Review: Order from Chaos

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business book of interest.

order from chaos“Do you miss important deadlines at work? Forget to return urgent phone calls? Lose papers that were ‘just here a minute ago’? Have multiple layers of sticky notes on your computer? Leave projects unfinished for days, weeks, or even months at a time?”

These sentences appear on the back of Order from Chaos aptly described several of the people I associated with in my college and professional years, including one of my closest friends, who had an office that I can best describe as chaotic. I’d visit their offices and find a complete whirlwind of papers and notes and when I’d ask for projects from them, I’d rarely get timely responses or support.

Most of these people had their hearts fully in the right places, but a number of factors kept them from being helpful: a lack of organization (both in terms of materials and in terms of time), an adoption of a reactive style instead of a proactive one, and a general sense of being completely overwhelmed by the number of tasks facing them at any one time.

Does this sound like you? I picked up Order from Chaos with you (and my friends like you) in mind, hoping that the answers they need to become the success that I know exists inside of them. Let’s get started.

Digging Into Order from Chaos

Before You Begin…
The book opens with an interesting factoid: The average businessperson deals with 190 new pieces of information each day. On one level, that’s astounding. That’s a tremendous amount of information to deal with for anyone. But what’s even more unnerving for me is that I know quite well some people in high pressure jobs deal with much more information in a day than that.

The entire focus of this book is how a person can most efficiently deal with such a deluge of information without it overwhelming all of the things that can be done. It’s easy to see how it can overwhelm you – a huge email inbox, piles of paper all over the place, and tons of tasks to do. But how can a person move from that huge chaos of information into something more manageable?

Preorganizing – Creating a Vacuum
Before you get started on the six steps of this plan, you need to eliminate the mountain of information on your desk and make a clean start. In a nutshell, Davenport recommends getting rid of everything that you are unsure you’ll need in the near future, then group everything else into obvious associations, then box or file each of those groups together.

The idea behind this is that you can’t build an orderly environment to work in if you have chaos all around you. Thus, the first step is to simply go through all of the stuff around you and leave your office space as bare as possible before getting started on a real organization plan.

Step 1: The Cockpit Office
The philosophy behind the “cockpit office” is simple. Everything that you use on a daily basis should be within hand’s reach. Everything that you use on a weekly basis should be within arm’s reach. Everything that you use at least once a month should be somewhere within your office or cubicle. Everything else should be outside your office or cubicle.

This makes sense on several levels. It ensures that the stuff at hand is only the stuff you frequently use, and that everything else is out of the way and not serving as a distraction. Also, using this “cockpit office” as a strong rule of thumb keeps you from accumulating junk – if you’re not going to use it today, get it out of the way. If you’re not going to use it for a while, get it far out of the way. In fact, the concept stuck with me so strongly that I began to reorganize my home office around the “cockpit” principle.

Step 2: Air Traffic Control
The “air traffic control” referred to here is basically a minimalized day planner. Davenport suggests that your day can be planned quite effectively on a single piece of paper with three sections: one with a “to-do list” for the day, one with a schedule for the day, and one with space for notes. Everything else that a daily plan might have is unnecessary and gets in the way.

In effect, what Liz is advocating is finding an effective minimalist planner in whatever form. It’s easy, for example, to have these tools online in one place using iGoogle: the Remember the Milk widget for your to-do list, the Google Calendar widget for your schedule, and Web Stickies for your notes section. Make this into your browser’s homepage and you essentially have the air traffic controller that Davenport is talking about, and you can easily print it off with you if you need to take it on the road.

Beyond that, she also advocates the “write it down” approach, which basically means keep some method with you at all times of writing down the thoughts that come to mind or the other events that you need to record. I use a pocket notebook for this and keep it on me at all times – it works very well. I just make sure to process it at least once a day by going through each item and figuring out if it actually needs to be done or is just a random thought.

Step 3: The Pending File
The “pending file” is a single file folder you keep on your desk to handle all of the pieces of paper and information that you need to handle tasks that are upcoming in the near future. Everything in your “pending file” should relate to something on your to-do list, which means you need to add an item to the to-do list before you add something to the “pending file.”

In other words, it’s something of a “catch all” for the detritus related to your tasks, and it begins to reveal the real cleverness behind this whole scheme: your attention should be fully directed to your “air traffic control” from step two. This folder just collects all of the “assisting materials” from that air traffic control into one place.

Step 4: Decide NOW!
This comes down to one simple thing. Remember those 190 pieces of information mentioned in the preface? Whenever one comes at you, ask yourself “What’s the task?” If there isn’t one, toss it or file that piece of information immediately. If there is a task, identify that task immediately and add it to your to-do list.

This requires several changes in behavior. For example, when you check your email, this principle requires you to go through everything in your inbox, identifying each message either as a task (and thus adding something to your to-do list and putting that email message in your email “pending file”) or as a piece of information (filing it away or deleting it).

Davenport advocates just handling very quick tasks immediately – if it takes just a few minutes or less, do it right now.

Step 5: Prioritize Ongoingly
When you decide the order with which to tackle the things on your to-do list, Davenport recommends using a single overriding theme to make prioritization easy. For example, your priority as a freelancer might be “What makes me the most money?” or, as a engineer, your priority might be “What gets the big project done first?” For me, it’s usually “What gets the most quality writing completed?” and I use that as my chief filter.

Obviously, some situations require a quick change in priority, and when one of those priority shifters occurs, you should reprioritize your entire to-do list. For example, what if your child gets sick on his birthday (the example that the book gives)? Then your child should be the top priority – do only the stuff that’s incredibly important and urgent and then focus on the child.

The concept I really liked, though, was the “heart line.” On your daily to-do list, one of the items should be solely focused on moving you in the direction of your dreams and that item should have a high priority. For me, for example, that “heart line” revolves around a diverse career as a writer, so it’s usually something like “work on that short story” or “polish that future book proposal.”

Step 6: Daily Habits
All of these steps lead up to one thing: a daily routine. The final step consists of a list of steps that a person should go through each day in order to keep all of the elements in line: prioritize their to-do list, schedule in blocks of time to work on these to-do items, schedule in “focus time” if you need it, and so on.

I find that having an overarching set of routines during my day really does help me to get things done. My morning usually starts off with setting priorities for the day and also doing a few routine tasks (going through all of my email, for one) before getting down to business. At the end of the day, I usually make a list of the tasks left undone so I have a starting point for the next day. Doing things with such a routine-oriented fashion keeps me moving forward all the time instead of spinning my wheels in place.

What’s impressive is that when you’re in the routine, you don’t even notice how well it works. When you notice it is when your routine gets out of whack. For example, my last week has been extremely chaotic with several small emergencies and a ton of deadlines converging at once. These issues all added together to throw me off my routine, leaving a lot of email unanswered and so on. I now feel as though I’m scrambling in place trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Is Order from Chaos Worth Reading?

Every time I read a good book on time and information management (and, yes, I do classify this one as a good one), I learn another piece or two to add to my own time management practices. Order from Chaos is no different; it led me to reorganizing my office space, adopting a “air traffic control” solution that combines many elements I was already using into one place, and focusing more on defining a clear morning and end-of-day routine, all of which have proven at least somewhat helpful over the last month.

Order from Chaos is a very good book, pushing towards great. It’s an excellent choice if you’ve never read a book on time management or if you found my personal favorite time management book, Getting Things Done, to be overwhelming. It can also provide some great supplemental ideas for your own routines.

Is it essential? No. Is it well worth checking out from the library if you’re looking for some fresh time management ideas? Definitely.

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  1. David Carter says:

    Cool, I’ll have to check it out. I could use more order in my life. I go through spells where I keep everything real neat but more often than not I am just messy. When I am neat though, I feel as if I can think more clearly and get things done quicker and better.

  2. Andy says:

    Like David above, my problem is to stay motivated to stay organized. It is easy to let those papers pile up in the inbox.

  3. overcoming overspending says:

    I think a lot of our problem with chaos is “information overload” perpetuated by technology. I often marvel at the fact (as pointed out in another very interesting book Trent has reviewed, that I also read called Margin) that all the advances and technology that we now have at our fingertips, that is SUPPOSED to make life easier and more simple, has actually complicated our lives tenfold. Case in point, I am a teacher. When I started my teaching career 13 years ago, we still did everything, from taking attendance to keeping student grades, to comunication with the administration, on paper with a good old fashioned pen or pencil. Now that everything is computerized, in my opinion, it has complicated matters to a ridiculous extreme. Now, instead of simply recording grades in a grade book or on a report card, files must be backed to the server, which must be stored, which must be backed up again to another disk and god forbid if the system goes down. All of this requires hours of training, meetings, an entire dept. devoted to technology and so on and so on. Putting order in chaos would be a lot easier at times if we just went back to doing things in a more SIMPLE manner (PAPER AND PENCIL DO STILL WORK!) For all of our advances, our lives are FOREVER more complicated. Of course all of these advances are with us to stay and will continue to “advance” which in turn continues to overload our lives and make them more complicated.

  4. Mac says:

    My husband and I have both found this review very useful. Since reading it we’ve gotten very involved in setting up iGoogle pages. Tomorrow I’m going to “unbury” the surface of my desk and apply the “cockpit office” concept. I’ve reserved the book on the library web site and am looking forward to reading all of it. Having found “Getting Things Done” overwhelming, I think I’ll find this book more useful as a starting point for improving my organizing and time management skills. Thank you for the helpful information!

  5. Aric says:

    This is a great review and I think this book takes the more detailed methodologies from David Allen and FranklinCovey and makes them easy to understand. I think that following some very simple umbrella rules, anyone can be organized. If you want more detail, then Getting Things Done might be for you. If not, you really can’t go wrong with Order from Chaos.

    I use daily planning forms which give me space to print my outlook calendar from work, space for priorities and room for notes. I also maintain an excel spreadsheet as a master to-do list and then transfer the priorities to my planner. Any notes from my daily planner that are pertinent to a project end up in a composition notebook that I keep at my desk. It may not be perfect, but it works for me!

  6. Ann at One Bag Nation says:

    I’m on a personal quest to get my life in order, but I’m definitely in the “GTD is overwhelming” camp – a simpler book on time and paper management is appealing.

    I like the concept of daily use, weekly use, and monthly use as guidelines for where to store things, that makes sense to me. I recently removed everything on my desk, as an experiment to see what I really needed every day, and now my desk is much less cluttered.

  7. Some good tips here! I like the “cockpit office” idea as well. Of course, my office is so small that it’s pretty easy to create!

  8. Sandy Fleming says:

    Great review Trent. I found “Getting Things Done” to be overwhelming. This book sounds a littlle more user friendly so I have ordered the book from my library.

  9. Jules says:

    You know what’s really weird? Ever since I found that I REALLY like my new job, keeping my desk clean hasn’t been hard at all.

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