When I was just out of college, I went to work for a German expat in Venezuela. He used the word “chaos” to describe, well, everything.
Venezuela was chaos. Traffic was chaos. The volunteers at his organization were chaos.
In his German accent, it sounded a lot like “cows” — “The line at the gas station was cows!”
— and I’ve spent the years since mentally substituting the word “cows” for “chaos” every time I hear it.
I grew up on a farm, so I have some experience with cows. As I set out to write a book about creative productivity and how to make time for your art, I realized that cows are actually the perfect metaphor for the daily chaos of life. They’re obstinate. They’re uncooperative. They’re time-consuming. But if you build a proper system to manage the chaos, you can find space for your most important work.
Just like cows, chaos comes with a variety of personalities. How many of these cows are on your to-do list today?
Your Basic Cow
Most of the items on your to-do list aren’t much of a problem. You jot them down, you get them done, they take up the expected amount of time. You know what to expect when going grocery shopping, doing a routine project at work, lubing your bike chain, packing for vacation, and other basic chaos.
This chaos is just a normal, well-adjusted part of the herd. A mildly effective system should help keep basic chaos organized — for a while, at least.
Cows and to-do lists all tend naturally toward entropy.
The Stubborn Cow
While much of the chaos on your to-do list ambles along at the expected pace, sometimes a task or project that should have been easy stops you in your tracks.
It could be unexpected: the simple call to ask about a doctor’s bill that turns into 15 hours of back-and-forth with your doctor and your insurance agency.
Or, it could be a seemingly small task that you’re facing resistance around doing. You know, that thing that will probably only take10 minutes, but for some reason it’s been on your to-do list for a month?
Sometimes you just have to set yourself a goal to tackle these stubborn bits of chaos. Set a timer and clear them out of your to-do list, then reward yourself with cake. Or, grab your journal and do some soul-searching about why you’re avoiding this particular task in the first place. Then tackle it head-on.
(Don’t tackle actual cows, though. That never ends well.)
The Cow That Ignores Fences
Last summer when I was visiting family, my sister called me to ask if I could help her get some cows out of her yard.
They’d grazed their own field all the way down and thought my sister’s grass looked tasty. Electric fence? No problem. That grass looked good enough to push on through.
Some chaos doesn’t care if you put up boundaries. Sure, maybe you told your boss you can’t work evenings and weekends anymore, but she’s still over-piling your plate. Maybe your family’s chaos keeps finding its way into your yard. Maybe your client doesn’t understand what’s in scope and what isn’t.
Time to build some stronger fences. Set some boundaries. Make sure everyone knows them. Write down a list of things you’ll always say no to, and stick with it.
The Cow You Let Out
About 30 minutes after my sister and I got those cows out of her yard and into the pasture at the top of my parents’ driveway, they were wandering free on the other side of the pond.
“Oh, right,” said my dad. “I meant to tell you that the fence on the far side of that pasture is open.”
Some chaos tramples our fences; some gets out because we’ve left the gate open.
We check Twitter and get derailed by Internet drama. We say yes to clients or volunteer opportunities we know we should have said no to. We let high-maintenance friends siphon away our energy and time.
If you find yourself regularly derailed by distractions and interruptions, take a serious look at where you’re leaving gates open in your life. You have the choice to close them.
The Wrecking-Ball Cow
My dad used to have a bull he called San Valentin. He was incredibly sweet with my dad, who had raised him from a calf. But Dad waited too long to, well, you know
. And San Valentin started to get a bit bullish.
He would break out of the pasture and wreak havoc. Once he knocked a ladder over and it fell into my mom’s car. Once he was tramping about outside my grandma’s house and she called in a panic, trapped inside.
Is life going along smoothly? Enter San Valentin.
It’s that urgent phone call from your boss. The last-minute request from a client. The thing you forgot was due today. The sick kid, the sick you, the husband who comes home from mountain biking with a broken foot or a cracked rib or a dislocated ankle (Hey, babe
One urgent bit of chaos comes along, and your nice, orderly herd is all out of whack. Even after you’ve dealt with the emergency, you’ve still got to wrangle the aftermath back into some semblance of order.
As you’re dealing with the wrecking ball, communicate with people who might be expecting you to meet a deadline or show up to an event — they’ll understand. Then sweep all the fluff out of your to-do list and make sure you’re focusing on the priorities to get back on track.
I know. What’s this llama doing out in the field? It’s not the type of chaos you usually handle, but it’s in your pasture and you’ve got to figure out how to deal with it.
It’s the oddball client request. The thing in your house that you didn’t know could break but has. The unexpected life roll that means you suddenly need to figure out elder care, or how to navigate the healthcare system, or how to be a parent.
Llamas take a different skill set to deal with, but you’ve got this. Ask your network for help and advice. Find a mentor to coach you through. Seek out resources and online support communities. Because you might not know what to do with a llama, but we live in a small world these days. Somebody out there has gone through exactly what you’re facing.
(Our llama’s name was Laurens, and no matter how many sugar cubes I brought him, he refused to be my friend. Llamas are kind of jerks.)
The Cow You Are Here For
Somewhere in this messy herd of chaos is the work you’re actually here to do. The novel you’re dying to write. Your musical career. The business idea that’ll get you out of your day job, the social idea that’ll change the world.
The problem is that all the other cows are so much louder, so much more demanding, so much more… chaotic. And so, day after day, your most important work isn’t getting done. The cow you’re actually here for is getting ignored because you don’t have a system for handling the rest of the herd.
Time to change that.
Because chaos doesn’t have to rule your life. You just need a solid system of corrals, chutes, and fences — and a good plan.
In From Chaos to Creativity: Building a Productivity System for Artists and Writers
, I draw from my own experience and from interviews with creative professionals and productivity experts to create a guide to help you build your own creative productivity system.
You’ve got this.
Now go out and start creating.
÷ ÷ ÷
Jessie L. Kwak
is a freelance writer and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of the paranormal thriller Shifting Borders
, the Durga System series
of gangster sci-fi stories, and a silly short story collection about content marketing during the zombie apocalypse. When she's not writing B2B marketing copy for freelance clients or scribbling away on her latest novel, you can find her mountain biking, road tripping with her husband, and wrangling a number of sewing projects.You can learn more about her at www.jessiekwak.com
, or follow her on Twitter (@jkwak
). From Chaos to Creativity
is her most recent book.