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Forget balance: Embrace comfortable chaos

Suzanne flops down at her breakfast nook and takes a sip of her now-cold coffee, feeling like she has already run a marathon. After getting her three children out the door, she surveys the whirlwind that is her kitchen. Even though the dishes are in the sink, the counters are cluttered with the remains of the week's activities. It's been a crazy few days with some event every night, and the kitchen is wearing the remains of a dash-and-go week. Suzanne sighs and feels too overwhelmed and tired to start cleaning up, wondering how it got this hectic when it's only the second week of school.

When did life get so crazy? Whether you work outside the home, stay home full time with children or do something in between, you face a seemingly endless amount of information and "to do's." It's not that previous generations didn't work hard. They certainly did. But today, life in a straight line has been replaced with wildly divergent priorities that require seemingly boundless energy, time and originality to make it all work. The information age has brought us many benefits, but it can all be rather tiring -- and it can all end up on your kitchen counter.

So what is the answer to all the mess and the rushing around? It's definitely not the pursuit of balance, which implies getting everything lined up just right and then standing on one foot while juggling to keep it there. As a woman in our focus group last summer told us, "Don't insult me by insinuating that true balance is even possible." Instead, we advocate shifting toward a concept we call "Comfortable Chaos."

Comfortable Chaos isn't perfection, and we are not promising any miracles that will make your world wonderful overnight. Instead, it advocates incremental changes and provides a different framework from which to view your life.

Comfortable Chaos can best be described metaphorically as living life like a ride on a white-water raft. It means learning how to enjoy the rapids, avoid capsizing in the white water and paddling to some pools of calm water. Notice how it's not about getting out of the raft and leaving the river altogether. That's simply an unrealistic vision because the nature of our world is not likely to change. But that's OK, because the thrill of the river gives us so many rich opportunities and experiences. The trick is to enjoy the wild times while becoming skilled at creating the moments of peace you need -- the pools of calm water.

Comfortable Chaos has three components, which we call the three I's. This article focuses on the first "I," which stands for individual, and echoes Socrates' famous quote of "know thyself." The better you understand your personal style and preferences, the more you will be able to make conscious, realistic choices that work for you and your family.

One of the most helpful things you can learn about yourself is what we call your "co-efficient for chaos," or your CFC.

What is your personal tolerance for chaos? Maybe you only feel really alive and energized if you are doing several things at once and have a lot going on around you. In other words, you love the thrill of the rapids and will seek them out whenever possible. Or maybe you are someone who prefers to work on one project at a time and keep your surroundings calm and orderly. Neither of these styles is good or bad -- they just are. They simply represent different levels of tolerance for chaos.

In the sidebar, we have included our CFC quiz. To take the quiz, simply circle the answer that pops in your head. Once you have your score, keep in mind that the scale is on a continuum and the demarcations are only a guideline. The CFC score is meant to give you a sense of your preferences and provide you with valuable information to make both work/life choices and daily schedule decisions.

If you scored as a high CFC, you undoubtedly have an elevated need for activity and excitement. You like to have several projects going at once and enjoy the rush of deadlines and commitments -- the whitewater rapids. Everything in moderation is not your mantra. In fact, if enough chaos does not exist then you will create your own! Many high-CFC people have a high tolerance for chaos because they have a low tolerance for boredom.

One danger of being a high CFC is that you may also have an over-inflated view of what you can handle and are therefore more at risk to crash and burn. You are typically so focused on the thrill of the wild ride that you don't hear your inner voice telling you to pull back until there are behavioral or physical manifestations, like being grouchy or developing a headache. As a high CFC, you want to harness the energy of your style and use it to your advantage, but also learn to pay attention to the signs that you are approaching the edge of your tolerance.

If you scored as a mid-range CFC, your mantra is all things in moderation, including chaos and excitement. You multi-task well and can handle a fairly high level of chaos for short periods of time, but prefer moderate levels on an ongoing basis. You may be able to handle heavy chaos in one area of your life as long as you have order and calm in the others. Some of the mid-range CFC's get their "excitement quotient" met at work or through some other activity, and then purposely shift into low-CFC mode when they come home.

If you are a low CFC, you may have a purposeful and methodical approach to your responsibilities and your life in general. You aren't crazy about surprises and feel most energized when your day is planned without overlapping commitments. You enjoy focusing on one task at a time and get a great deal of satisfaction out of a job well done.

A plus of this style is that you are more likely to be in tune with your innate boundaries, even if it isn't on a cognitive level. You sense in both mind and body when you are getting too close to your threshold of chaos. Some low CFC's don't think they get as much done as people with a higher CFC, but that's not necessarily the case. Don't sell yourself short just because your style is not the one celebrated in our society, where being frenzied has become a status symbol.

Now that you know your CFC, how can you use it to make your chaos more comfortable? What follows are two strategies you can use right away to find those pools of calm water.

The first strategy is to assess your overall activity level in relation to your CFC. If you are a high CFC, you may have a packed schedule and love the pace and the variety. But perform a sanity check to see if you can realistically meet all of those commitments and even whether you can get to all of them on time and relatively stress-free.

Take one week of your calendar, including all of your kids' activities and family commitments, and lay them out visually, being conscious to allow a cushion of time between each event. If it is physically impossible, call a family meeting and lead everyone in a family prioritization discussion.

This same exercise works for medium and low CFCs. If you are a medium CFC, work on scheduling down time or low-energy activities between the high intensity times. Maybe you will go like mad all morning, but then block out two hours in the afternoon to re-group, organize and get ready for the rest of your day.

If you are a low CFC, you must be even more vigilant about schedule overload. In fact, you probably already are. This next strategy is even more important for you.

The second strategy is to stop comparing yourself to others and judging. One of the reasons this is so important is because you can eliminate a huge percentage of your stress and anxiety when you are completely at peace with your current work/life choice. It's when you are constantly comparing yourself to others and evaluating yourself in terms of other people's definition of success, that you will quickly become exhausted. And in our society, comparing has become a national pastime.

Right away, start noticing when you are comparing and then stop. Comparing is never a winnable proposition. Tell yourself it's like trying to compare apples and oranges. Then remember the first "I," individual, and remind yourself that everyone has to make the choice that is right for him or her. Lastly, smile and congratulate yourself on saving some energy for the mess on your kitchen counter. ™

Carolyn Harvey and Beth Herrild are two moms and corporate veterans who speak and consult on the topic of Comfortable Chaos. Self-Counsel Press will publish their book by the same name in Spring 2005. To request email notification when the book is available, please email them at

The Coefficient for Chaos Quiz
© 2003 Quest for Balance

When you get time to yourself, do you tend to:
a.) call a friend and chat
b.) retreat into solitude
c.) a little of each

When the phone rings, do you often:
a.) answer by the second or third ring
b.) let the machine or voicemail get it
c.) depends on what you are doing

To relax, do you prefer:
a.) going out for a walk or being with friends
b.) lying on the couch or reading a book
c.) depends on your mood that day

When you are in a crowd:
a.) you find them fun and energizing
b.) plan to leave as soon as possible
c.) may stay if it is an enjoyable event

When you turn on some music, do you:
a.) play it loud and often have other things going on
b.) play it as background music and prefer it soft
c.) depends on your mood

Do you:
a.) enjoy the freedom of being spontaneous
b.) feel best when you have a plan for your day and follow it
c.) like some of each

Are you usually:
a.) late for appointments
b.) early
c.) right on time

Do you prefer having:
a.) several projects going at once
b.) one project at a time
c.) a couple projects at once

When you sit down at home to watch a movie, do you:
a.) have to be doing several other things at the same time
b.) sit and only watch the movie
c.) sometimes also do another task

Scoring your quiz
For each "a" that you circled, give yourself 3 points. For each "b" circled, give yourself 1 point. For each "c" circled, give yourself 2 points. If your total was 21-27, your CFC is high. If your score was 15-21, your CFC is in the mid-range. If your score was 9-14, your CFC is low.

How a dinner co-op made my life less chaotic
By Randi Niemer

What we call our Dinner Co-op is a collaborative affair with two women I now consider dear friends. I got the idea from another friend who lives out of state. I love it because I found that I was not very good at doing the dinner thing, and that my family (mostly my kind husband) was paying the price. It's been more than two and a half years since we started the co-op, and it has removed tons of stress from my life. And I don't go to the store nearly as often, which, for me, translates into time and money saved.

Basically, this is how it works. The three participating families each have a day to cook and deliver for the others -- the days our group chose were Monday, Tuesday or Thursday. We bought 13-inch-by-9-inch identical Pyrex dishes for the main course and a Rubbermaid container for the salad, fruit or vegetables.

Each family prepares a main dish, which either needs to be baked or easily assembled. Additionally, we deliver a salad or fruit or vegetables. Enchiladas, lasagna, ham, meatloaf, teriyaki chicken or tacos are just some of the dishes we make.

We repeat the menu every six weeks, and we get together four times a year to change and plan our menus and figure out if we need to make adjustments for vacations, holidays or anything else that might come up. During the summer months, we have a night once a week that we deliver something to be grilled. Fresh fruit is also much more prevalent in the summer.

My kids have been introduced to foods and eaten things I might never have cooked, and they are certainly getting a broader range of foods in their diet. They don't necessarily love everything but, for the most part, they eat what's been prepared. And of course, there are those dishes that they love. If something is not liked at all, for whatever reason, at our quarterly meetings we say, "That doesn't work for our family." Enough said, and it will be dropped from the menu.

My day to cook is Tuesday. While I spend more time preparing for three families that day than if I was just preparing for one, I don't spend triple the amount of time. Best of all, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I hardly have to do anything -- no planning and very little preparation is involved. My moans of "What should I fix for dinner?" at 4 p.m. are eliminated at least three times a week!

Fortunately, we live within a two-block area, which couldn't be easier for delivery. We have set times and have exchanged keys to each other's homes so that we don't have to be around when dinner is delivered. We all have three kids approximately the same ages, and there are no food allergies or special diets that need to be considered. We may need to adjust the amounts of food as the kids get older, and we've also thought of adding a fourth family to the mix, but we hate to tamper with such success.

To get started, I suggest talking to friends and neighbors, and putting up notices in your local churches, community centers and schools to find some like-minded participants. Vegetarian, kosher or organic-only families could also get together with families that have similar diets. It's not hard to set up, you'll gain new friendships and eliminate the dinner chaos! ™

Randi Niemer lives in Ballard and would be happy to help anyone start his or her own dinner co-op. Contact her at

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