The Definition of Entropy isn't Enough: If You Don't Decide, Chaos Will

Read time —
10 Minutes
Last updated
March 4, 2024

The online definition of entropy is a tepid affair.

It’s wrapped up in the language of science, and if you’re not a scientist, you’re not likely to understand it.

"Entropy is a scientific concept, as well as a measurable physical property that is most associated with a state of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty."

It gets worse. Another definition of entropy lives within the second law of thermodynamics. It says the entropy of a system never decreases. Left unchecked, it increases.

What does all this mean?

We all know uncertainty makes decision-making harder. Randomness often gives us unnecessary surprises when we don't want them. Disorder and chaos are most frequently places of pain best avoided.

But do we fully appreciate the importance of entropy and the role it plays in our lives?

In this article, I will bring some much-needed clarity to entropy. I’ll explain the significance of this unseen natural force. You'll gain an understanding of its power as I share my horrifying experience with you.

Critically, I will leave you with important reminders to help you manage entropy in your life.

This article covers:

Entropy Meaning

Entropy quantifies the disorder, randomness, or uncertainty of a system.

Furthermore, as we move forward in time, entropy (the quantity of disorder) within a system will always increase.

So, we have two key points we need to understand.

  1. Entropy is a measure of disorder.
  2. Without interference, entropy increases.

On a scientific level, you can calculate the quantity of disorder within a system. You can find more on this within the second law of thermodynamics if you wish. But, I’m more interested in helping you grasp the day-to-day reality of entropy.

On a practical level, we need to remember uncertainty, randomness, and disorder are a part of our lives. You might not be able to quantify it, but that shouldn't mean you should ignore it.

The second lesson is one we forget, and frequently pay the price for it. The longer you don’t interfere with something, the level of chaos will only grow.

Let me give a simple example of the entropy definition in action.

We all cook, eat, and then clear up at meal times. Now imagine what happens if you stop clearing up.

No more washing up. No dishwasher — just a pile of dirty plates left on the kitchen worktop.

Picture the scene after the second meal. The pile of plates increases. The food left on those plates from the previous day begins to grow into mould.

After a few days, there are no more plates, so you use your fingers to eat. Food falls to the floor, as you try to feed yourself. The plates grow even more mouldy. The pungent smell spreads throughout the house, forcing even the cat to stay outside.

This is disorder, and the longer you leave it, the worse it becomes.

Entropy Meaning in Life

My parents suffered significantly from entropy in their lives. What you’re about to read is unfortunately, a true story.

Retirement initially suited my mum and stepdad.

But, as they both grew older, so they changed. Their sense of purpose seemed to disappear. The sofa became their bed more often than not, as bedtime routines melted away.

Living on a diet of endless scrolling on their phones, their phones became their homes.

My stepdad became forgetful.

His driving — his one love — scared most passengers. My father-in-law once declared that he would never get in the car with him driving again. I talked to Mum about our concerns, but she couldn’t convince her husband to see the doctor.

Then they decided to move home.

Not to somewhere local, but one that would mean moving over three hundred miles. This idea seemed to come from a desire to step back to happier times and break the malaise they were in.

Moving Chaos

Due to COVID, and that I lived some distance away, I hadn’t seen either of my parents for six months. The day before they completed the sale, I arrived to help them.

What I walked into was horrifying.

  • Half-packed boxes everywhere
  • A kitchen (not packed) and full of out-of-date food
  • No real thought on how they would be ready to leave the following morning

My stepdad couldn’t do anything.

He followed me around like a lost sheep, unsure of what to do. His general mental capacity had deteriorated a lot since I had last seen him.

Boxes cluttered the floor. Most of them with their lids taped together vertically, leaving them without lids. It was horrendous, with me repacking every box before sealing them correctly.

This wouldn't have been a problem it I had time, but the removals were due the following morning. After a late night and a frantic morning of packing, we just about made it.

Nothing Changed, but Everything Changed

The move brought more disorder.

The promise of a new dawn was a darkness that never brightened. The sofa became their bed, with the bedroom a dumping ground. In the kitchen, dirty plates arose like skyscrapers in Shanghai.

Because they didn't wash-up, they couldn't cook. So they lived on takeaways.

My step-dad, in a place he was unfamiliar with struggled to cope. He couldn't dress correctly. He would put t-shirts on back to front, or two socks on one foot — leaving the other bare.

My mum wouldn't force the issue, so I called the doctor. He made an immediate referral for a mental health assessment. Because of covid, the appointment wasn't due for six months. It was an appointment he would never make.

After a series of falls, and a trip to hospital for a bump on the head, my step-dads referral became a priority. The consultant confirmed our worst fears; it was vascular dementia.

That afternoon, everything changed.

Fire; The Ultimate Act of Randomness

For reasons of a lack of space, the toaster lived on top of the hob. My stepdad, alone in the kitchen, turned the hob on with the toaster still on it. It didn’t take long for the toaster to melt and catch fire.

The flames spread to the kitchen cupboards, turning the kitchen into a furnace.

A neighbour got my parents out. Unharmed, but now their temporary home was hotel. For my stepdad, the unfamiliar environment was terrifying.

His dementia required the comfort of surroundings he knew, but they were gone. For five days, we battled to keep him safe before a suitable care home became available.

The move to the care home only brought more disorder for stepdad. Made even worse by the COVID restrictions. For ten days, he had to isolate himself in his room, without visitors. This was the cruellest stroke entropy could play.

Three days was all he lasted at the home. A fall left him with a bruise on his head and a broken collarbone. And so, the hospital took him, treating him for his injuries.

And then, if it couldn’t get worse, it did. COVID got him.  His dementia had one play left. It stopped him from accepting the ventilation he so desperately needed.

Sadly—and shockingly, he passed away a week later.

What does Entropy Mean for Us?

Inflection points are those pivotable moments when change occurs.

Some you can control, others you don't.

If you don't seize those opportunities to take control, then you open the door to lots of carnage. For me, this is the biggest takeaway from the horror entropy brought to my parents.

The longer time passes without intervention, the greater the fall into disorder.

Every moment of indecision increases the time since your last intervention. Without realising it, you're increasing the scope of entropy. When you say, as I often do, "I'll do it tomorrow," you're increasing your loss of control.

There is another point to pick up on here. Entropy is non-reversible.

As time progresses, entropy can't be undone.

Consider autumn and the leaves swirling in the wind. If you grabbed a handful and threw them in the air, they would drift to the floor. Some might fall at your feet, others further afield.

But here's the important thing.

You can't undo the throw.

You can't turn the clock back, and subsequently reverse the falling of the leaves so they return to your hands. Yes, you could sweep them together and throw them again, but the leaves wouldn't end up in the same place. There is an irreversibility about life we treat with complacency — and we shouldn't.

What does all this mean?

It means you need to be decisive and choose your own inflection points. If you don't, entropy will — and the disorder that follows can't be undone.

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