I have a confession to make. I came up with the ideas in this talking point when I realised that most time management/personal effectiveness programs I attended made me feel lazy and useless.

I have a history of nodding along at these programs, all the while knowing that something was fundamentally amiss. I wasn’t going to block out two hours on a Monday to plan my week. I wasn’t going to make a meeting with myself every Friday to run through roles, goals and priorities. I wasn't going to feel inspired to work if I cleared my desk.

I have tried doing these things, bought a new pencil case, got excited and then, well, I simply don’t do more. Clean desks are not always important to me. Meetings with myself feel like prison. And while the Inbox Zero, Get Things Done conversation made sense and the idea of the order it created was seductive, I found it was not always useful. 

Maybe Order isn’t always a good thing?

The problem is, most personal effectiveness programs are designed by disciplined, organised people in an attempt to get the rest of us to do what they do. This isn’t always an effective strategy; one person’s ‘smart’ may be another person’s ‘dumb’. Or more accurately it might be smarter from time to time to ignore these methodical processes. And when work flows shift from order to chaos, don’t feel like you have fallen off the productivity wagon. Maybe you have jumped on the creativity express!

A journalist interviewing the late, great Luciano Pavarotti once remarked on his body of work and said he must be highly disciplined to have achieved so much. Pavarotti looked down at his expanding waistline and said ‘I think you mistake obsession for discipline!’ Pavarotti got lots done but was not at all disciplined. He was determined, he was passionate, obsessed even, but not disciplined.

'The problem is, most personal effectiveness programs are designed by disciplined, organised people in an attempt to get the rest of us to do what they do.'

This talking point is an invitation to see getting things done as requiring something more than will power, a methodical approach and a well-maintained day planner. Maybe some of the things you you need to get done come from a chaotic, creative, passionately-obsessed space, not a well-ordered, calmly-executed, inbox-zero space.

I consider myself incredibly productive. I definitely get things done. But I don’t get them done because they are written on a list (even if I write lists sometimes). I don’t get them done because I have blocked out two hours on a Tuesday (although I might block out Tuesday completely to focus on one thing). I don’t get them done because of some fabulous context-managing, cloud-based software (even though I do use the OS reminders and the task app Things).

I get things done because I ‘follow the energy’ in projects and have learnt to hack my own preferences and priorities. The trick is to know your personal productivity platform preference and then learn how to switch it on and off at will.

'You might get more good work done if you stop trying to do all your work and start creating magic.'

Central to this idea is a stand against the typical productivity gurus and the negative impact that their process can have on creative knowledge work. Processing inputs daily, like a machine, is quite different to locking yourself up for three days in a chaotic, immersed ‘do fest’, where you’ll likely be creating magic (albeit running the risk of cutting off an ear in the process). You might get more good work done if you stop trying to do all your work and start creating magic.

So if normal productivity tools don’t work for you all the time read on. You might find solace and comfort in the ideas that follow. The process? First discover your own personal productivity platform (chaos versus order) then use this awareness to increase your personal effectiveness. Work smarter not harder.


Your personal productivity platform


The Work Smarter model contrasts people with low discipline and high discipline, and those with a narrow focus and a wide focus. Knowing where you are positioned on this model—whether because it’s your personality type, or simply how you feel that day or week or year—allows you to identify the steps you need to take to get to where you want to be. I acknowledge that the boundaries between the two main categories are blurred, and that attempts to categorise people can be overly simplistic. The main objective is not to label who you are but to make the most of where you are at on any given project at any given moment.


We all have times when we are not very productive: those moments of ‘dumbness’ are a part of life. Knowing when you are in a productivity funk is one of the smartest things you can do. For some people this can happen daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. 

Without gainful employment for a few months it is easy to get into a rut and not work at your ‘smartest’. Without a reason to do good work, it is easy to slide into a routine of clocking on then clocking off, having achieved basically nothing. The ‘dumb’ quadrant does not describe you, but rather acknowledges that you are not doing your best at the moment, regardless of your personal platform.


'Knowing where you are positioned on this model … allows you to identify the steps you need to take to get to where you want to be.'


Upper left – Order

The second quadrant is the domain of the dedicated thinker, who uses order to get things done: highly disciplined, committed, reliable and on time. These people manage the detail of their lives brilliantly. They know the exact number of words required for the annual report, when it is due and the format required. They read emails in detail and carefully consider their response before they reply. 

Indications that you prefer to work in the Order quadrant: 

  1. Your emails are often thorough and contain more than one action item within it. ‘Send it once and make it complete’ is your mantra.
  2. You read one book at a time and only read when you have the time or the right head-space. Holiday reading is often your catch up time.
  3. You can’t stand channel surfing — you pick one TV show to watch and settle in a chair five minutes before it starts with a drink and snack ready to go.
  4. If a report is due in on Monday at 10am, you have it 80% complete on Friday with the final tweaks added in a fresh head space an hour before it’s due.
  5. You find it hard to return to deep thought after an interruption.

Lower right – Chaos

Sometimes your work flows from a state of chaos; never switching off, mulling over ideas and procrastinating. It’s like you are thinking continuously. When working with chaos your inbox can drive your day (a bad idea for both order and chaos workflows), especially if you feel guilty about not having achieved inbox zero. The goal of zero emails in your inbox is a factory mindset, not the mindset of an artists. Artists may need to ignore an email from someone for a day or so until they achieve clarity.

The problem is some of the things you work on need to be absorbed, slept on, bounced off others and put down and picked up several times. Staring at the problem for exactly 30 minutes at 11am on Tuesday probably won’t get the best outcome. When working in a chaos state, a long email from a methodical person with many requests for clarity is hard to process. So you, the ‘chaos’ worker, respond by answering the easiest or most important question and ignoring the rest. When working in the chaos quadrant you are easily distracted and often go walkabout. You might have several books on the go at one time and often don’t complete them because you get bored or are doing something else.

Indications that you prefer working in the chaos quadrant:

  1. You hate arbitrary deadlines, yet paradoxically your best work happens in the final moments before a project is due. Other people often think you’re straining under pressure at the last minute, because you lack the discipline to work through your project in stages.
  2. You seem to do nothing for days, then all of a sudden have a productivity blitz and deliver high-value work that sets new standards.
  3. You watch three TV shows at once, flicking through the channels hoping to find the most entertaining one at that minute. And half the time you’ll be watching your phone or tablet at the same time.
  4. You rarely switch off. You are always thinking, although you might not be aware of it.
  5. You know that by taking a walk, ‘sleeping on it’ or going to a movie, your creative wash cycle might just ‘figure it out’.

Upper right – Working smarter

This final quadrant is the sweet spot for all of us.
It’s the ‘Smart ’ quadrant – the one where both workflows come together and achieve amazing things. Those who prefer to work in the Chaos quadrant become finishers and dependable and those most comfortable in the Order quadrant are able to let things that don’t matter slide and stay on the critical path.


Action items – How to move quadrants


A. Five Ideas that help those who prefer Order to work smarter

Role Distinctions

Be familiar with the different hats you wear and your role when wearing each hat. Don’t blend your roles.

Chunk time

Plan your days in blocks of time and stop what you’re doing when time is up. Discipline yourself to do the tasks in the time allocated, and accept that you won't get everything finished.

Distraction management

Learn to say “no” and have some ‘conversational scripts’ on hand to stop
people interrupting you. In an open plan office try to do something that signals ‘do not interrupt me’, such as wearing headphones that may not even be plugged into anything!

Contextual clarity

Always keep an eye on the big picture. Ask yourself, “is this the best use of my time?” Track the critical path of each project and do the big tasks first.

Planned spontaneity

Dedicate chunks of time in your day to unplanned activity. Use this for both your business and personal life. Embrace the messiness of creative pursuits.

B. Five Ideas that help those who prefer Chaos to work smarter

Capture information more effectively

Have dedicated journals for all your notes and avoid loose bits of paper.
 For example, have one for ideas and one for meetings.

Objective clarity

Focus on the outcome of the meeting or project. Ask the questions “What do we need to achieve here today?” and “What question are we asking?

Completion focus

Spend your time getting things to the next stage rather than starting new projects. Consider a project list where you simply list all your current projects and dates for when you want them completed. Become aware of sequence and advance each project like the ‘pucks’ on a shuffleboard game.

Productivity blitz

Immerse yourself totally in an activity and don’t stop until it’s done –
a continuous single-minded focus. “Today I clean my desk.” or “This afternoon
I prepare that presentation.”

Static distraction

Use noise and crowded places as a way of focusing on a task. Non-specific noise helps a chaos person do more.

C. Five Ideas that help all of us when we have dropped out of the ‘making stuff happen’ game

The hardest quadrant to move out of is the lower left, as we have to shift both our focus and discipline. This ‘Dumb’ quadrant is a place that we all visit when we hit a funk. We are less smart about our time or work, often becoming trapped in patterns of behaviour.

Discipline pleasure

Start setting little rules around what you do in your downtime, e.g., there is no TV or a shower until you have done some sit ups.

Get out more

New perspectives help you break out of your rut by giving you the inspiration to shift back into your preferred mode of either Order or Chaos. Remember, we need to do this before we can move up to working Smarter.

Learn something new

Learning something new is a simple way to rapidly get out of a ‘doing’ rut.

Be accountable to someone

Declare a goal to a friend, coach or boss to help you follow through on your commitment. There’s nothing quite like peer pressure and living in integrity. Put signs and targets on your wall such as ‘Exercise every day for the next ten days.’

Turn off better

When we are in a rut we numb out and are happy to wind down with whatever is at hand. Try recording the TV shows you want to watch, rather than channel surfing and watching rubbish.

Further Reading

For those who love Order

For those who love Chaos