Tolerance for Chaos
Published: 2019-06-13 . Back to ≈

“A neat desk is a sign of a sick mind.”

This message is printed on a plaque that hangs on the wall of my dad’s office. By this standard, my dad can probably cross off at least one warning sign of poor mental health.

As someone who likes keep his own possessions a little more tidily, I never considered that the adage might be taken seriously. But a recent experience has given me a new perspective on the matter.

There are perhaps many people who have moved from one state to another. But probably not many have simultaneously packed for two interstate moves at once. Owing to the fact that we would be substantially downsizing, my partner and I had decided to send half of our possessions to our rental house, which we would rent as a furnished apartment.

Packing for this dual move was… uniquely challenging. At many points in the course of packing things up, I found myself seized up, as the current state of progression of things did not lend itself to any easy organizational schema. Rather than simply take on an obvious task like loading the scattered, assorted items in a given vicinity into a box, I found myself doing a sort of aimless meandering, slowly shuttling items around the house, almost mindlessly, but with the underlying theme of trying to create some kind of order within the transitional state. As I write this, I’m reminded of other times when I have painstakingly organized binders of old files and documents before throwing them in the trash.

Now, the inefficiency that I exhibited was partly due to the fact that I wasn’t the only one packing, and didn’t have complete control over the process of packing. Had it been a solitary operation, I likely would have found a way to preserve order to my satisfaction, without becoming gridlocked. Nonetheless, it was striking to notice that, in the face of the chaos that had been created, I found it difficult to manage while my wife had comparatively little trouble.

The experience gave me a new perspective from which to look at the difference between people who are characteristically organized and those who are less so. Being organized generally commands a positive connotation; being unorganized (or even “sloppy” or “messy”), much less so. Compare that with the notion that someone has a low or high tolerance for chaos. Posing things in this manner flips the connotation.

The latter terms more accurate describe how I felt in the midst of our nightmare move: that I had and have a very low tolerance for chaos. My mind is uncomfortable operating in settings where there is not a very well defined order and organization to things; and if that order does not exist, I seek to create it or divine it.

But which way of being is better? Is it better to be organized or to have a high tolerance of chaos?  The answer is likely that it depends.

Being too far to either side of the continuum between order and chaos has costs. To much order can create stricture that leads to inefficiency. If humans could implement an optimal algorithm for turning a furnished house into a loaded moving truck, the process would likely involve little that any human would recognize as order. Put differently, implementing a process which carefully observed standards of organization and order—take a trivial example, like requiring all moving trucks to return to the same city after completing a move—is going to involve costs to the maximum achievable efficiency. On the other hand, it is very difficult for a group of humans to implement a chaotic, but maximally efficient solution. “Where is the tape?” “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” Disorder is rife with opportunities for inefficiency.

This social factor is probably a large reason why “Tolerance for chaos” is more often cast as “sloppiness.” A chaotic solution may be the most efficient for a single individual, but it is seldom good for a group of people trying to work together. Order serves as a lubricant in such situations, and an orderly solution may often be a more efficient solution.

I think that there are various takeaways from these observations. As a person who tends to be more on the neat and organized side of things, it’s helpful to have a way of understanding less organized people that has a positive connotation and is probably simply more accurate. If someone has a high tolerance for chaos, they make use of solutions that are often more efficient. They can have many balls in the air at once, multiple pots boiling, many projects in a state of non-resolution. A more orderly person might be induced to approach tasks in a more linear fashion or at least create an organizational system requiring overhead to maintain, in essence paying a cost of inefficiency for the comfort of orderliness.

For people with a high tolerance for chaos, it is perhaps equally important to realize that there can be a social cost to a chaotic approach to tasks, especially if they are working with people with less tolerance for chaos. Something that works well for them individually still may not be ideal when they are working in a group.