The Optimal Amount of Chaos

Simple rules help you avoid the extremes and keep on top of what matters
By Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
August 25, 2021 Updated: September 3, 2021

For a while, I’ve been tracking 12 daily habits with an app. The impact on my life has been significant. So positive, in fact, that you know what my greatest temptation has been? Wanting to track 12 more habits.

I love the sense of order in my day and the satisfaction of marking each habit as complete. And I want more of those feelings.

Now thankfully, I chose an app that sets a hard limit on tracking 12 items. The creators of the app were smart. They knew about people like me. People who take a good thing and push it too far. And when this happens, people like me stop using their app.

Here’s a pattern:

First, chaos.

Then, a highly motivated return to order.

Then, an over-correction toward extreme order.

Which leads to exhaustion and frustration.

Then, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Finally, a return to chaos.

Now, two examples:

Scenario 1: Cleaning

The countertops in the kitchen are covered with stuff. Toys are spread across the floors from sea to shining sea. And for two days we’ve been picking our clothes from the clean laundry basket instead of our drawers.

After admitting that our home has become chaotic, my wife and I sit down in the evening to devise a plan. Not so much how to clean the house, but how to keep it from ever getting this way again.

We talk. We strategize. I push for a more extreme plan. We decide that we’re putting an end to this clutter and mess once and for all. And we mean it. We truly believe in our hearts that we’re going to devise a plan so watertight, a process so comprehensive, that no clutter will ever break through.

And for a couple of weeks it works. Pushed forward by an initial burst of motivation and the excitement of seeing real progress, we’ll transform the house to a level of clean that it hasn’t seen since, well, the last time we did this.

Then, reality hits. A busy day causes a pile of dishes to remain in the sink. A sick child throws off all bets. Or we’re simply exhausted from our all-out effort and constant vigilance against clutter. Each time looks different but the result is the same: Our perfect plan was too rigid to handle real life. We got frustrated, discouraged, and gave up. The pendulum swings back to chaos.

Scenario 2: Parenting

One day it dawns on my wife and me that a particular behavior in one of our children has slipped too far. Maybe we’re repeating every request two or three times, or maybe they’re arguing with everything we ask them to do.

One of us, usually me, declares that things are going to start changing around here. My instinct is to pull in the reins as tight as possible. So over the next few days, I’m on my children for everything. Every infraction gets a consequence. Every stray behavior is corrected and admonished. The goal: military-grade discipline within the week.

But soon our house feels like a boot camp instead of a home. We’ve swung the pendulum too far toward order and forgotten that our kids are still kids. We’ll need to work with them on these behaviors over the course of months and years, and not fool ourselves into thinking we’ll set things straight in a week.

After a while, I get tired of hearing myself dish out orders and consequences. It’s exhausting and I feel distant from my children because the majority of our interactions are correction-based. This ratio isn’t ideal for flourishing children. And despite our efforts, the kids’ behavior hasn’t changed anywhere near as fast as we had hoped. The whole effort feels like a failure and so we quietly throw in the towel and the pendulum swings back toward chaos.

Simple Rules

Why do we swing like a pendulum between control and chaos? At first it feels easier to operate at the extremes. The rules and decisions are simpler. There is clarity and relief that comes from a sharp change in course. But through many cycles, I can report that this isn’t a sustainable course.

But what is the solution?

I’ve found that the key in many areas of life is to adopt a few very simple rules and then to allow as much flexibility as possible.

When it comes to keeping our house in order, my wife and I have settled on a few simple rules.

  1. Every night the dishes in the sink get washed and put away
  2. We keep the living room floor clean by picking up anything on the floor and putting it in our “clutter bin” which gets emptied by the kids when it’s full
  3. We wash, dry, fold, and put away one load of laundry every day (Monday through Thursday)
  4. When the kids want a snack (usually twice a day) we use that as leverage to get them to clean up the toys they were just playing with

There are lots of other areas in the house that get cleaned (some on a more regular schedule than others), but for the most part, we tackle those jobs when we have time or motivation or simply when they bother us enough that something has to be done. The nice thing, though, is that our four simple rules ensure that we start each day with a clean kitchen counter, a clean living room floor, and clean laundry. And the toy situation, while not perfect, is kept somewhat in check by our little snack bribes.

Summary

Find the sweet spot between control and chaos.
Stay away from the extremes.
Start with just a few simple rules (probably fewer rules than you think).
Too much order is exhausting. Too much chaos is exhausting, too.
The sweet spot is motivating and sustainable.
Avoid the pendulum.

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home, you can read it here.

Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.