Mental Energy vs. Physical Energy

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about laziness.

I’ve been accused of laziness on more than one occasion in my lifetime. And when I don’t accomplish my goals (which all involve physical exertion–like cleaning house), I mentally berate myself for my laziness.

Yet, when I examine what I do on a “lazy” day, I begin to question the assumption that I’m lazy. I don’t spend much time playing games or watching TV or movies. These days, when I read, it’s either to study the way other people write in my genre, or research for a writing project, or it’s to improve me mentally and/or spiritually. I don’t spend a lot of time on the internet when I’m at home because we only have dial-up, and it’s annoyingly slow; if I’m online, it’s specifically to do research or something else which needs to be done at that moment.

I spend most of my free time working on my writing. With my publication deadline looming, I’m trying to finish up my edits and formatting, I had to make my cover, and I’m still debating the blurb for the back cover. Plus I’m trying to market my blog ahead of my book’s publication in order to generate some interest in it. So I am spending a lot of time studying blog marketing (A-List Blogging Bootcamp has some really good information for free), checking out other people’s sites, and trying to improve my site. Oh, and I’m also working on building my website and I’m moving information from here to the new site.

I do a lot–it’s just not physical work.

Coming to that realization has made me think that perhaps all people have two types of energy–mental and physical–and they’re not interchangeable.

Mental vs. Physical

Think about people who are introverted versus extroverted. You can try to force yourself to be your opposite, but you will be unhappy doing do, and the longer you do it, the more likely you are to end up depressed. (Susan Cain has an excellent 20 minute lecture on why it’s okay to be an introvert.)

Some people have excessive amounts of physical energy. They’re known as “hyperactive.” Some people (like me) have excessive amounts of mental energy. We tend to be called “lazy.” Most everyone else has a balance between the two (“average”), although some people have excessive amounts of both (Benjamin Franklin comes to mind); these people with endless ideas and the energy to accomplish them are called “geniuses.” (Of course, it’s possible to be a genius with only one type of energy, but most of the people who truly become epic and go down in history have huge amounts of both.)

I think the number of people who have almost unlimited amounts of both physical and mental energy are a rarity. And yet, I think our society (American, in particular), expects everyone to strive for that ideal.

Do All the Things!

Take, for instance, Ivy League colleges. You are not only expected to have perfect grades (which require a lot of mental energy to achieve), but you’re also expected to play a sport, and/or a musical instrument, and/or do volunteer work or otherwise be active in your community (which requires a lot of physical energy). In short, they require you to have lots of energy to do very opposite things: sit and think, and be on your feet and busy. Is it any wonder that so many kids, when pressured into doing both, rebel, get addicted to drugs, have nervous breakdowns, or commit suicide?

Even when parents aren’t aiming for Ivy League, many kids find themselves pressed into sports when they’d just as soon sit on the sidelines and read for fun. We want our children to be “well-rounded,” never giving any consideration to the fact that they may not be cut-out for sports (or higher education).

What if we thought of our energy type as a personality type–something which really can’t be altered? What if we identified this in children before high school and shaped their educations and extra-curricular activities appropriately? What if we stopped medicating hyper children and stopped shaming the “lazy” ones–in short, stopped trying to force people into a balance which doesn’t naturally exist in them–and instead worked with it?

Work With, Not Against

Here’s a crazy idea: divide the class into hyper and sedentary children. (Children who are somewhere in the middle can choose where they want to go, can be rotated between the two, or there can be a third group for them. Most schools have multiple classes per grade level, so restructuring the kids in the classes shouldn’t be a problem or cost money.)

For the hyper children, they start their day off with sports; the sedentary children start with lessons. Once the hyper children have some of their physical energy drained off, they can come in and have lessons. Another break for sports/gym/outside playtime will be necessary in the afternoon. The sedentary children will get the minimum amount of daily physical activity after lunch (yoga, tai chi, or other activities which are done slowly and individually should be preferred over things like kickball or running), then they go back to study. They can spend their late afternoon (while the hyper children are still learning lessons) in activities like chess club, debate club,independent reading, etc.

Imagine high school where hyper teens spend more time learning those subjects which are more likely to be a benefit to their future careers such as science–with a focus on invention rather than long-term research–technology (again, focusing on innovation rather than something sedentary and tedious like programming), business, government, communications, performance art, and trades (like carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, farming, etc.). Teens who like to spend their time reading and thinking would have more time in static arts, music, literature, scientific research, computer programming, etc.

How much less wailing and gnashing of teeth would there be if parents stopped trying to make their hyper child sit down and have piano lessons and didn’t push their bookworm to play football?

Telling people to find an area and concentrate in it might sound odd coming from me, the aspiring polymath, but there’s a difference between knowing things and doing things. I am fascinated with frontier/self-sufficient skills: gardening, raising chickens, cooking from scratch, making everything by hand, etc., but while I like to read about these things and admire the people who do them, I’ve never managed to muster the physical energy required to do them–just like I like a clean house, but I hate doing anything remotely related to cleaning. But I spent about 2.5 months sewing something like 14,000 beads onto my wedding dress, one at a time. Can you imagine a physically-active person sitting down to do that?


The simple truth of the matter is that I’m a chair jockey. I conquer all things which require much ass time. And when I have a story or idea in my head, I’m mentally hyper; I have trouble concentrating on other tasks until I complete my idea. Sometimes it feels like my brain is just brimming-full and I have to spend time siphoning things off of it. To hell with mopping the kitchen floor. I can no more stand to waste time doing some physical labor that than a hyper person–who is feeling full of pep–can sit down for a 3 hour lecture  on global economics. (Okay, so I don’t know anyone who would want to sit through that, but you get the idea.)

That isn’t to say I never get off my ass and do stuff. I have had some legendary marathon cleaning sessions–even entire cleaning weekends!–where I’m full of physical energy and have to get it out reorganizing the entire garage. Of course, I’m sure there are hyper people who can recall the time they sat peacefully through a 3-hour movie or managed to write an entire term paper all in one sitting. It’s not that these tasks are physically impossible, it’s just that the energy to do them is lacking most of the time.

So, I think the best thing for me is to throw all of my energy into writing and long for the day when I will make enough money writing that I can hire someone to come clean my house.

6 comments on “Mental Energy vs. Physical Energy

  1. This is a very though-provoking post, thank you.
    I think you’re absolutely right that schools could do a lot more to treat children as individuals rather than having a one-size-fits-all model. My sister relocated her young family from here in the UK to Boston, Mass. last year, largely because she wanted her kids to go to a great independent school there (Sudbury Valley).
    On the other hand, having two ‘middle’ children myself, who both thrive on physical and mental activity (as much as you can tell at 20 months and 3! I guess maybe hyper is a given for under fives, although many of my friends’ children do tend towards one or other extreme) I would be very much against labelling them as physical or mental until at least late teens. Largely because they have to learn that, even if they’re drawn towards physical or mental activity, they won’t always get the choice to avoid the other in life (unless they invent something that is going to make them very rich!)
    As you say, no matter how hard it is to get motivated sometimes, housework still has to be done. (Oh to have a cleaner… That might just become my new motivator to finish my novel and get published.)

    • Keri Peardon says:

      My mother said that before I was born, I would get in one position in the womb and lay that way for days without moving. This was both painful when I was angled so that my feet were in her rib cage, and alarming (because she thought I had died in utero. When I was born–despite a very difficult birth, which involved pulling me out with forceps–I didn’t cry. My mother kept accusing the doctor of killing me; she didn’t believe I was alive until they handed me to her and I looked at her like, “What?”

      With the exception of a bad case of croup, I hardly ever cried and always slept through the night. In fact, my mother thought something was wrong with me because I slept TOO much.

      As a child, I played so quietly in my room or out in my sandbox that relatives would forget about me for hours at a time, then suddenly remember and rush to check on me–finding me exactly where they left me.

      In short, my propensity to sit quietly was well-developed before birth and has never changed, LOL.

      You’re right that we can never be exclusive one thing or the other–life won’t let us–but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier on ourselves. For instance, studies have found that children and adults who are hyper score much better on tests and are more productive at school and at work if they have a standing desk or sit on an exercise ball. The muscle usage required with either of these helps siphon off extra “nervous” energy and allows them to concentrate better. And, oddly enough, I like mowing the lawn because sitting on a mower and going around in circles is so mindless that I can spend my time thinking. I could, in theory, trade out that labor with a friend or neighbor who hates to mow, but doesn’t mind very physical activities, like mopping and vacuuming.

      I think you have a lot of possibilities open up if you just accept you are the way you are, play to your strengths as much as possible, and find ways to work around your weaknesses. That sounds like a “duh!” sort of statement, but I think the reality is that most of us don’t do that. We see our strengths as problems (hence medicating the hyperactive and calling the passive “lazy”) and our weaknesses as something we need to “fix,” and we can accomplish both if we just have exercise our willpower. And when we don’t “fix” ourselves, we (and/or others) think ourselves to be failures.

  2. Jim Maher says:

    I think there is absolutely something to be said for not pushing kids into sports. Whatever happened to just playing free? We keep hearing these stories of these ‘great’ athletes that started bouncing a ball before they could eat solid food, but when were they given a chance to run like crazy, without an end goal in mind?
    We rely far too much on medication and the pursuit of normal plus (don’t be weird, but be better than normal, a bit, but not too much, because society will get you for that, too). I think accepting who you are, like you have said, is the first step to happiness. Good post, thanks.

    • Keri Peardon says:

      Someone was telling me last week that her grandson played 4 different sports over the course of the year, and he told his mother that he wanted to stop playing soccer because he didn’t like it, and he never had any time to do something other than sports.

      It made me think about my childhood and the fact that most kids did not play sports. I never played one before I was in 8th grade. I think there was one Little League in the entire county (although there were possibly two; one for each major city) and I think there were three pee-wee football teams (one of the smaller cities had a team, I think). There was no soccer. All the schools did have a basketball team, but our season pretty much consisted of playing the other three teams and that was it (at least for my little school). They practiced for a little while after school (no more than an hour) one or two days a week. At least one game was always held during the day, so the entire school could go and watch it. I did run track for a few years, and that consisted of running laps during P.E. for a couple of weeks before the meet. People ran track namely to get out of school for a day during the meet, lol. After that one meet, that was it. Maybe the best kids from the bigger schools went to Chattanooga to compete in regional meets, but we never did.

      Except for a few boys who played multiple sports, most of my classmates spent more time participating in chorus than playing a sport. And yet there were only two fat kids out of my class of 32.

      But our days were filled with playing outside. Our parents had to make us come inside to eat and take a bath (we also didn’t have homework before 4th or 5th grade, so your afternoons were your own). When my stepfather would mow, I would push the clippings into lines and lay out a floor plan for a house. It always started with one room, then I had to have additions. Depending on how high the grass had been before it was cut, I could get some pretty epic floor plans laid out in the yard. (Funny enough, my favorite part of playing The Sims has always been designing houses, lol.)

      Nintendo didn’t come out until I was 10, and I never had more than a few games for it (most people didn’t). It was a toy like any other toy; something to be played with for a little while, then it was time to move on to something else. We didn’t have internet access until I was nearly 17.

      Today parents seem very paranoid about their kids playing outside–even when they live in a nice subdivision. Although, I must confess, the average backyard in a subdivision is very boring, because it’s nothing but a half acre of sod grass. I grew up on nearly a full acre, which backed up against a mountain. We had lots of trees (I could climb one at my grandmother’s house) and weeds and bushes. I played house under trees and bushes and collected wildflowers and seeds and sycamore balls and pine cones and rocks for “food” and for “decoration” for my house. With only brief periods of exception, I played by myself because there weren’t any other kids around.

      I’m almost certainly an introvert by birth, but growing up alone probably intensified that. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Certainly being a writer requires the ability to spend large amounts of time alone. I was almost certainly creative by birth, too, and playing outside without toys (and even inside with toys that didn’t think, move, or talk back to me) probably intensified that ability to imagine other people and worlds, and to see all the possibilities in a stick or a leaf.

      I do wonder about the generation graduating college and high school–kids that probably didn’t grow up outside and who had toys who did all the thinking for them. I really wonder if we will see a drop in creativity and art as a result.

  3. […] /* */ Crafts Ideas For KidsMental Energy vs. Physical Energy […]

  4. PS says:

    Excellent article. I stumbled upon it while wondering my retired mom has so much physical energy while I have such little (VP, two kids, volunteer).

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