Energetic Expenditures

There are countless ways we might visualize our portfolio of intrinsic resources, but one metaphor I find to be useful is that of electrical production and expenditure.

You can produce electricity in all sorts of ways, ranging from the burning of coal to the harnessing of photons (using solar panels) to the tapping of wind and water and other sorts of environmental movement using turbines of various shapes and sizes.

You can then spend this accumulated energy in all sorts of ways and on all sorts of things: you can light your home, charge your phone, power up your vehicle (e-bike or electric car), and so on.

In between the production and expenditure of this energy, though, there are all manners of drains on the system; and this is true of even highly efficient electrical grids.

There’s a latent amount of loss at the source for every flavor of energy production, as (for instance) burning things (and nuclear energy production) often just involves producing heat to make steam to spin turbines, while today’s top-end, commercially available solar panels are only around 23% efficient (the rest of the theoretically harnessable energy not being captured and converted into electricity).

There’s also transmission-associated loss, as this electricity, once produced, needs to be funneled from one place to another (in some cases shipped along power lines to energy-hungry manufacturers or homes, in other cases stored in batteries—usually of the lithium-ion or pumped-water storage variety).

In some cases there’s a lot of ground to cover, too, that power hustled from one grid to the next, one sub-station to the next, at each step of the way being boosted and down-converted (and otherwise messed-with in various ways), those tweaks, plus the natural heat-related losses associated with this type of transport (heat emitted from such infrastructure is basically just energy seeping out of the cables into the air) mean you’ll end up with somewhere between a bit and a lot less energy at the end of the pipeline compared to what you started with.

There are also invisible vampire-drains on the available energy once it arrives at the end-user, including appliances that are turned off but which still draw a trickle of power while plugged in, and all the little doodads we keep on 100% of the time (modems and routers, internet-of-things devices, and HVAC systems).

That’s a lot of lost energy even before we tap it for more intentional, of-the-moment use cases!

When I feel like I don’t have enough time or energy (mental or physical) to do the things I want to do, I’ll sometimes think of my life, my body, everything that makes up me and my capacity to do things, as this sort of system.

There’s a net amount of energy being produced based on how I eat, how I exercise, how I relax and recover: how I treat myself in a holistic sense, basically.

There are countless draws on that accumulated energy, too—some of which I’m aware of and which are purposeful, and some of which are invisible, vampire-drains.

There’s also a lot of seepage, a lot of loss and waste along the way.

That means there are three main components of this system worth looking at and reassessing when I feel short on intrinsic resources: how much time and energy I have available to begin with (how overall well I am, and how much time I’m keeping open on my schedule), how much time and energy I’m spending on things I know about (work, hobbies, socializing, etc), and how much time and energy is being sapped by things that are currently invisible to me.

Almost always there are a fair number of seepage vectors that can be addressed if I give myself the opportunity to notice them and shore things up a bit.

And in a lot of cases, the solutions to said seepage won’t be particularly compelling or fun or dramatic, they’ll be a lot like their energy-industry parallels: better insulation on cables, replacing degraded parts more frequently, higher regulatory standards, things like that; better maintenance, essentially.

On a personal level, this often means catching myself in the act of engaging in draining, inessential, even deleterious habits I didn’t realize I had incorporated into my day. Snacking on things that make me sleepy after a difficult bit of work, getting lazy with an important component of my workout, or derailing my focus with activities (like perusing social media) that I know mess with my flow, but which in the moment I reflexively engage in or justify.

There’s also room for upping the overall amount of “energy” produced, though, by refining what I’m eating, how I’m treating my mind and body, adjusting the sorts of things and people I’m spending my time and energy on—it all contributes to or subtracts from that larger stockpile of available resources.

The end-point is also worth assessing, as in some cases a project is just no longer worth the expenditure of time and energy it requires, a relationship or activity has become diminishing rather than fulfilling, or a ritual, hobby, or habit has outlived its usefulness and is maybe ready for replacement or refurbishment.

Like all metaphors, this is an imperfect one (though that’s arguably what makes maps and metaphors valuable).

But for addressing those inefficiency- and invisible drain-related issues in particular, I find it can be a useful mental framework, as it reminds me that these things exist, that they can quietly and persistently soak up time and energy I might prefer to spend on other things, and that they’re natural components of any complex system—so this is not something to get upset or self-critical about, it’s just one more maybe-useful data point to potentially act upon.

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