Do You Have Spoons For That?
Energy is a finite resource. The thing is, we don’t all start with the same amount, we don’t spend it at the same rate, and we recharge differently. We know that the harder we lean in (the more energy we spend), the more we need to recover. What we don’t necessarily know is how much we need to recovery. What we don’t usually know is how much energy someone else spent, and how much they need to recover.
To manage this conundrum, people with disabilities, chronic illness or chronic pain have created a metaphor using spoons to depict energy. Each day, you have a certain number of spoons. Each task (discrete tasks like work, cooking, etc. and emotional load of tasks like stress and frustration) cost a certain number of spoons. Days you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start with fewer spoons than normal. You can push through and do more today by stealing spoons from tomorrow, but then you are starting tomorrow with fewer spoons.
For example, say you have 16 spoons each day. If you spend 16 spoons each day, you have “nothing left” at the end of the day. If you push through and spend 18 spoons today, you only have 14 spoons for tomorrow. If you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start today with 12 spoons.
This is a simple metaphor that helps us understand so much. We have different starting points: I may have 16 spoons each day while you have 18 spoons or 14 spoons each day. We spend energy differently: getting dinner ready after a long day may cost me 1 spoon, while it costs you 2 spoons, or ½ spoon.
It also shows how we set ourselves up to crash when we push too hard too long. If I spent 18 of my 16 spoons today, I have 14 spoons tomorrow. If I spend 18 of my 14 spoons tomorrow, I have 10 spoons the next day. If I slow down and only spend 14 spoons the next day, I start the following day with 6 spoons. It would take several days of “having spoons left over” to get back up to having 16 spoons a day.
When we lean in, eventually we have to lean back. After all, we don’t get stronger when we lift weights, we get stronger when we rest after lifting weights. If we expect to keep going, to keep spending tomorrow’s spoons, we are going to crash.
What I love the most about this analogy is it gives a frame of reference for talking to others about your physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. When considering what you are asked to do, you can consider how many spoons it will take compared to how many spoons you have right now. You can say “I don’t have spoons for that.,” or your can say “I don’t have room on my plate for that right now.”
When looking at a team, this gives you a frame of reference to gauge each other’s physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. This can help a leader or a team allocate tasks better. Giving the task to the person that “always gets it done” might ignore the rate they are spending spoons. If something is going on in a team member’s personal life that’s making them start the day with fewer spoons, you can be mindful about how you allocate tasks.
It takes trust in the team and the leadership to have candid conversations about physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. As a leader, you can step up and model these conversations, and model what it looks like to take a knee and recover. Over time, this shows your team that it’s okay to do the same. It’s can prevent and reverse burnout and is better for the collective physical, mental and emotional bandwidth of the team to recover along the way; to not be in a spoon deficit.