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From the Introduction to Conquering Chaos at Work


Has getting organized failed you?

Notice I didn't ask if you've failed to get organized. Mark Twain once wrote that success is the ability to go from failure to failure with great enthusiasm. So according to that definition, as long as you keep trying to get organized, you haven't failed at it. But it may have failed you.

Why? Because chaos does not respect organization. Chaos will happen no matter how tidy you keep your desk and no matter how carefully you organize your files. Chaos can occur as quick as a crash-causing keystroke or as slow as a meaningless meeting. It slips into your day via last-minute cancellations, forgotten deadlines, and unreturned phone calls. To paraphrase a famous saying, "Chaos is what happens when you're making other plans."

Think about all the times you've tried to get more organized. Perhaps you read a book that gave you tips such as "handle each piece of paper only once" and "a place for everything and everything in its place." Maybe you attended a seminar on time management, or listened to a tape that told you how to set up a new filing system.

But does any of this traditional organizing wisdom help you when your boss habitually dumps "due yesterday" projects on your desk? Or your coworkers keep borrowing materials they forget to return? Or your assistant can't find the file you gave him or her this morning? Or your most important client repeatedly reschedules appointments at the last minute?

Getting organized probably isn't enough to save you from these and other types of chaos -- because it addresses only one of three possible chaos conduits.

Putting Chaos in Context

In your workplace, chaos usually comes from at least one of the following sources:


  1. The chaos you create for yourself.

  2. The chaos you create for others (which can boomerang back to you).

  3. The chaos others create for you.

Getting organized only addresses the first, and possibly the second, sources of chaos -- but not the third. That's why this book is unique. It will show you how to manage all types of workplace chaos, no matter what -- or who -- is the source: your boss, your coworkers, your assistant, your clients...or yourself.

You are about to discover how you can transform yourself from a Chaos Creator (or the victim of Chaos Creators) into a Chaos Conqueror. A Chaos Conqueror is someone who goes beyond being well-organized -- because in today's workplace, organized just isn't enough. You need to know how to dismantle chaos bombs before they explode, instead of just cleaning up the mess afterward.

The process of becoming a Chaos Conqueror involves learning how to recognize the roots of chaos as well as how to identify recurring chaos patterns. This will enable you to anticipate chaos so you can avoid it, minimize its impact, counteract it, or work with it.

How can you learn to do this -- especially if you're still struggling with your own disorganization?

I'm going to teach you how.

Out of Chaos Comes...This Book

Since 1986, when I founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego, California, I've helped hundreds of people and businesses get organized. Working hands-on with clients who are immersed in varying degrees of chaos, I've discovered the most effective ways of developing and enhancing a person's latent organizational skills.

Over the years, as I spoke to thousands more via seminars and workshops, I began to notice a pattern. More and more people were asking (sometimes begging!) for advice on how to handle the chaos created by someone else's disorganization, not just their own. Bosses were complaining about their disorganized assistants, assistants moaned about their chaos-causing bosses, coworkers blamed their colleagues for ongoing mess-ups, business owners griped about disorderly employees, consultants told tales of chaotic clients -- and eventually, this book was born.

The trade secrets in this book are real-life solutions, tried and tested techniques and tools from my years as an organizing consultant. The anecdotes and case histories are true; the names and certain details have been changed, however, to protect the organizationally impaired.

Which Kind of Person Are You?

Some people are born with the organizing gene. As youngsters, they keep their toys and games in order without needing to be nagged. In school, their notebooks never have dog-eared pages sticking out in every direction, and you can always count on them to actually have a copy of the class syllabus that the teacher handed out on the first day of school. Once in the workforce, these people consistently make deadlines, keep appointments, and honor commitments.

For others, though, being organized doesn't come naturally. Instead, they have to really work at it. In childhood, they are the ones who clean up their rooms only after parental prodding; in school, they may have to struggle to get their assignments turned in on time. But they still manage to muddle through. When they hit the workplace, they learn how to do the best they can, making ongoing efforts to stay on top of their workloads.

Then there's a third group: the people who turn their disorganization into almost an art form. As kids, their rooms may be such disasters that their parents don't even bother to nag them anymore. In school, they routinely lose their homework, often turn in projects that may appear fine but are actually incomplete, and invariably manage to come up with excuses for not getting things done (such as the classic "my dog ate it"). By the time they enter the workforce, these folks have developed habits that create chaos not only for themselves but for practically anyone with whom they interact. I call them Chaos Creators.

What is a Chaos Creator?

A Chaos Creator isn't just someone who continually misplaces files, usually runs late, or regularly forgets things. Those are just symptoms of disorganization. And being disorganized does not alone create chaos for oneself or others. If a disorganized person usually manages to respect other people's schedules and fulfill commitments, he or she is not a Chaos Creator. Chaos Creators bring disorganization to a whole new level. They're so disorganized that they waste not only their own time and energy, but also that of everyone around them.

There are two defining traits all Chaos Creators share:

  1. They create chaos both for others and for themselves.

  2. They almost never accept responsibility for the chaos they cause.

Oh, sure, some may claim -- loudly and often -- that they want to be more organized. But deep down -- and often aloud, too -- Chaos Creators feel that others are to blame. One of the key reasons they keep causing chaos is that they are completely blind to the connection between their chaotic behavior and the chaos that follows them everywhere. Of course, it's always easier to point the finger of blame toward others instead of toward yourself.

The Art of Creating Chaos

Maybe you suspect you're a Chaos Creator because your extreme disorganization continually causes problems for yourself and others. Or perhaps you really aren't a Chaos Creator but in fact have been the victim of one. Either way, this much is true: No matter what your (or their) vocation, location, or level of education is, Chaos Creators always have the same effect -- causing chaos and confusion for themselves and almost anyone they work with, in all types of situations.

Chaos Creators accomplish this specifically by:


  • Not returning phone calls (ever, sometimes, or only eventually)


  • Not answering correspondence (ever, sometimes, or only eventually)


  • Being unreliable -- not following through on duties or obligations


  • Blowing deadlines -- their own and therefore others'


  • Losing paperwork (especially documents that affect others)


  • Borrowing things and not returning them


  • Repeatedly rescheduling dates or times of appointments


  • Not showing up for scheduled appointments or meetings


  • Showing up unprepared for meetings or appointments


  • Running late -- and making others late as a result

This structure of chaos is built on an underlying foundation that is so flawed it allows commitments, deadlines, promises, and obligations to consistently slip through the cracks...and onto someone's head. Perhaps yours?

Consistent Chaos Is Key

Hey, we all mess up once in a while, right? None of us is always on time. And who among us hasn't missed a deadline or a meeting? Does that make us all Chaos Creators?

In a word, no. It's true that even the most organized people suffer temporary lapses. To paraphrase a popular expression, "Chaos happens." Such bouts can be triggered by a variety of major stressors, including personal crises (such as health problems, death of a loved one, divorce) and lifestyle disruptions (e.g., a move, a new baby, downsizing).

But if people are embarrassed by their slipups, take responsibility for the chaos they cause, don't try to blame others, are willing to accept help, and make sincere efforts to return to their formerly organized selves, they are not Chaos Creators.

The key here is consistency of behavior. True Chaos Creators cause chaos routinely, not rarely. What's more, they almost never hold themselves accountable for the havoc they wreak, preferring to blame their chaos on coworkers, computers, companies, their own creativity -- whatever or whomever is most convenient.

Don't Be a Victim of Chaos

How you deal with your own chaos-creating tendencies and how you interact with the Chaos Creators around you will affect your steps up or down the ladder of success. Unless you know how to counteract chaos (yours and others') and cope with those who create it, you're destined to become a victim of chaos. So these are your options: You can let chaos-inducing traits derail your career, disrupt your life, and destroy your sanity. Or you can become a Chaos Conqueror and eliminate (or at least reduce) chaos -- and live happily ever after. The choice is yours.

Through the years, I've learned that I can't overemphasize the importance of maintaining a sense of humor when working with Chaos Creators -- but I'll try.

So choose to chuckle, inwardly if necessary, at the pitfalls and occasional pratfalls you're destined to encounter in the workplace (such as tripping over a coworker's carelessly placed briefcase and spilling coffee in his lap). And remember...humor empowers you to look past the problems of the present so you can obsess about the annoyances of the future.

How to Talk Like a Chaos Conqueror

Before you can walk the walk, you've got to know how to talk the talk. Here are some Chaos Conqueror terms to get you started.

Chaos Categories: Time-related, memory-related, communication-related, information-related, project-related.

Chaos Conqueror: One who consistently counteracts chaos by using the strategies described in this book.

Chaos Creator: One who consistently creates chaos.

Chaos Log: Record-keeping tool used for tracking chaos sources and frequency. (See Chapter 8.)

Chaos Trait Types:

  • The Bureaucratic Chaos Creator (BCC) exacerbates chaos by passing the buck after wrapping it in red tape.


  • The Creative Chaos Creator (CCC) creates chaos by losing the buck and using the red tape to make paperweights.


  • The Deceptive Chaos Creator (DCC) camouflages chaos by hiding both the red tape and the buck in a drawer somewhere.


  • The Oblivious Chaos Creator (OCC) doesn't notice any chaos even while sitting in the midst of piles of red tape (and denies having seen the buck as well).

Clutter-Mutter: Involuntary mantra ("Where is it? Where is it?") mumbled by victims of Treasure Hunt Syndrome. (See Chapter 4.)

Deadline Deadbeat: One who consistently misses deadlines. (See Chapter 7.)

File-o-phobe: One who consistently demonstrates a fear of filing. (See Chapter 6.)

Gap-Time: Time scheduled to accommodate foreseeable delays. (See Chapter 3.)

Mess Maven: One who is well-organized yet messy. Mess Mavens function well amidst their own clutter and apparent disorder. (See Chapters 2 and 8.)

Overwhelm: A condition that causes temporary paralysis of the decision-making muscles. (See Chapter 4.)

Paper hangover: Temporary condition caused by overexposure to paper and overstrained decision-making muscles. Symptoms include glazed eyes, impaired focus, and an inability to make rational decisions. (See Chapter 6.)

Paperosis misplacea: Highly contagious condition evidenced by the visible manifestation of information-related chaos, aka piles and piles of paper. (See Chapter 6.)

Phone-o-holic: One who continually spends excessive or unnecessary time on the telephone. (See Chapter 5.)

Phone-o-phobe: One who consistently avoids making or returning telephone calls. (See Chapter 5.)

Pile pilot: One who navigates piles of paper. (See Chapter 6.)

Redundant file syndrome (RFS): Recurring tendency to set up duplicate, redundant, or excess files with different file names. (See Chapter 6.)

Sidetracking: Condition caused by lack of focus. (See Chapters 3 and 6.)

SOP: Stereotype of the Organized Person. (See Chapters 2 and 9.)

Subscribitis: Condition caused by subscribing to more publications than can be read in a lifetime. (See Chapter 6.)

Treasure Hunt Syndrome: Recurring tendency to hunt frantically for misplaced items. Victims of Treasure Hunt Syndrome become subconsciously dependent on the euphoric rush they experience upon finding lost things during their hunting expeditions. (See Chapters 1, 3, and 4.)

V & V: Verbalizing and vocalizing, a memory management tactic. (See Chapter 4.)

White space: Calendar space left deliberately unfilled to accommodate unforeseen delays and emergencies. (See Chapter 3.)

Harriet Schechter



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