Entropy is Fatal
Like a lot of people, I used to be a pathological maximalist. A phone with more features is necessarily better, a company with more people is better, a program with more lines of code is better, a house with more stuff is better.
Until the day when reality hit me in the face: there is a direct relationship between "more" and "complexity". The more a system is big and complex, the more we use our (limited) time and energy to do useless, busy work.
The more a house is stuffed, the more we take time to clean it, the more features a phone has, the more buttons we need to click to perform even basic actions...
In thermodynamics, this phenomenon is called Entropy: a property originally introduced to explain the part of the internal energy of a system that is unavailable as a source for useful work.
These are the important words: useful work.
The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system always increases because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium: the state of maximum entropy, maximum chaos.
Today I want to show you that this law also applies to human organizations and constructions. When all the energy is directed towards useless work: complicated bureaucratic forms, layers and layers of management, websites and apps full buttons, NFTs, there is no more time to do the things that matters actually.
But it's even worse: when all the available energy of a living organism or organization is directed towards useless work, and no energy remains for self-sustainability, it leads to a slow and painful death. It's especially true in our world where, in all likelihood, we are going to have to deal with less energy available in the future than in the past, with the end of fossil fuels and the population plateauing in most western countries.
In one word: Entropy is fatal.
We all know jobs, teams, organizations... that long time ago were created to do useful work, and now only exist to justify their own existence.
This is also why prices inevitably go up despite technological innovation: more and more of the costs are directed towards useless work.
But, unlike in thermodynamics, there are ways to control entropy in organizations and Human constructions.
I’ve tracked down the sources of entropy to 3 causes. 3 poisons from where all the chaos originates. These 3 poisons are:
- Unlimited and uncontrolled growth
- Decision makers have no skin in the game
1st poison: Unlimited and uncontrolled growth
Whether you have an iPhone or an Android smartphone, you are certainly angry about a load of useless features introduced at each new version, all while the stability and security of the system seem to decrease.
In the same vein, we are all angry about our rulers freewheeling when it comes to adding more laws and removing none.
By nature, Humans love to be busy, and usually, it means building things without questioning if the things need to be built.
2nd poison: Decision makers have no skin in the game
When decision-makers are not impacted by the consequences of their decisions, they are guaranteed to never take the less wrong™ decisions.
How it's related to entropy? Because decision-makers allocate the available (Human) energy toward useful or useless work.
So when they have no incentive to take the "right" decisions, they will, most of the time, allocate the available energy towards useless work, sometimes for ego reasons, sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by corruption.
3rd Poison: Momentum
The third source of entropy is momentum.
Call it how you like: traditions, technical debt, habits, rules...
When the past has more prevalence on the future than the present itself, you can be sure that everybody is going to be confused and chaos will ensue.
When we refuse to trim the useless work because it was once useful, we end up with all the energy sucked into it. Then you need support for this useless work, then you support for the support of useless work. This is the compound effect to its finest.
Now what, should we destroy everything that is "too big"? Should we abandon all dreams of scale forever? Should we forget the past? Of course not!
To achieve sustainability, we simply have to reduce the complexity of our systems and organizations. The problem is that it requires active work towards this goal. And, most of the time, it's not rewarded to its true value, or simply not rewarded at all.
Which politician is proud to remove useless laws? Who was promoted for simply removing useless features or processes?
This is why I've embraced minimalism.
The idea is simple: start from your needs and your goals, whether it be physically, emotionally or careerist, and then remove everything that pulls you back and doesn't help you achieve these goals.
But starting from this clean state is not enough, you also need to proactively refuse whatever will bring chaos. And this is the hardest part, refusing things. We are not trained to say no. Yet, not doing things is what, most of the time, brings the greatest results.
Because it's not easy to explain to maximalists this whole reasoning, saying that you are a minimalist is a great excuse to simply refuse things that will increase entropy in your life or job without having to explain. "No, I'm minimalist, sorry".
Not overstuffing your house will bring your the most peace of mind, not a vacuum cleaner. Not overfilling your agenda will bring your the freest time, not productivity hacks. Removing layers of management will increase the productivity of your colleagues, not filling their time with meetings.