The Habits of Highly Boring People

March 17, 2017.
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Chris Sauve:
The Habits of Highly Boring People

At the time of this TED talk, in May 2013, Chris Sauve was a business student at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, majoring in accounting, with computer science.  He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 2014 and has since been working for Shopify, a major Canadian e-commerce company.

The theme of this talk is the interesting proposition that being ‘boring’ can actually be a catalyst for living a more focused and ultimately creative life.

TEDxCarletonU March 2013

Sauve opens his talk with a quote from the French novelist, Gustave Flaubert: “Be boring and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”.  At first sight this appears to be a contradiction, as Sauve himself acknowledges—pointing out that ‘boring’, by definition, means unoriginal.

However, the quote is more about doing things in a way that might seem boring, but is actually structured—in order to free up our energy to focus on what we enjoy.  Having structure in our life can be an enabler of creativity, not an inhibitor, and Sauve identifies three ‘boring’ traits that can help us:

1. Write Everything Down
Most of us have so many activities on the go at any one time, that it is difficult to keep track of them all. Sauve refers to research done by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller (of Princeton University) showing that, on average, people can only remember between 5 and 9 things at one time, or 7+/-2, the ‘Magical Number’ (the title of a paper by Miller in 1956).

Sauve points to the example of Microsoft’s main website where they list only 6 of their products, even though they have many more, because they understand that long lists can be easily forgotten.

However, failure to remember and keep track of all the things we are doing can lead to missed meetings, missed project deadlines, and so on, which can have negative consequences – unless we write down what we are doing, and reduce the stress and mental effort.

2. Reduce to The Essentials
These days we have an almost unlimited range of choices about how to live our lives: what to wear, what to eat, where to visit, etc.  The range of choices is so wide however, that, as Sauve points out, we often find ourselves facing the ‘Paradox of Choice’ – the title of a book (2004) by the psychologist Barry Schwartz, which looks at the anxiety and stress caused by so much choice.

Faced with so many choices, many people become afraid of making a choice for fear of missing out on other choices, and so risk ending up making no choice, but sticking with what they are used to.

The effort required to sift so many choices diverts our mental energy away when we need it for the big decisions. Sauve mentions the example of Steve Jobs, who often wore the same kind of clothes again and again in his public appearances, which might appear boring, but it cut out the stress of choosing what to wear each time and freed up his mental energy for creative thinking.

Sauve produces a small grid and recommends that reducing to the essentials can be done by cutting out things we don’t need and don’t like, and also by automating those things we do need but don’t necessarily like—thereby freeing up our mental energy to do what we do like doing.

3. Stop and Question
Sauve sees this as the most important of the three traits—pointing out that if we only follow the first two traits mentioned above, the vast flow of information and data that is being created around us each day will swamp us—and he gives a couple of interesting statistics about the volume of this data flow.

So, we have to stop and question the world around us, and not be satisfied with just our first question, because that will often have been asked before—but go on to ask more questions and re-evaluate what is important and valuable to us and what value we can add back.

Sauve concludes with a call to action: Be boring.  Do amazing things.

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This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.

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