Chaos Practice

I feel bad for chaos. It’s such an important part of the universe, yet nobody seems to want it around. We live in a world that values order, or at the very least, predictability. Whenever the systems or environments we rely on behave differently, and chaos starts to emerge, we feel we must exert our will to make it stop, to impose a sense of order once more. But we can never actually be rid of chaos, and I’m glad for that.

Chaos may be messy and unpredictable, but that’s also what makes it reliable. It’s what makes me grateful for chaos—I know I can rely on it to keep me from getting too comfortable.

In the core mathematical concept of chaos theory lies a simple, observable phenomenon: that small changes in the position or composition of a chaotic system make a big difference over time. That’s a pretty good explanation for what happened to me over the past six weeks or so, as I made slight deviations from my normal routines and habits to focus on big project deadlines and a conference presentation; suddenly a little pile of lower priority work I couldn’t give attention to has grown into digital and physical mounds of information like something out of a “Hoarders” television special.

There are piles and lists and notes and folders and sketches to be sorted, magazines and books and stacks of reports to be read. In a nutshell, my office is a mess, and all my productive habits have fallen apart. As of this writing, I have 2,026 unprocessed work emails in my account—unprocessed meaning they are either in my inbox or in one of a few different “action” folders waiting to have actions performed that have not yet been performed. Among these messages, 456 are marked un-read and 83 are flagged as important. And that’s just my work email. I’m afraid to even look at the numbers in my personal email accounts right now.

For a few days, I was really stressed out about about the piles of things left undone. But then I realized that this is exactly what I need right now. In fact, for the first time in my life, I feel genuinely excited to be this far in the weeds. Why? Because I have been here before and I’m confident I know how to get out.

In the past, situations like this were perpetual for me. Things piled up, and I would deal with them as much as I could, shift things around, throw some stuff away, but I never quite managed to have a system that prevented things from piling up in the first place. I would make some improvements here and there, try new approaches, but I wasn’t thoughtful about it and frankly my actions were usually more the result of deadline-fueled panic more than mindful planning.

But all of that is what led to me taking stock of my goals and tools and habits, and ultimately to my “Human at Work” guidelines for success. And as it happens, I have a need to revisit that material now as I prepare for a new keynote talk for the HippoCamp writer’s conference, and an extended “Human At Work(shop)” for HighEdWeb 2016 — what better way to review my material than to try it out on myself first?

But of course this time it will be different. I have the advantage of already knowing where to start, and how to figure out what to prioritize. I know how to get to inbox zero within a week, and more importantly, I know how I can stay there over the weeks ahead.

Staying productive now starts with time for excavation and re-evaluation of almost everything around me. I have to clean up and review what chaos has left behind and get back to the habits that I know work for me. But I know chaos will be back, and next time I sense it approaching I know how to prepare, because I know I can’t fight it. No, the best approach is to embrace the relationship we have and invite chaos to dance.

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