How do you work in chaos?
A teacher recently emailed me about her workflow troubles. I’ll refer to her as M. M’s troubles parallel many of those felt by those who struggle with chaotic conditions.
M has given me permission to describe her problems with and wishes for task management. I’ll be quoting M’s thoughts alongside my own. What started as a few paragraphs became what will likely be several blog posts.
As I am not a full-time teacher, there are certain to be blind spots in my considerations of her workflows. Please feel free to comment along the way.
Here we go …
Finding Settled Decisions in Chaotic Environments
“… Project management, as found in OmniFocus and other places, doesn’t work for me. I never feel I have enough time to do the things I want to do, especially “big picture” things …
“Project Management seems to work for people with time to plan. I picture them as sitting in an office, with space and time to figure out the best order and way to do everything – … I teach in a classroom with 15 other people in it at all times. Once I hit the ground, plans go out the window. I have students who need assistance, emails from administration who often seem to assume I have nothing to do but answer email, parents, other teachers… Everyone needs me now and no one seems to understand they are in a long line of other demanders!
In her current environment, M is having a hard time finding a deliberate path of work. Demands hit her from many directions. Time and other resources are limited, and her demands are likely in conflict with each other.
In such conditions, it is difficult to decide what to set aside and where to move forward. In fact, as clear decisions require time and time is limited, her very process of decision is under assault.
It is in this sense that I define a chaotic work environment:
A chaotic work environment is a work environment that is hostile to making settled decisions.
But the issue is not so simple. What is chaotic to one person is a performance condition to someone else. To illustrate, someone who has little experience with a piano attempting to perform on stage will have a very different experience than someone who is well practiced.
To this end, let us examine now look at:
- Settled Decisions,
- Seeking Attunement, and
- the difference between Task Management and Workflow Mastery
A Settled Decision is one in which we:
- Rest focus on a decision, for example of what to do next
- Allow thoughts and feelings to come to mind
- Pause to see that no new thoughts about the decision present
- Make the decision
It is in this state where we can make our best decisions. When we have no new thoughts or feelings coming to mind even as we continuing pausing, we find clarity. (For an in depth discussion of the process, see Zen & The Art of Work – Module 2.)
Our decisions include those needed to:
- Consider a next action,
- Arrange tasks,
- Set up supportive systems, and
- Clear our mind of concerns by addressing them head on.
The office setting M fantasizes about is one that would help her achieve that settled state. The quiet office setting may appear to be an ideal environment. Yet, we must realize that demands are not only external. Many of us deal with quiet environments and are still pummeled by internal thoughts, other work ideas, self-criticisms, and worries. Many of these, too, are likely incompatible with each other. Further, there are those such as athletes and musicians, who adroitly deal with many inputs and demands. They still achieve a flow state even in conditions others would find adverse.
A useful model to consider is that described in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
There are at least two ways that make it difficult to reach a settled state:
- Internal – we do not have the skill to manage inputs and demands
- External – our environments assault us with too many inputs and demands
In other words, we seek attunement with our environment. We wish to be able to meet the demands of work while addressing the thoughts that come to mind. Preferably, we can make in the moment decisions, correcting and adjusting by thought and well-practiced intuition, moving into an attunement of play and work. We’d like to know what to set aside, what to sacrifice, and how to proceed to do what we can do well.
An important question is, to what degree is such attunement even possible? Sports and music have fields of play that are relatively consistent. Other environments may be less so. Until we reach some developmental level, we can only take on faith that some order exists.
In particularly chaotic environments, we won’t have time to consider all demands. While working, someone in charge can come in to say, “Hey, look at this!” implying that we need to drop what we’re doing. We can barely question, “Do I trust that this other person knows my work better than me?” “Do they know that what they are presenting now is more important than what I was just doing?”
Sometimes we have no choice. There are many of us who work under sub-optimal, if not downright abusive conditions. Our agency can be regularly denied or even assaulted. At other times, we may not know if we just haven’t reached that skill level of performance. When drowning, it is hard to know that a state of swimming even exists, and in rough rapids, that state may not.
Task Management vs Workflow Mastery
Let us start with what we would hope task management1 could do.
Task management, at least in the sense of planning a set of tasks and “cranking widgets”, does not necessarily work in all environments. Many ideas, intentions, and demands all need addressing, sometimes simultaneously. The environment of a classroom can be intense in that most any plans collapse the moment you walk in.
Rather than “task management”, let us consider workflow mastery. At minimum, workflow mastery is about maintaining a clear mind. We aim to make solid decisions about where we want our mind to be, and then be there, optimizing conditions as we can. To that end, we need to be able to:
- Field incoming information, be that internal or external
- Decide if that information is worth considering
- And park the information we decide to keep in a system that we trust will return it to our attention when and where it would be useful.
OmniFocus can be useful in many situations, but only when we have time to write and arrange tasks.
In most skilled performance conditions, we must instead field and address intentions within ourselves. Whether driving, playing tennis, performing on stage, conducting surgery, or fielding the needs of many students and colleagues, it is impossible to pause and ask everyone to stop. Instead demands, measurements, decisions, and actions must become a flow of movement.
Achieving this state is a practice. Meanwhile, setting things aside, making decisions about where to focus, and then maintaining that focus are already quite the practice, even in ideal conditions.
All this is to say that, yes, OmniFocus or any task manager for that matter, will not address many needs of a workflow. The performance conditions of teaching environments are quite demanding.
In the next few posts, I’ll get into a few ideas about how we can cultivate useful conditions.
- I am using the terms “task management” and “project management” interchangeably. ↩