbreakable.

To stay in the high state longer, I have found a few strategies. First, I try to identify what events make me leave this state and try to avoid them. Second, I try to build some guard rails that help me stay in it or get back on quickly once I leave it.

Mitigate Events That Kick Me Off

Many of the high state practices require some sort active work or daily routine. Working out, maintaining order, cleaning up, eating healthily or working concentratedly don't just happen by themselves. I have found that one danger is changing daily routines, especially while traveling, be it for business or pleasure. Recognizing this, I try to plan ahead to see how I can keep doing what I want to be doing while on the road and am extra careful to pick all routines back up immediately when back home.

Guard Rails to Keep Me On

I've found that guard rails in the form of committments are helpful to get back on track when I have slipped a little but haven't fallen completely of the wagon. I like beeminder and telling friends about what I am doing.

Avoid Overcommittment

One way in which the high energy state is not completely self sustaining is that it can spiral out of control. When I am doing really well, I tend to take on more things which sooner or later leads to inevitable overcommittment. Then when there are just too many things to do, something will fall through the cracks - this can be the beginning of the end. I am not sure how to really avoid it, but having some awareness of the problem does mitigate it somewhat.

How to Get to the High State

Another interesting question is how one can get into the high energy state when currently in the low state. I don't have a general answer here, but two things that work for me is to find systems that help and to tackle things one by one.

By finding systems I mean that I have to find a way to achieve the goal or behavior while still being compatible with the rest of my life. For example, as a dad I have many other committments so going to the gym for two hours three times a week is just not an option. Instead, I have found that just doing ten minutes of a rigorous workout every day works pretty well for me. By doing it every day I have developed a habit and don't need to make extra plans or a conscious effort to do it. If I am struggeling to implement some new desired behavior, maybe I haven't found the best way to integrate that habit into my life yet and need to find a way that is more compatible with everything else.

The other piece of advice I have is to not try everything at once. Make one or two changes and be sure that this works and that I am have reached the high level energy equilibrium. Make sure it is stable, then tackle the next thing. Trying to do everything at once doesn't leave enough energy for any of the changes I am trying to achieve.

In Conclusion

Recognizing the two states has made it easier for me to get to the high state in many life areas, stay in it longer and get back on quicker once I fall out. I think building awareness for the two states and paying attention to transition and stability factors will help this further. Sometimes I feel like this is a completely obvious concept and I am being a fool in writing about it. Nevertheless it helps me to think of the two states. If you have made a similar observation I'd be delighted if you share it.

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