This week we’re talking about staying productive even when we’re surrounded by chaos.
Even in chaotic times, we can thrive by prioritizing what’s most important
Most of us deal with multiple competing priorities: professional, personal, civic, and more. Whether you’re in the child-rearing stage, juggling schedules for yourself, your kids, and your partner, or in the midst of your education, or building a career in a demanding field, or later in life caring for an aging parent–or some combination of the above–life can seem chaotic at times, with any sort of sustainable balance feeling out of the question.
Add to that the fact that we live in difficult times, when bad news dominates the media locally, nationally, and around the world and can make us feel uncertain and unsafe. How do we stay productive when chaos seems the rule of the day?
Understanding Chaos and Its Impact
Definition: complete disorder and confusion. Webster’s defines it as a state of utter confusion.
One article says it this way: “In Greek mythology, Chaos was the dark abyss from which everything came–a beginning point, not a place of refuge. In everyday life, however, chaos is that groundless, rudderless state that results from endlessly (and mindlessly) chasing after things–sensations, thrills, experiences, objects, people, prestige, power, or even comfort. In a life ruled by chaos, busy-ness means everything. But chaos makes it hard to put a coherent life together, for our energies never coalesce to push us in a purposeful, disciplined direction.”
We all experience it sometimes
“there are times and seasons of life when organization and calm seem to go out the window and chaos and disorganization take over every inch of your life, right? Times where no matter what you do and how hard you try, you just can’t seem to find that rhythm you had going…
Notebooks, earbuds, and calendars scattered on a desk.
Times where the urgent things take over and absolutely must be done, so the everyday things get left in the dust and forgotten about… Until all of a sudden, you look around and see nothing but chaos and mayhem and disorder and all you want to do is scream!”
There are seasons of life that are almost chaotic by nature: new baby; new job; new home; unexpected death of someone you love; busy seasons at work (every December for me and other real estate lawyers). Chaos can come from good things–especially multiple good things happening at the same time
Whether the chaos comes from good or not-so-good sources, it affects our ability to get things done, because the chaos-causing events or circumstances consume our time, our energy, and our attention–as one writer put it: “taking over every thought, every emotion, and taking up every ounce of energy you have to give.”
Common challenges women face during chaotic periods
- Feelings of guilt or shame — we think we ought to be able to control things (but the truth is, we can’t)
- Chaos breeds chaos — it can snowball as we get behind on our work, or we struggle to keep up with maintaining order in our space
- Anxiety and distraction when things feel out of control (not just the events, but the house or, if the chaos is at work, your workspace)
“The noise of chaos often drowns out our internal voices of meaning and connection.” [from Between Chaos and Discipline: A Path to Serenity]
What can we do about it? I’m no expert, so I did some research and thought I’d summarize what I learned, the recommendations to manage our minds and cultivate a productive mindset, to apply the time management techniques and tools we’ve learned, to create an environment that supports focus and calm even in chaotic times, to take care of ourselves, and to set boundaries and seek support when needed.
1. Cultivate a Productive Mindset
A positive and proactive mindset is always more productive than a negative and reactive one.
One coach writes about a lesson she learned during her career in corporate finance: “the importance of staying calm during chaos if one wanted to stay productive and meet deadlines without going into a flatline.”
Ask yourself, what good can Ifind in the situation? Can you think of it as an opportunity to grow or to learn something new?
Cultivate resilience and maintain focus amidst chaos
One writer defines resilience as “your ability to adapt to stressful situations and bounce back from obstacles, setbacks, and unexpected outcomes.”
When you’re surrounded by chaos, it’s all the more important to manage the stress. As one article said, “You can’t remain productive and calm if you, too, are stressed out and feeling full of chaos. Learning to manage your personal stress and find ways to lower it when it is high are essential.”
This writer recommends deep breathing exercises, meditation, and walking outside to help reduce the stress you’re feeling. She says, “One of my favorite ways to do this is to gently tap my heart with my left hand fingers, breathe deeply and affirm ‘All is well’.”
Breathe. When we are stressed, our bodies tense and we breathe more shallowly. Simply pausing for a minute to relax our bodies and breathe deeply can improve the way we feel and how we can cope with what’s going on around us.
To counteract the distracted thinking that comes from chaotic surroundings, intentionally ground yourself in the moment:
“Things that repeat themselves constantly either turn into routine, which can have a very dulling effect; or you can try to make an exercise of awareness out of the most menial task, and already you are starting on your spiritual path.” [from Chaos in Everyday Life, About Cleaning and Caring]
Intentionally slow down and stay present with whatever you’re doing at the moment.
To keep yourself focused on what matters, consider journaling for a few minutes each day about it. Questions to write about: What matters most right now? What can I do about it today?
Focus on what you can control. Spend as little time as possible thinking about the things you have no control over. You can’t always control your circumstances but you can control how you think about them and what you do in them. What we can control: our thoughts, our attitude, our responses to what’s happening around us.
2. Lean on helpful time management strategies
Rely on the basic time/task management tools –
- A short, prioritized task list every day
- To make sure your to-do list is realistic, one writer recommends using the 1-3-5 approach, limiting your daily to-do list to no more than 9 items: 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things.
- The Pomodoro method–working in short, defined bursts with breaks between
- Simple meals, with grocery delivery if it’s available in your area
- Do only the basics of home cleaning (this is not the time to deep clean the garage)
- Ruthlessly prune your calendar and outside commitments. Focus only on what’s most important right now–you can always resume the other stuff when things settle down
Recommendations from the writer of an article called From Chaos to Control (check out the article for more detailed explanations):
- “Start with a plan.
- Schedule breaks.
- Avoid multitasking.
- Delegate tasks.
- Use technology.
- Take care of yourself.
- Celebrate your accomplishments.”
3. Create an Environment that Supports Focus and Calm
Our physical environment has a significant impact on productivity.
“Although you may not realize it, a cluttered workspace is a major source of stress and unproductive behavior. With this said, decluttering your office space is the perfect way to gain control of your workspace and daily tasks as well as keep track of everything added onto your plate with no warning. This will allow you to be significantly more productive and also create a workspace that induces productivity even on the most hectic of days as well.” [from 6 Essential Productivity Tips for any Chaotic Work Schedule]
Note: This is an example of the value of focusing on what you can control
Declutter and organize. If this feels like just one more task piled on an already overwhelming load, keep it simple: Grab a box or basket and put everything (from your desk, countertop, dining table, whatever) into it, and tuck it away into a closet or the garage, to be sorted and dealt with when you have time and energy. This gives you an uncluttered, clear environment to function in, immediately reducing the stress that comes from working or living in clutter.
Do what you can to minimize distractions–both external and internal
In Staying Productive in Chaos, the writer recommends the following:
- “Turn off as many alerts and notifications as possible, at least for part of each day.
- Book appointments with yourself to work on high priority tasks and projects. In environments with shared calendars, this stops people from booking into your “whitespace.”
- Have meeting rhythms with teammates and encourage everyone to batch their discussion items rather than interrupting each other whenever the need arises.
- Have a single, prioritized task list and work through it starting with the highest value tasks.
- Pay attention to your space – close the door, move items unrelated to the task at hand out of view, and be comfortable.”
Use the tactics we’ve discussed recently for dealing with digital clutter.
4. Take care of yourself–always important for productivity, even more so during a chaotic time
- Strip your schedule and your to-do list of as much as you can to allow sufficient time for sleep
- Move your body
- Double down on eating healthy and staying hydrated
- Carve out time–even if it’s only 10 minutes–for something you enjoy: a cup of coffee on the front porch, a chat with a friend, a chapter of a book you’re reading just for fun
- Use mindfulness techniques and meditation to slow your mind and heart
5. Set Boundaries and Seek Support
Set boundaries to protect productivity–even if it’s just closing your door and turning off your phone for 15 minutes to allow yourself a moment to breathe.
Seek support from loved ones, colleagues, or mentors. You don’t have to navigate this alone.
I decided to do this episode because of a conversation I had with another woman about the difficulty of being productive–at work or at home–when things are chaotic. When I searched the topic online, I was surprised by the number of resources out there talking about this very issue. In case you’d like more ideas, I’ve linked to several of these resources below. Obviously it’s a thing many, many people are thinking about.
I also noticed that every resource I looked at in preparing for this episode talked about many of the same strategies for staying productive (and sane) during chaotic times: focusing on what you can control; structuring your to-do list strategically; setting realistic expectations for yourself and others; setting up simple routines that provide structure in the chaos; taking frequent breaks; taking care of your body, mind, and spirit.
I love how one writer summarized this in a post on Medium:
“no one expects peak productivity from you when you’re dealing with uncertainty. So why expect that from yourself? There’s no need to be too hard on yourself. Simply aim for being functional during a crisis. That’s a huge win because you’re making progress. If you do nothing, you deteriorate—physically, mentally, financially, spiritually.
Uncertainty often paralyzes us. It’s not the chaos that’s disrupting your life, it’s the lack of movement.
See chaos and uncertainty as a trigger that forces you to grow and become better.”
What do you think?
Resources and Link
- 6 Strategies for Maintaining Momentum in Chaotic Times | Harvard Extension School
- How To Stay Productive During Chaotic Times – It Starts With Coffee – Blog by Neely Moldovan — Lifestyle, Beauty, Motherhood, Wellness, Travel
- How To Be More Productive During Chaotic Times: 5 Simple Strategies. – Holistic Life by Kate
- 3 Tips To Stay Sane & Productive In A Chaotic World | by Darius Foroux | Stoic Letter | Medium
- How to be Productive When Your Life is in Chaos | Routine
- How to Get and Remain Organized During Chaotic Times
- Time Management Strategies for a Chaotic World – MPUG
- Staying Productive in Chaos
- 6 Essential Productivity Tips for Any Chaotic Work Schedule – Double A Paper Supplier
- From Chaos to Control: The Ultimate Guide to Productivity – Wilson Printing USA
- How To Be Productive When Your Life Is In Chaos – Darius Foroux
- Productivity vs. Chaos: How to Hit a Balance – Writer Unboxed
- From Chaos to Productivity – 7 Tips! – Optimum Consulting
- Keep Calm & Productive in Chaos | Karmic Ally Coaching
- Hazelden Store: Between Chaos and Discipline: A Path to Serenity Article 43
- Chaos in Everyday Life, About Cleaning and Caring – Waldorf Library
- What Do You Do When the Chaos of Life Surrounds You? – Inspiration in the Everyday
- 5 Tips To Find Zen In The Chaos Of Everyday Life – I’m From Denver
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