Living With Chaos

‘In chaos, there is fertility.’ ~Anaïs Nin

By Leo Babauta

Recently I wrote about the illusion of control, and living with no goals.

What I’m still figuring out is what you do if you let go of the illusion of control, and plan as little as possible.

What’s life like without goals or plans? How do we deal with the chaos?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m learning a lot.

I went to the World Domination Summit in Portland earlier this month with few plans. I had a speech to give, a couple smaller sessions to hold, a bike tour scheduled, a plane ticket and a hotel room. But the large majority of the weekend I left open, with no plans.

It was liberating. I didn’t mind giving the talks, and I loved the tour, but meeting unexpected strangers, hanging out with people I’d never met, going with the flow of the crowd — it was fun. I never really knew what was going to happen next, and that’s scary … but strangely freeing.

As I write this, I’m on a plane to Guam for a month, and I have tons of friends and family to see — they all want to hang out with Eva, me and the kids (and vice versa — we’re excited to see them). But other than a place to stay for two of the four weeks we’ll be there, we have no set plans. We don’t know what we’re doing for transportation, we don’t know what we’ll do each day, and I don’t know where we’ll be living the last couple of weeks. It’s scary, but I know we’ll be fine.

How do you live with the chaos?

You learn to embrace it.

Living Daily Without Plans

I try to schedule as little as possible, and I have no goals for each day. I wake up and ask myself, “What excites me today?” And each day that’s different.

Sure, there are obligations that I have to meet, but mostly those are things I’m excited about. The ones I’m not so excited about, I’ll still do — unless I can avoid them.

But each moment I try to live consciously, in the moment, and ask myself … “What am I passionate about? And how can I handle each moment while being true to my values?”

I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about this with my friend Suraj, who lives in London and practices the Jain religion. He has clearly identified his values: friendship, appreciation, compassion, and equanimity. I love those values.

My value is compassion, which comes in various manifestations: love, kindness, empathy, gratitude. And every time a situation comes up, I ask myself, “How can I deal with this compassionately?”

I’m still learning how to do this. I don’t claim to have mastered it, and will probably be exploring this for years to come.

Why Plans are an Illusion

Living without plans might seem foolish, or unrealistic to most people. That’s fine. But if you want to be realistic, you should understand that the plans you make are pure illusions of control.

Let’s take a simple example. You have plans to write a report (or a blog post or a book chapter) and meet with a colleague or business partner today. The writing is supposed to happen at 9 a.m. and the meeting is at 11 a.m.

Let’s assume those things actually happen according to plan. Many days, other things will come up and the illusion of control is easily shattered. But some days we get lucky and the plans actually happen as we hoped.

So you sit down to write, as planned. Perhaps you’ve outlined your writing. But as you write, you think of things you hadn’t planned. You face problems as you think the writing through that you couldn’t have foreseen before you started writing. In fact, if you pay close attention, it becomes clear that there’s no way you could have planned the writing ahead of time — it has to unfold as you do it, because only as you do it do you fully think things through, and there’s no way to predict our own thinking (let alone the thinking of others).

And so things emerge from our writing that could never have been planned, and in fact if we’re open to it, we might write something entirely brilliant that we never could have predicted. Or if we try to stick to the outline, we might ignore the brilliant possibilities that come up.

So now it’s 11 a.m. and it’s time for your meeting. You meet your colleague or partner, as planned, and start talking. Of course, conversations can’t be planned, and there’s no way to predict what will come up as you talk. You might even have an agenda, but as you talk about things on the agenda, new ideas emerge, and when one of you suggests a new idea, that sparks another idea in the other person, and so on — ideas are sparked, back and forth, that couldn’t have been planned.

And so new ideas and projects and collaborations emerge from this meeting that never could have been planned. And that’s a great thing.

The two planned events, even though they happened as planned, were totally unpredictable and uncontrollable. The more we embrace this chaos, the more we embrace the brilliant possibilities that might emerge. The more we try to control our day and actions with plans, the more we limit ourselves.

Be Open to the Unfolding Moment

We try to hold onto the illusion of control, but what if we instead embraced the chaos? What if we left ourselves open to the changing, unfolding moment, and the possibilities we could never have planned for?

It’s beautiful.

Try it. Throw out your plans for the next hour. See what happens, moment to moment. Think about what excites you, what’s in line with your values.

And as you start doing things that excite you, that are in line with your values … see what new things emerge. Talk with people with no fixed intentions, and see what ideas come up from that interaction. See what new opportunities come up as you interact with people, with ideas, with your own thoughts.

It sounds nebulous, but in fact it’s as concrete as anything else. As I’ve shown, when we make plans, we think we’re setting things in concrete, but it’s always fluid — we just try to make ourselves think it’s solidly concrete.

When we acknowledge the fluidity of our lives, we learn to use that fluidity to our advantage. We flow. We are open to changing currents. We see things with open eyes, instead of trying to make the world fit to our plans and goals.

I don’t have all the answers, and in fact I’d be a hypocrite if I claimed to be able to predict what will happen when I live like this … or if anyone else lives like this.

I don’t know what will happen. Think of the limitless possibilities of that simple statement.

‘Chaos is a friend of mine.’ ~Bob Dylan