How to be productive when you’re surrounded by chaos

How to get things done when no one else wants to.


It’s not easy to find your own creative space.

Whether you are working at a small company, a big company, or freelancing out of a coffee shop, it is a constant challenge to block out distractions and actually be productive.

The hardest part about being productive is figuring out what your triggers are for getting in your flow. That’s the secret. You have to learn what you need, individually, in order to block out distractions and get to work.

Where a lot of people struggle is in separating themselves from “what’s happening.” There is a massive difference between what absolutely needs to get done right now and what could be done now but could also be done later.

Most of the time, chaos isn’t necessarily being surrounded by other people—who may or may not be talkative and distracting. Chaos can also be just work, period.

Take a company environment, for example. Many companies struggle in time and resource management. If you are a service company, then your “inventory” is people. You employ designers, account managers, copywriters, etc., and each one of those people has an hourly cost associated to their name. They are the inventory, and their time needs to be spent efficiently in order for the business to remain profitable.

Chaos, then, is when resources are not managed properly. Either people don’t know what is expected of them, and so they focus on the wrong things, or their time is not budgeted correctly and everything is considered a priority.

When everything is a priority, then nothing ends up getting done. As the old adage goes, “Chase two rabbits, both get away.”

In order to be productive amidst chaos, here is what you need to gain clarity around:

1. What is the expectation?

You cannot get done what you are unsure of in the first place. You need to know what it is that will be expected of you, and in what form.

Solution: write a creative brief. When you work within an agency or company, this tends to be communicated in the form of a creative brief. Even freelancers should use this same process, writing down specific deliverables and verifying them with the client before getting started.

2. When are things “due?”

Whatever it is you’re working on, it needs a “due” date relative to everything else you are working on. Remember, you only have so many hours in a day. So in order to spend them wisely, it’s not enough to know when each thing is “due” individually, but also how all those timelines affect one another.

Solution: hold a stand-up meeting. A very helpful habit to adopt, especially in a team setting, is holding fifteen minute “stand-up” meetings every morning. Just a quick check-in with everyone to make sure things are on track, and any issues that have come up along the way get resolved quickly and efficiently.

3. How do you get the most done?

If you know you are more productive in the mornings, do your hardest work first. If you are better in the afternoons, take care of all your menial tasks in the morning so you can spend the afternoon digging in. You have to know yourself in order to plan accordingly.

Solution: create do-not-disturb hours. People, and companies as a whole, that understand the value of time often operate strictly off the calendar. If you block off three hours to get in your zone and work, no one can (or should) disturb you during that time. It’s yours.

4. What can you control?

Sometimes, especially if you are working in an office setting, you can’t always control where you work, or who you are working near. If the environment itself is unproductive, then you need to find your own solutions. Headphones? Move to another room? Show up to work early? Stay late? Whatever it takes to get things done, within your control, is what you need to do.

Solution: find the right environment. However, too often people fall victim to their environment—and blame their shortcomings on what is happening around them. You cannot. Have a conversation with a key decision maker. Request a different workspace. Find a solution that will allow you to do your best work.

5. What are your “triggers”?

And finally, make use of little triggers that can help put you in the mindset needed to get things done quickly and effectively. For example: A hot cup of coffee is a trigger for a lot of people. Something about the act of sitting down with a cup, the smell, the taste, it can be a way of reminding yourself that it’s time to “get things done.” Or maybe your trigger is to light a candle nearby. Or listen to some music. Whatever it is, make it part of your routine.

Solution: chat with your team. One of the best triggers can sometimes be just having a conversation with someone else. This is one of the greatest benefits of working with a team. Discuss the project, bounce ideas, and you’ll be moving in the right direction before you know it.


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Nicolas Cole

About the Author Nicolas Cole

Nicolas Cole is an author and entrepreneur. His work has been published in Inc, TIME, Forbes, Fortune, The Huffington Post, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, and more. He tweets @nicolascole77.