Spoon Theory: A Beginner’s Guide to Energy Accounting

Spoon Theory: A Beginners Guide

I first heard about Spoon Theory well over a year ago from a good friend of mine. At the time I did not know if I was autistic, but we were talking about the type of tiredness you feel in your soul and how hard it makes it to keep on top of everything. Now I don’t mean the “I did too much exercise today” type of tiredness, I mean the “the idea of answering the phone now is just impossible and traumatic, and my inability to do so is causing me physical pain but I still cannot do it” type of tiredness. She introduced me to a whole new way of looking at it. Spoon Theory. Thanks JA. Spoon Theory has changed the way I treat myself, the way I plan my days, and has led me to a real increase in happiness. 

So what is Spoon Theory?
Drawings of various spoons on teal coloured background. Wooden, metal, plastic spoons, a laddle.

Spoon theory is a way of looking at how you manage your energy across the day. It’s energy accounting.

Every person has a drawer full of spoons, and it is periodically refilled. The spoons represent the energy you have available to face the day. These spoons need to cover your needs, be they physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, sensory or anything in between. A lot of people online would say that there are different types of spoons for different needs, and I can see why, but for me it gets too complicated at that point!

So we all have a spoon allowance, and everyone’s is different, and you can ‘spend’ your spoon allowance on anything you need or want. So for example, going to the supermarket could take a spoon, so could making a phone call, a work meeting could take two, having an argument with your boss could take more.

In an ideal world we would all have as many spoons as we could need, and your drawer would refill every night. Really though, many of us do not have all the spoons we need, as we need them. The solution to this is the same as any type of accounting, it is budgeting. You can borrow a few from tomorrow, you can even store up a few, but in the end you will need to balance those books.

Where does it come from?

It’s not an academic theory. My online research shows that it was initially put out there by a woman who was trying to explain what living with Lupus was like to a friend. 

Why use Spoon Theory?

Why use it? There are three key reasons Spoon Theory has been so helpful to me. Maybe it can do the same for you.

Firstly, I have learned that I need to manage my energy differently. It turns out, after 30-odd years of trying, that just because there is theoretically enough time on my planner to do everything I need to do, it does not mean there is energy with which to do it.

Secondly, it gives me vocabulary to describe my energy state. I used to wish I had energy bars for everyone to see, like in a computer game. This is my version of energy bars! When I hit that wall and need to round up that shopping trip, when I need to not answer the phone, or I need a couple of hours to recharge, or cannot go somewhere, all I need to say is how my spoons are.

Finally, it gives me the permission needed to actually make allowances for myself (more on this later).

Where Do All The Spoons Go?

That’s the real question. They go on everything you do each day. Just look at two activities we probably all do each day, getting up in the morning, and eating. When you break them down into all their subtasks, it can get really complicated. The more energy each part takes, the more spoons disappear from your allowance. 

Eating: Planning, shopping, paying, preparing, cooking, storing, serving, finding cutlery, pouring a drink to go with it, finding a napkin, clearing up, leftovers.

Getting up in the morning: Turning off the alarm, getting up, finding slippers, brushing your teeth, washing your face, dressing, calling the family.  

Spoons are used for work, for school, for family, for commuting, for shopping, for cleaning, for cooking, for planning, for socialising, for just being awake, for watching tv, for phone calls, for emails, for trips to the dentist, for remembering to put the bins out, for having a fight with your sister, for applying for a job, for dealing with the unexpected leak from the shower. The list is endless. Pain uses spoons. Sensory processing also uses spoons, lots and lots of spoons. Everything you do, everything you think, everything you feel, uses spoons. 

For me, when things have been planned, and thus budgeted for energy wise, I am often okay, the spoons will last the way I need them to. I try to keep some spoons in reserve for emergencies, but I don’t tend to have many left over.  

What happens when the Spoons run out?

When anything unexpected happens, anything I had not allowed for, the whole budget can collapse. A bad phone call, a good phone call, a missed meeting, a surprise gift, a call from the creche, an unexpected visitor, any of these things can unbalance the whole. Sensory overload, mental overwhelm, all swallow up spoons. 

Learning more about Autism and Spoons, I have come to understand my autistic shutdowns are the energy equivalent of “insufficient funds”. 

The other pattern I have noticed is energy ‘price’ fluctuations, which mean the amount spoons hold can change quite a bit.

4 colourful spoons on mint green background. Text: Insufficient Spoons. To complete the translaction please try again next week.

Why is something that I can do today without any problem suddenly impossible tomorrow? The way you have used your spoons so far today, will dictate how many you have left this evening, how many you can bring forward to tomorrow. Sometimes there are just no more spoons. I never seems to have enough spoons, I am not sure how much of that is a personality thing and how much is an autism thing, but for me, budgeting them has become essential. 

How are Spoon Theory and Autism linked?

Budgeting energy, as a concept, is what makes spoon theory so useful for autistic people. Looking at energy accounting, spoons, rationing, refilling, saving, etc., you can see how helpful it can be to help us all to manage our day-to-day experiences.

As I said, I have come to realise that spoons deficits lead to many of my shutdowns. When I have spent too many, and borrowed as many from my future as I can, and I have nothing left to give, I burn out and go into shutdown. Shutdown can last hours, or days, and I cannot get out of it until it is done. Borrowing future spoons can keep me trapped there as it means I will not have enough tomorrow either.

Shutdowns have so many implications for me, from simple things like not eating well, to more serious ones like my mental health or missing work, or my very worst, not supporting a friend who is grieving, even though you know how much she needs you.

Using spoon theory gives me the permission I need to ration my energy on a day-to-day basis. When I need to say that I need a few hours away from my lovely family, or that there will be no cooking tonight, or that I will not go to a specific event, or that I will pay extra for click and collect instead of doing the shopping. It lets me make those allowances for myself. Even though the spoons may all be needed elsewhere, it allows me ring fence some for later. It sounds so obvious, but I have never really done that. I always felt obliged to keep moving if I could, and the results were shutdowns. I hadn’t even made the connection between them before I started to think in terms of my spoons.

It has also been useful in terms of thinking how to balance my sensory needs. So for example, if I have had a sensory intensive morning, then I now know I will be on reduced spoons for the rest of the day, and can plan that in.

Where can you get more Spoons?

No amount of coffee recharges my spoons. I have tried. I also have tried chocolate, Chinese food, crisps, ice-cream, to no avail. For me, the most efficient way to recharge my spoons is sleeping. I also find that planning reduces the spoons costs for lots of things (e.g. work). I have even discovered a few of my activities are spoon neutral activities (e.g. reading). 

I am currently trying to figure out how to use today’s spoons in a way that won’t shrink tomorrow’s. I will update this post if and when I figure that one out! The final place to get more is to use someone else’s, just ask for them, as in “Hi Bob, would you please make the dinner?” It is okay to do that!  

Autistic spoons: I have also come to realise that certain things that can recharge spoons for a neurotypical person, such as a trip to the pub, or a dinner party, will take spoons from me. Some things will take some spoons for today and reduce the allowance for the next two days too. It’s very much about learning how spoons apply to your own autistic self. 

The part I found most astonishing was when I realised that all those years of making planner after planner, spreadsheet and spreadsheet, were wasted! They were never going to work for me. Time and energy are different animals and one does automatically follow the other.

How can you manage your Spoons?

Everyone approaches budgeting differently. For me, I had to move away from time accounting to an energy cost accounting system. Instead of budgeting two hours to work meetings, I budget for how much those meetings will likely take from my spoons budget based on the meeting location, numbers, topics, etc. Knowing that cost lets me figure out what else can be covered today. The spoons allowances and costs are completely subjective.  

Purple icons of a quill and a calendar

I use a planner approach called a bullet journal to manage my day to day. 

Bullet Journaling helps me to 

  • Allocate tasks without allocating time
  • Move tasks from day to day
  • Keep tasks, dates and notes all in one spot
  • Track things like habits & interests
  • Forward plan for weeks or months if needs be

The most important part of all this is that you need to learn to understand your own behaviour. To budget your spoons you need information. Monitor your patterns, look at the cause and effect, and be kind to yourself. You owe yourself at least that much.  

Who Can Use Spoon Theory?

Spoon Theory has spread well beyond its origin now, really it is everywhere once you start to look.

I have seen a lot of discussion saying that it should only be used by ‘disabled’ or ‘neurodiverse’ people, but I do not think I agree with that. I completely understand the point they are making, an autistic person will typically have far fewer spoons available than a neurotypical person and the difference there, much like any form of privilege, needs to be acknowledged and allowed for. In fact, I have come to realise that a well-stocked spoon drawer is another kind of privilege, and like other types can layer advantage on advantage for some, but disadvantage others. That’s a whole different post though.

To me the social model of disability turns the perspective outwards; we are not inherently impaired or disabled, we are simply living in a society and in circumstances that have not been set up to enable us. To me this adds some fluidity to the discussion. This fluidity makes me feel that the argument that spoon theory is only for some people is simply too narrow and doesn’t allow for the situations people find themselves in enough. What about a neurotypical person going through a bad break up or recovering from a car accident or who has developed chronic depression? People’s categories change all the time, the lines can get very blurry. At different points in life most people will have to live with reduced spoon allowances and spending more spoons on basic necessities. Absolutely many of us will have lower average spoon levels than others. 

Allowing that there can be a huge difference in the number of spoons any given person has and needs, and this needs to be understood as a core principle; I believe that as long as everyone is respectful, and we all understand it as an expression of how each person is experiencing their world, it can be a brilliant resource for everyone.

A selection of spoons of different colours and sizes.
"all spoons" by skinnylaminx is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sally Anne is an autistic academic, mentor, and mother. Her interests are her family, her books, the housing market, the environment and tech. She is recently diagnosed (though had suspected for a while). Through this blog she wants to connect with the autistic community and understand herself better. She believes in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and if she finds a button, she will need to press it!

Sally Anne

Sally Anne is an autistic academic, mentor, and mother. Her interests are her family, her books, the housing market, the environment and tech. She is recently diagnosed (though had suspected for a while). Through this blog she wants to connect with the autistic community and understand herself better. She believes in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and if she finds a button, she will need to press it!

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