In Defense of Chaos

I am an agent of chaos.

When I first learned about the D&D concept of alignment, I immediately understood that I was chaotic good with a strong emphasis on chaos. In high school one of my favorite quotes was this gem from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Freedom is one of my core values. When I was nine, I pulled my own thumb off to get free from the cage formed by the chain link fence I had run into with my go-kart.

If I start to see a structure underlying my actions, I’m very likely to rebel against it — even if I’m the one who put the structure in place and I’m the only one who could actually enforce it. As you might imagine, this makes attempts to organize the projects I choose to take on very difficult. Over the years, I’ve had the most luck with David Allen’s Getting Things Done because the system doesn’t really try to organize your day in any meaningful way and all decisions about what to work on are basically deferred until you actually sit down to work. Even still, my GTD systems tend to be a lot looser than other people, often resembling something more like a kanban board of projects and a slew of next actions with appropriate contexts. Stand-alone actions tend to get promoted to projects with some regularity, and some projects get elevated to epics, a term for a sort of meta-project that I shamelessly appropriated from Agile/Scrum. In my life outside of the work I’m paid to do at the behest of my employer, the projects I commit to for a given week tend to shift in and out of my backlog in accordance with only my whims.

I used to feel like this disorganization in my project management was a failing on my part. If only (I would think) I could really commit to the system, then I would feel less stress and would accomplish so many more things. Over time, I’ve had to realize that, for me, this disorganization and roiling chaos is a feature not a bug. I actually accomplish more when I follow my momentary whims than when I set up authoritarian systems of productivity enforcement. When I’m procrastinating on a project, there’s a good chance that I’m not actually interested in it and I should probably renegotiate whatever commitment I’ve made. If this happens frequently enough, that’s a warning sign that I might have committed to an entire role or area of responsibility that’s wrong for me.

After the Great Flood of Thanksgiving 2016, I realized that I had no interest in reorganizing a lot of the things we had to move out for renovations. This led to one of the largest purges of stuff I have ever undertaken. We have taken literal car-loads of things to donate simply because I realized that…

  1. I’m never going to organize the clutter because…
  2. I don’t care about the objects in the clutter swarm enough to want to interact with them in any meaningful way.

It doesn’t matter how much I nag myself with a project like “Organize N64 games.” I can put that at the top of my sprint list. I can flag it with priority flags, reminders, and highlighting all I want; it won’t change the fact that I have no interest in that project. When this happens frequently enough, I start to realize that the real project I’m interested in committing to is “Get rid of as much unnecessary shit as I can so I can stop putting so much shit on my project list.” Or, you know, “Reduce household clutter,” for short.

For a long time, I told people that I had no use for long-term goals, and I would roll my eyes at people who told me I should have set and measure goals. Honestly, I still struggle with goals because, as implemented by most people, there’s an element to them that’s inherently inflexible. When people ask me in job interviews where I see myself in five years, I usually reject the whole premise. I focus on where I want to go from moment to moment, and I trust that the cumulative results of those individual decisions will lead me to a place I’ve constructed with each action on each day. As long as I’m always moving in a direction that sounds good to me, I’ll probably be happy with where I end up. And if I don’t, I’ll just start moving in a new direction as soon as I realize.

I’ve come to understand that determining progress or success in my life is more a matter of adaptability than accountability. One of the current self-help/productivity memes about goals is that they should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

But those are all terrible things for me! Specific goals feel like prison with inadequate freedom and wiggleroom. Measurable goals sound to me like Big Brother is constantly watching me. Achievable goals sound like a recipe for a boring life. Relevant sounds like someone wants to box me into a stereotype. Time-bound sounds limiting and authoritarian. The only goals that work for me are vague, based on a feeling, unrealistic, expansive, and visionary, but there’s no way to make a clever mnemonic out of that. I need my goals to change with me from day-to-day because my concept of my self and what sounds interesting to me changes from day to day. I am the set of all those minute-to-minute deltas from my birthday until my consciousness has dispersed back into the cosmos.

I can’t promise you that this approach will work well for you. In fact, I think there’s a decent chance that my style of working and improving would be terrible for you. Our society is inherently structured and lawful, and as a result, becoming an avatar of chaos is generally a recipe for constantly feeling like a square peg in the proverbial round hole. However, if you were the kid pointing out the similarity between Ingsoc and the administration of your high school or if you were the person in the Seven Habits training who snickered at the concept of scheduling your “big rocks” ahead of time on your calendar, you just might want to try leaning into your contrarian nature and harnessing your instability for something that (ironically) will be more likely to stand the test of time.