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Do you thrive in chaos?

There is no doubt that there are moments or even full days where life is chaotic at home or at work. Maybe it is 20 things happening all at one time, a family emergency, or too many things going wrong all at once.  We innately do not like things to be busy, hectic, and complicated, but chaos and “crazy busy” times will happen.The key to thriving in chaos is expecting it, mentally preparing for it and practicing some strategies that will help bring order to unplanned circumstances.

Yesterday, I had 15 minutes of chaos at work that afterward made me think, “That was freaking crazy!” I work as a school secretary in the front office of an elementary school. There are five of us that work in the office including myself, the Principal, Assistant Principal, Health Assistant, and Office Clerk.  Most days we function like a well-oiled machine. Even though we are typically very busy, we have become pretty darn good at multitasking, stopping and starting projects all day long, and juggling a wide variety of matters with students, district and school staff, parents, and members of the community.  We have learned to seize the moment whenever there is quiet to pound out some work and discuss school matters.

But every once in awhile a series of things cause our well-oiled machine to break down, which throws everyone off their game and things start to feel busy and chaotic. 

Yesterday, our machine broke down during the very last half hour of the school day.  We had four student discipline issues happening simultaneously and a growing line of people in our front lobby.  In fact, I can’t remember a time we had so many adults in our lobby waiting for our assistance for such a wide variety of reasons.

We had a group of parents waiting for us to find children they were signing out early. Unfortunately, it was taking longer than normal to track the students down because the radios and intercoms were not working properly and some of the classes were not following their typical schedules.  We had teachers calling the office for a variety of reasons and at the same time, we had a large list of last-minute changes to students after school plans that needed to be communicated to staff.

There were four instructors for after school classes standing in the lobby asking us to review their multi-page rosters of kids to determine if any kids were absent, left early, or would not be in their enrichment class. And lastly, we had two new families walk in with registration documents that needed to be scanned and forms to fill out. 

At one point I had a school phone up to my ear, a cell phone up to the other ear, someone calling through a scratchy radio, and a staff member standing at my desk talking to me. "Crazy Busy" indeed!

This was a solid 15 minutes of chaos where each one of us needed 15 arms and a whole bunch of patience.  I wonder if someone was video recording us, would we have appeared stressed and frantic? Were our customers (staff and parents) frustrated and inpatient because they had to wait, or did we give off enough of a “calm” vibe to put them at ease.  We obviously got through the moment, the world didn’t stop turning, and we even laughed about it afterward.


So what is the key thriving in chaos?

Expecting it.

Just because we should expect chaos, doesn’t mean we are going to like it. Chaos causes stress because we don’t like to feel out of control.  We feel uncomfortable and anxious because our minds like order, simplicity, and perfection. We innately do not like things to be busy, hectic, and complicated.

10 strategies to bring order to unplanned circumstances

  1. Let go and accept. Accept that your perfect day has changed. Recognizing that “crazy busy” is just part of the job and that you will never have perfect moments at all times will prepare you to handle the next “crazy busy” moment better. Stop worrying that people are going to view you as a failure, won’t like you, or will criticize your business and say you are not good enough. Trust that things will work out.

  2. Adapt to Change and Practice. Be prepared to modify your thoughts at a moment’s notice and have a willingness to adapt to change. You need to build up your tolerance to an ever changing environment. The more times you deal with “crazy busy” moments, the more tolerant you become, you become more smooth, and you feel more confident to handle the crazy.  

  3. Do not panic. Encourage your team to slow down the pace just enough to be methodical and careful.  You must slow down, focus and take action so you do not appear unsettled. Do everything in your power to help, but speak slowly, firmly, and with confidence. This air of confidence reduces everyone’s stress.  If you talk fast, you will appear panicked which makes other people panic and your stress level will rise. Speaking and moving slowly will give you and everyone else time to process, plan and execute. If you take action too quickly, you will become careless, and make mistakes which will make an already chaotic situation much worse.  

  4. Team Work. Work on taking your camaraderie up a notch. Clearly define team roles and responsibilities so the team can complete many tasks at one time without having to stop and delegate tasks.

  5. Systems. As you approach a peak busy time your senses become more heightened, your breathing increases, your heart races faster, and your movements become more erratic.  It is important to have efficient and effective systems in place that will help prevent your heightened senses from becoming clouded. The worst thing to do in a moment of chaos is to abandon what you normally do.  If you abandon your regular routine, you will create new problems. Build flexibility in your daily routines, ensure you have enough staff to handle peak busy times, cross-train your staff members so other people can jump in to help, and even managers should be prepared to help out during busy times.

  6. Prioritize. Assess and prioritize issues within the context of your current situation. Often chaos starts unnecessarily and builds momentum because people leap into action without consideration. Most people approach a chaotic time by identifying the issue or problem first, determining how it can be handled, and then who can take care of the problem.  It might be better to switch it up and determine who can help first, then identify the issue and figure out how to fix it.

  7. Communicate. Let your customers or coworkers know what is going on during a busy time so you can manage their expectations.  Sometimes you need to quickly make a decision whether you can multitask, or if you need to step back and take one thing at a time.  For example, if you have a line at your counter but the phone is ringing. Is it possible to still answer the phone and also acknowledge your customer at the counter so they know they have been seen? 

  8. It’s not your emergency.  During a “crazy busy” time, recognize that not everything is your emergency. Slow down the crazy. Everything you do is with the intent to help, so even if something doesn’t get done as quickly as one would like or exactly how it normally does, you still made the situation better. This might seem harsh, but this is a way to distance yourself and remain objective. The term “crazy busy” comes from the automatic physical response of rushing.  This drives a feeling of frenzy and can make your team think every minute of the day is an emergency. Try to remember the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” Speed isn’t the key factor during busy times. Effective movement in the right direction is the key.

  9. Smile through it. Attitude is half the battle in a chaotic situation. A person's first impression of your attitude is based on non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, body language and even the speed and pitch at which you speak.  Teams that deal with high-stress, busy times are able to maintain their cool. They don’t dismiss the reality of their hectic situation, but they simply relax into it and smile in a comforting manner. A simple honest smile can put yourself and others at ease and shifts the focus to the task rather than the emotion.  Sometimes you might not feel like smiling, you might be tempted to snap at a customer or colleague, you might want to brush off the impatient person in front of you, you may want to roll your eyes at someone who is crossing boundaries, but you need to learn how to master the “poker face”. Remain polite and calm even if it means you have to fake it till you make it.  

  10. Reflection. Each time you encounter a chaotic situation, break it down afterward and discuss what you can do differently next time. This will help you improve your current systems and eliminate unnecessary systems. Identify the moments when you may have lost your “poker face”, reflect on why that may have happened and what you can do to fake it better next time.  Learn from your mistakes.

Do you thrive in chaos?

Think of a time that felt super “crazy busy” and try at least one of the strategies above to help you work through it.  Practice. Practice. Practice.

Try a new strategy each time and you are sure to become more smooth, confident, patient, and approachable when handling busy times.

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