Why You Should Add Entropy to Your Life

Life is short without entropy. But with it, life will feel much longer.

Image by Author (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Do you remember how summers felt eternal when you were a child? How the wait for the winter holidays was endless? How the months went by much slower?

Now everything just zips by. It’s like someone went to life’s settings and set the playback speed to 2x. You look at the calendar and realize “Damn, summer is over and it’s almost New Year’s again! At this pace I’ll be old and frail in no time! If only there was a way to experience life at a child’s pace again!’’

Well, there is. You can slow life down and set its speed back to 1x. The trick is to add entropy to your life.

Let me explain.

If you take your backpack now, stuff it with some shorts, shirts, toiletry essentials, a towel, and not much more, and then take a one-way flight to Southeast Asia and stay there for a year, traveling from place to place, that year will feel like a whole lifetime to you. In your memory, it will stretch to the same length as ten years being stuck in a daily repetitive grind.

The year will feel long because you will have left behind a predictable life. You will no longer have any routines. You will stop copy and pasting your days. You will no longer live the same day over and over, seeing the same people, sleeping in the same bed, eating the same meals, and moving through the same landscapes, day in, day out.

Instead, everything will be new all the time. It will feel like being a kid again. You will listen to the people around you and you won’t understand a word. You will look at the strange symbols everywhere, which are supposed to be writing, and you won’t be able to read them. You won’t be able to speak in an understandable way. You will only be able to point at things. The first few days you won’t even be able to cross the street on your own without serious risk of being run over. Everything will be chaotic, but wondrous. Things that you did almost unconscious back home will become adventures.

Take buying groceries as an example. Back home it’s a boring nuisance. In Asia, it involves going to markets, looking with wide eyes at the strange goods being sold, being overwhelmed by smells, and having to haggle with hands and feet. It will be the same with eating, going to the toilet, taking a bus, and other mundane things. They will all turn into adventurous endeavors. And just when you’re getting the hang of it, you will take your backpack and go to the next place, the next country, where everything will be strange again.

You will have gone from a highly predictable life to a life that is completely unpredictable. And that’s precisely why you will experience that year as so much longer: you will have injected a huge dose of information entropy into your life.

The concept of information entropy was introduced by Claude Shannon, a mathematician who realized that the more predictable an event is, the less space is required to store it. To turn this vague notion into concrete numbers — that is, to quantify how unpredictable something is — he came up with the concept of entropy. In essence, entropy measures how unpredictable something is, just like volume measures how big something is or temperature measures how hot something is.

Consider the weather in the Sahara. Imagine you have a notebook where you keep track of the weather for every day of the year. What is the minimum number of entries you need to write down to remember what the weather was each day? Three hundred and sixty-five, right? Wrong! You just need one entry: “it’s always sunny”. If you were to write “sunny, sunny, sunny,…” over and over, you’d just be wasting space in your notebook. The weather in the Sahara is predictable — low entropy — and you thus don’t need much space to track it.

For the same reason, if you’re having the same day every day, your life, like the Sahara, will be low entropy and your brain won’t store each day as a separate memory. It’ll just compress all of those average days into a handful of memories. Anything else would just be a waste of your brain’s resources.

But here’s the thing, how long a year feels depends on how many distinct memories you collect during that year. If you have few memories, you’ll have some sort of amnesia and that year will feel like it vanished in the blink of an eye. If, on the other hand, you have a ton of clearly distinct memories, that year will feel anything but short.

Think of remembering a year of your life as downloading a compressed text file. If that text file contains nothing but the string “coffee, work, sleep;” repeated 365 times, it will look something like this:

1: coffee, work, sleep;
2: coffee, work, sleep;
3: coffee, work, sleep;
365: coffee, work, sleep;

But when you download it — when you remember it — you’ll retrieve a compressed version, which will simply say

365 × “coffee, work, sleep;”

That’s much shorter, doesn’t take up much space, and allows for a fast download. But that’s not what you want! You want the exact opposite! You want your memories to take up space in your brain. You want the download to be slow. You want to live a life that is hard to compress into a single sentence. You want a life high in entropy.

So don’t live a compressible life. Find ways to throw in some entropy, some unpredictability. Travel, if you can. And if you can’t, at least consider doing some microadventures. Just do something to break your routines and stop the copy and pasting of your days. Getting rid of routines might make you less productive, but your life will feel much longer.

P.S.: If you want to understand the math behind entropy, Luis Serrano explained it quite well here.

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Science fan, cartoonist, PhD, eukaryote. Doesn't eat cats, dogs, nor other animals.

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