The Virtuous Life: Order-Become a Master of the Universe

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 17, 2008 · 16 comments

in The Virtuous Life


This is the third in a series of posts about living the virtuous life like Benjamin Franklin.

Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Franklin chose Order as his third virtue because it “would allow [him] more time for attending to [his] projects and [his] studies.” Franklin understood that if he wanted to get important things done in his life, he had to make sure the little things wouldn’t get in the way.

Almost three centuries have passed since old Ben set out to perfectly live the virtue of Order. The lives of Americans today are far busier and distraction-filled than Ben could ever have imagined. People strive to order their lives so that they can have peace and tranquility. An entire industry has sprung up around helping them to do that. Books, blogs, magazines, and consultants offer advice on how you can clean up your clutter. Yet despite the information out there, people still have trouble living up to this virtue. Why?

Why it’s so hard to make your bed everyday

It’s a common story. A man wakes up and realizes his life is a complete mess. His bed is never made, papers and magazines are stacked all over the place, and dirty clothes lie on the floor.

So, this man decides he’s going to put his life in order. He resolves to make his bed every morning, buys an inbox for all his papers, and makes it a goal to put his clothes in the hamper. Things go swimmingly for about a week, but he soon falls off the wagon. His house begins to look just as messy as it was before he began his new regimen.

It almost seems as if making your bed everyday and keeping your life in order is futile. In a sense it is. Every time you try to organize, you’re battling a natural force that drives the entire universe: entropy.

In order to understand what we’re up against, it’s necessary to understand a bit of thermodynamics. I think this scientific approach to understanding order would be appreciated by Franklin.

(This is a very cursory explanation, so please all you scientists out there, don’t tell me that I failed to mention something. I know I did.)

The first law of thermodynamics tells us there is a fixed amount of energy in the universe. Energy can be changed from one form to another, but never created or destroyed.

Although energy cannot be destroyed, it is of little use to anyone if it cannot make things happen. Unfortunately, the second law of thermodynamics tells us all energy changes decrease the amount of useful energy in the universe.

Consider a box of small magnets. If the small magnets are lined up in the same direction, as a group they can attract other metal objects. If they are not lined up in the same direction, individual magnets cancel each other’s effect and cannot do useful work. The same is true of energy – it is useful when it is ordered, but when it is disordered, its effects cancel each other out.

Entropy is a measure of the lack of order in the energy.

In other words, entropy is a measure of randomness or “disorganization.” And unfortunately, when left to itself every system tends to a low energy, high entropy existence. Everything moves to the path of least resistance. This includes the entire universe. Since its creation, the energy of the universe has become more disorganized and will continue to do so until there is no order left at all.

Now you can better understand why keeping your life organized is such a challenge. Have you ever dropped something on the floor and thought to pick it up, but felt an almost tangible force pulling at you not to do so? This is the pull of entropy.

Become a Master of the Universe

By understanding the laws of thermodynamics you can harness them for your benefit and become a master of the universe.

Some might throw in the towel to putting their lives in order knowing that the universe will eventually disintegrate into complete randomness. But before you give up, consider that there are two possible ways to overcome entropy. The first is chance, but an ordered arrangement appearing by chance is practically impossible (have you ever woken up to a magically clean room?).

The other possible way to overcome entropy is to increase the order in the system. The problem with this solution is that as a person tries to order the system, he is doing work – and so the system’s entropy decrease would be balanced by a hefty increase in that person’s entropy. Thus entropy would increase on the whole.

Herein lies the answer to why most people’s organizational regimens never stick. Hundreds of books and blogs exist that will tell you how to beat clutter and get you life in order. Many suggest setting up an elaborate system in order to keep you on track. These systems can do a wonderful job reducing the entropy in your personal organization, but you have to expend a large amount of energy setting them up and maintaining them. Thus, while you decrease the amount of entropy in one area of your life, you increase it within yourself. This is why a lot people have such a hard time sticking with complex organization systems. The total amount of entropy and disorganization actually increases and the person throws in the towel.

Fortunately there is a small loophole. Let’s return to the example of the magnets:

Imagine you must move them to a different box in order to use them. As you are moving them, you may put some into the new box the wrong way round – the useful energy will then have decreased. Of course, the slower and more carefully you make the exchange, the fewer mistakes you will make. The same is true of energy – the entropy in the system always increases, unless the rate of change is infinitesimally small.

Thus, to avoid the energy imbalance caused by trying to organize your life using an elaborate system, you must employ the smallest changes possible. That way you don’t increase the amount of entropy in other areas of your life.

The secret of mastering the universe

But can such small changes truly make a difference? Yes they can.

The secret to bringing order to your life and overcoming entropy while only minimally increasing it in other areas of your life is simple: DO IT NOW. No system, no in-boxes, no index cards. Just do it now. After you get out of bed, turn around and make it. After you receive a piece of mail, take action on it immediately. As soon as you’re done eating, wipe down the kitchen. If you drop a sock on the floor, pick it up without hesitation. It’s not as easy as it sounds because whenever a bit of disorder appears in your life, you will feel entropy pulling you to ignore it. You must train yourself to repeat the mantra “do it now!” and push through this force.

If you find that you can’t do something now, write it down in a simple notebook. There’s no need to develop an elaborate capturing and filing system. Just write it down so you don’t forget.

But what about tasks that require multiple steps, ones you can’t take action on immediately? You will get to them eventually. They’re big; you won’t forget to do them, and you don’t need a system to get them done. Meanwhile, by creating an organized home, car, and workplace, you create an environment out of which the bigger tasks will flow far more easily.

Long before the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “Getting Things Done,” men like Theodore Roosevelt accomplished amazing things without an elaborate system. You don’t need to set up some crazy regimen either. All you need to know to become a Master of the Universe are three little words: do it now, dammit. Okay four words.


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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 William Mize March 17, 2008 at 9:52 am

Loving this series; I think that Franklin’s “Autobiography” should be required reading. Heck, you can have a chapter emailed to you each day.
For free.
From here:

And I am pretty sure that Roosevelt would never have read Getting Things Done nor outsourced his errands and phone calls to India.

2 Lee McKusick March 17, 2008 at 12:33 pm


The New Deal from New Delhi? =)

3 Adlyn March 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm

I love Ben Franklin!

4 Adlyn March 17, 2008 at 7:40 pm
5 shaun Lewis March 18, 2008 at 3:20 am

I can only hope you are joking about the entropy thing. I happen to be a physics student, and what you are describing is nothing to do with entropy. If you want to decrease the entropy of a messy room, try cooling it down by degree or two. Entropy is a scientific term, please don’t use it as another word for disorder.
Next time, maybe try researching it before trying to teach others about it.
(rant finished).

6 ben March 18, 2008 at 3:53 am

Maybe you missed this:

‘This is a very cursory explanation, so please all you scientists out there, don’t tell me that I failed to mention something. I know I did.’

7 Brett McKay March 18, 2008 at 7:44 am

Thanks Ben.

We actually did quite a bit of research before we we wrote the article. And we’re not trying to teach people about entropy from a scientific standpoint.

The comparison between entropy and a clean and messy room is actually quite a common one. I first heard it from my physics teacher in college. But scientists have admittedly moved away from defining entropy as disorder, and now define it as the measure of energy dispersal. Still, looking at entropy as the measure of things falling into chaos is very useful. It may not be strictly scientific, but it works as a way to describe what we all experience-things moving from order to disorder. Things naturally take the path of least resistance. This may not be how scientists use the term entropy but there aren’t any other terms that will work, so we’re simply co-opting it and using it in a broader manner.

8 Bruce Mackey March 19, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Very true. A few years ago I hit on almost the same concept I call, “No further action required.” In my activities when I’m taking an action I always try to take it to completion, to the point where no further action is required. Instead of putting a dish in the sink, put it in the dishwasher. When you take the last cup of coffee, set the coffee up for the next pot. When you get back from a bike ride, check the bike over, lub it and wipe it down. It takes so much more time and effort to do a job in several steps, because you, “didn’t have the time” to do it completely. An old Army saying, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough to do it over.”

9 whatwasitodo March 25, 2008 at 9:18 am

I completely agree with this article…and in fact have written something in my own blog about Entropy a few months ago:

10 JackUH May 18, 2008 at 10:18 am

They had a similar term/idea to social entropy as the one outlined in the entry in the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep”. That would be “kipple”. And I use that word more often.

11 Sean June 10, 2008 at 2:17 am

The reason why Teddy Roosevelt would have never used index cards or some other organizational system is because he was taught how to be person of action and conviction. I grew up without a strong role model when it came to being organized and “getting things done”. I use a system because I need to retrain my disorganized mind. As I use my system I see my thoughts move more and more towards becoming organized and I’ve begun to rely on my system less and less.

12 Robert Z. Cortes June 29, 2008 at 11:38 pm

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article on Order. However, in my desire to fully understand what you were saying about entropy, I decided to check it out. Although I have a good science background (I finished high school in the Philippine Science High School), without being defensive, I have to immediately disavow being one of those “scientists” you might be referring to in your parenthesis, i.e. those who would tell you that you “failed to mention something”. I googled “entropy” for the sake of wanting to really understand it and thus appreciate your article more. I went to this site, and suggest you check it out also:

I read what they wrote about the more updated way of understanding the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and I realized I had to write you since it implies that you might have to redo your otherwise enjoyable article. Apparently, the 2nd Law where entropy is involved is not a Law of Disorder but a Law of Order. While reading your article, although I was enjoying myself, I was slightly disturbed by the fact that it hinted that this world is moving towards chaos whereas nature, as I observe it tends towards order – hence, the word “cosmos” for the universe. That’s why when I read this more updated interpretation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, I was, I have to say, relieved, and thought that it made more sense.

Thus, man’s tendency not to fix his bed everyday cannot anymore be explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics or entropy. According, in fact, to that law, he should fix his bed. Fortunately, doctrine of original sin exists and can perfectly explain it – laziness. Of course, that may be a matter of faith, and others may not accept it (I fully respect that), but it does explain it. The “loophole” you were talking about was not loophole at all, but rather The Law of Maximum Entropy Production (MEP) which you can read here (this is actually a link of that previous URL I wrote above):

Your DO IT NOW secret is, according to the Law of MEP the “path or assembly of paths out of otherwise available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.” For me, that is very exciting since I have just found a scientific basis to that “secret” which I myself believe in and practice as often as my laziness doesn’t overcome me. As for the “original sin” part, I am one of those who believe that theology is a true science and so I have no problem putting in that explanation in an otherwise “scientific” discussion, especially where empirical science offers none.

Let me finish by thanking you so much for this wonderful initiative. I intend to go through all these articles on virtues of Franklin and share this with my students and the other members of my faculty. I have bookmarked your site and have downloaded the e-book. You have a great site, something which I believe will do many men and women a lot of good. More power and God bless!

13 Donna December 31, 2008 at 1:10 am

Thank you for confirming what happened while I decided to pick up today and not . . .”later”. I have quit smoking for 9 days and am forcing myself to not stress on anything, including cleaning up others messes.

This morning, the thought to leave the mess till later did enter my mind, but then, I said to myself, “just slowly and mechanically attack the mess and it will be done” Your article and advice, “Do it now” confirmed for me, I am on the right track.

Not only did I resolve , ahead of time, the obvious stress that a continued messy Kitchen would have acheived, but I am feeling comfortable in a clean environment, and just chalked off my 10 day on my quit progress.

14 Broadswordcallin January 8, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I find the acroynm JFDI -just fecking do it- an easy one to remember.

15 Augustin September 1, 2013 at 4:32 am

The hardest virtue to master for me.
I believe the articles of Will Power and Resilience would supplement the advice from this article.

16 Jack Kallis December 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I like the message of the article, but the entropy analogy seems like a creative misnomer, in my humble and inexperienced opinion. Why physics is linked to lifestyle is beyond me. IMO, it’s like saying “my room is actually messy and clean at the same time, because of the schrodinger’s cat thought experiment”.
A feeble attempt to link distinct fields but kudos for trying. Love this blog, btw.
And hear hear with broadswordcallin. You want a clean room? JFDI.

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