Spoon Theory: An alternative metaphor

If you’re reading this blog, it’s a fair bet you know what spoon theory is. You’re probably a spoonie yourself, or a close relative of one. However, just in case you fell through a wormhole and landed on this page by accident (but are intrigued enough to keep reading), here’s a quick summary, courtesy of wikipedia:

The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. “Spoons” are a visual representation used as a unit of measure in order to quantify how much energy a person has throughout a given day. Each activity requires a given number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person “recharges” through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.This metaphor is used to describe the planning that many people have to do to conserve and ration their energy reserves to accomplish their activities of daily living.

Quote Source

I’ve used that quote before in a previous explanation of what Spoon Theory is.

This post is not about what Spoon Theory is. This post is about what Spoon Theory could have been.


The spoon theory was apparently invented during a conversation between someone with Lupus and her friend. She needed a metaphor for “units of energy” and they were in a diner and there were all these spoons about, so… spoons. This metaphor was seized upon by the spoonie community in general and is now very popular and widely quoted.

But I think we missed a much better, more obvious one: mobile phones.

These days, everyone is intimately familiar with the idea of battery life. Most people have a better sense of their phone’s average battery life than their own resting heart rate. It’s even entered our vocabulary – I don’t know what it was like before mobile phones, but I doubt people said things like “I need to recharge” as often. I’m sure people would have understood them if they had said that, but I doubt it was as common as phrase as it is now. Feel free to correct me if you have personal experience otherwise.

But think about; you’re trying to explain to someone about chronic illness, and they’re struggling to to get it. So you mention battery life on a phone. Suddenly, it make sense! People only have a certain amount of energy in a day before they shut down and need to recharge.

Thus is the limit of Spoon Theory.

But with Mobile Theory we can take it further.

We can point out how some models of phone innately have a longer battery life than others.

We can point out how some tasks are more power-hungry than others.

We can point out how two different phones might have equal battery life, but different processors, so the same task takes one phone longer and consumes more energy.

We can point out how age or damage might cause a mobile to struggle to hold a charge, so it loses power even if it doesn’t do anything.

I think Mobile Theory offers a lot more room for expansion than Spoon Theory, allowing you to extend the metaphor in different directions and dive a lot deeper into the issues involved. Spoon Theory is inherently limited as a metaphor, and whilst it is certainly simple, it can be difficult to build on whilst maintaining a consistent metaphor.


I understand why spoons were picked. It was a convenient visual metaphor at the time, and she never expected it to blow up and become as popular as it did. Certainly when you are describing it to someone in person, it could be good to give them a bunch of spoons to physically hold, as much stronger visual cue to what’s left.

I can’t help but think that part of the reason electronic devices were missed was because of the time spoon theory was conceived. This essay was copyrighted in 2003, but I’m assuming that didn’t happen immediately after the event. If spoon theory’s genesis was around 2000-ish, then less than 50% of households in the UK had a mobile phone. Maybe we weren’t as used to constantly being hyper-aware of battery life yet. Maybe phrases like “recharge” and “buffering” hadn’t entered our everyday vocabulary yet, weren’t yet thrown around so easily and freely.

Of course, if I’m wrong and she copyrighted the phrase the same year she coined it, then over 70% of households in the UK had a mobile phone. No excuses then πŸ˜›

Note: I have no idea what country this lady is from, UK or US or even a country that doesn’t begin with U (imagine!)



4 thoughts on “Spoon Theory: An alternative metaphor

  1. We use “spell slots” in my household. A D&D wizard gets only so many spell slots, but fewer innately of the highest level than lower levels. You can run out of low-level ones first, which is how sometimes you can pull of going to work, but then are too tired to shower. You can accidentally overcoming on low-level things and then be forced to “waste” your high-level slits because you overcast your smaller spells out of a high-level slot (making a frozen pizza = a level one spell slot. Making a homemade one with hand-tossed crust = a first level spell cast out of a fifth level slot.) And, well, some wizards are just higher level. I’ll never have the 9th level “scuba dive” spell. It’s of limited wider use among non-geeks, but it might appeal to video gamers too πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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