Spinning the Flywheel

If reality is a system, and trust is a battery, then life itself is a flywheel. Flywheels are very neat little systems; they’re basically just another kind of battery, but the mechanical underpinnings mean they end up being used in rather different situations than where we’d think of “normal” batteries. In particular, flywheels are often used for “smoothing”: taking a spiky energy source and producing a steadier, more consistent output. This is a great way to think about life.

Most people have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, sometimes even good months and bad months. Depending on how we’re eating, how we’re sleeping, what stressors exist in our work and personal life, and just personal fluke biochemistry, we can end up accomplishing a lot, or a little. Some days I’m raring to go and get a million things done. Some days I just sleep and watch Netflix. It’s important to strike a balance.

While balance is important, and you burn out if you go go go all day every day, it’s also true that there’s a lot of things I’d like to do, and never enough time to do them in. We are biological creatures, and while we can’t usually control in the moment whether we feel productive or lazy, we can control in the long run how often those feelings occur. The basic form of this is the same good advice that everybody gives and just as frequently ignores: eat healthy, sleep well, exercise your body regularly, etc. Just doing these simple things will make you a bit more energetic, tipping you over the line from “lazy” to “productive” every so often.

But this advice on its own doesn’t feel very flywheely, it’s just kind of common sense. The flywheel comes in when we take another step back and start deliberately investing in our own future energy levels. Let’s imagine a day where you’re really on fire: lots of energy, ready to take on the world. You could spend the entire day just killing that project you’ve been working on, and let’s be honest that would be a pretty good use of your time. But you could also take an hour or two at some point to spin the flywheel. Prepare and freeze some healthy meals, plan your schedule for the next week, or even do something as simple as picking your outfit for tomorrow.

These things may feel like an odd use of “productive” time, when you could be getting even more done on that awesome project. But what they give you is even more productive time in the future. Tomorrow, when you wake up and are only feeling mediocre, your life is already in order. You have something to wear that you’re happy with, something to eat that is tasty and healthy, and you already know where you need to be and when. On another mediocre day, just getting through all of those things would be enough to exhaust whatever energy you had. Instead, you can use that energy toward the important project and keep the ball rolling.

I’ve listed some easy, obvious examples of personal flywheels, but there are opportunities for them everywhere. Investing in your flywheel can even take the form of a more literal investment: proper budgeting can be incredibly useful and simplify a lot of future money-related decisions.

Just be careful to keep an eye on how fast your flywheel is going. On good days with your flywheel spinning, it’s very easy to over-commit your future time in an unsustainable way. If you’ve committed to so many projects that you’re constantly drawing down your flywheel faster than you replenish it then you’re at risk of burning out: that’s the day you’ve run out of prepared meals but just don’t have time to stock up again so you get McDonald’s instead. Suddenly you’ve got a million things to do, nothing left in your flywheel, and no time to spin it up again. Just one lazy day in that scenario, and your whole life flies apart.

We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell

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