Welcome to the Chaotic Workflow series. Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

In the last several posts, we’ve been addressing chaos using at least three major categories:
• Saying “No”
• Satellite Task Systems
Creating Space for Practice

Today we’ll look at the third.


The Need for Practice

Reviewing, a chaotic environment is one that feels hostile to making settled decisions.

Even when we’ve crafted our environments as well as possible and learned to set aside and retrieve tasks quickly, we can still deal with chaos. Sometimes this is a matter of external influences. For example, one characteristic of a chaotic environment is that our attention can be demanded without warning. In these cases, it does not matter how much we have prepared the environment or stored our intentions in some task system.

But at other times, the issue is internal1. In these cases, we benefit from practice.

Sometimes boundaries and rules underlie the motions of a craft but remain hidden or elusive. If we can reach them with practice, we find performance and even mastery, much like playing a sport or an instrument. We aim to anticipate and work with demands so we find them less chaotic and more in some rhythm with our abilities. That may take weeks, months, or years, but rarely do we actually know how long it would take.


Space for Practice

When we practice, we consider:

  • What are the smallest bits of this craft?
  • How can I create and practice exercises with them until they are effortless?

(See also Zen & The Art of Work – Module 11)

While in medical school, my surgical colleagues would practice sewing sponges together. They would get the materials, wear surgical gloves, and practice over and over while at home or in the study lounge. To learn to stitch during surgery would be difficult, and I’m certain, not well appreciated by a patient.

When I plan to perform a piece of music for an audience, I create practice conditions. I sit at the piano daily as a space away from an audience. While there, mistakes are welcome on the way to some hoped for state of mastery.

These are simplified cases.  But they demonstrate the transition of a potentially overwhelming arena into one where we can hold and transform intentions in harmony with those environments.


Practice Even When There Is No Mastery

But even then, practice is no guarantee. At times, there may only be chaos. Our hope for order only fuels an illusion.

It is still useful to find space for practice away from the field of work. Even when a path seems doomed, we may still find benefit from the practice as what is learned tends to generalize across crafts and interests.

Further, it is useful to practice some form of workflow mastery in quiet environments, as it helps us when we are in the more chaotic. It is much like how exercise helps us be fit not only when we exercise, but also during the rest of our days. When we use task management to address a project we enjoy at a leisurely pace and with regularity, we learn the skills that might generalize to those situations that are much more daunting. I’ve learned quite a bit not only from practicing the piano or setting up workflows at the office, but also from deeply thinking through simple matters such as my coffee and dish washing rituals.


  1. And in most cases, it’s best to consider both.