Spoon Theory & Spell Slots

Many people with chronic health issues use a metaphor called spoon theory to illustrate how chronic illnesses or mental health issues can limit the number of activities a person can do in a day. The basics are thus: every day, you have a number of spoons. Every activity you do during the day uses a spoon. So if you start with five spoons, you can only do five activities. Now imagine that cooking a meal takes a spoon, but so does eating the same meal. Before breakfast is even cleaned up, you’re running low on spoons. Some activities may take more spoons, such as getting yourself to a doctor’s appointment, calling the IRS, or having a video call with your boss.

This theory is simple for a reason. It can be applied across situations, adapted to an individual, and easily explained to anyone who might not understand energy rationing, but I thought it might help to illustrate how I’ve adapted the theory to suit me.

For me, it helped me finally start to get a grip on why my daily task-lists would go half-finished every single day. Instead of filling a page with tasks, I started to realize that I had only so many spoons, and that I had to narrow down my lists, not just by number of activities, but by the complexity of the tasks as well. Complex tasks take more spoons!

Soon enough, the lists started to get smaller, and more and more of the tasks started to get crossed off before the end of the day. I reached a bit of a plateau though, where I had limited the number of tasks to a certain amount, but some days most would go undone, and others I’d finish in a heartbeat. It took a while to recognize that this could partially be explained by the variance in the number of daily spoons.

If you’ve ever woken up from a night’s sleep and felt like maybe you’d been flattened by a bulldozer, you know what I mean. Some days, there just aren’t enough spoons, whether due to poor sleep, feeling unwell, the weather, what you ate right before you fell asleep, or any number of factors in our daily energy levels. Others, everything is working smoothly, and you have your max spoons.

When I had grasped this, I started to try to pinpoint the number of spoons each morning. Was it 5 or 10 or 15? How many video calls would I have that would soak up 3 spoons right off the bat? What tasks did I have that were small enough I might be able to group them together? These adaptations took some time to implement, but once I had, I could feel the difference; I was closer than ever to knowing how best to suit my energy. And yet…

There would be days where I would have enough spoons to get me to the end of the workday, but as soon as I needed to cook or eat dinner, I flatlined. It took a long time to see the pattern for this, if I’m honest, and I’ll tell you why: spoon theory assumes only one type of spoon.

Again, for a theory, this is perfectly acceptable, as simpler theories are easier to grasp and spread. For me, however, it became clear that I wasn’t operating with only one type of spoon, and by trying to force my energy to fit that model, I was finding that tasks that should only take one spoon were wearing me out fully.

Writing spoons, creating spoons, gardening spoons, logic spoons… this was the path I was heading down and realized the metaphor no longer suited me. So I pivoted and landed on spell slots, as shared with me by a friend, given the similarity between spoons and spell slots when thinking of complex tasks.

In Dungeons & Dragons, magic-wielders are given spell slots at various levels. Say 5 spell slots for level 1 spells, 3 for level 2 spells, and 1 for level 3. If the level of the spell slot is the complexity of the task, you can only use high level slots for complex tasks, but in a pinch, lower-complexity tasks can use higher spell slots. Since I had already gotten an instinctive feel for the complexity of certain tasks myself, I tweaked the idea a bit. I decided to think of my spoons as spell slots, with spell slots for different types of activities.

For example, I can only handle about 30 minutes to an hour of writing fiction in a single day. It’s slow-going, but it’s even slower if I burn out, so I’m okay with slow and steady. I converted this to two fiction spell slots. Writing non-fiction is different enough that I learned I can do both in one day, having enough non-fiction juice for one to two hours of effort. This, also, meant two spell slots. Throw in about four spell slots for logical work–anything from software development to research to design of some kind–two spell slots for creative work (anything from sewing to cooking), two for gardening and I had a good basis. Meetings, appointments, or even calls tend to take up any spell slots I have to spare; they burn me out no matter how well I try to plan around them, but I’ve been learning just how much I can take of a variety of activity types! I’ve even learned that sometimes the number of slots vary within each category.

This adaptable extension of spoon theory is really helping me learn how best to support myself each and every day so I don’t feel like I’ve been flattened by noon. I hope this might be able to help someone else too.

4 July 2022 mental-health strategies

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