Chris Sauve on The Habits of Highly Boring People @ TEDxCarletonU – Transcript
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Chris Sauve – Television Director
We’re going to start today with a quote by Gustave Lebel, and he said, “Be boring and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
And when I originally heard that quote, I thought it with a contradiction. It didn’t make any sense to me that you could be boring and exciting commonplace and original all at the same time. But I thought more about it, and I realized it wasn’t about being a boring person.
Boring people are unoriginal. They are unexcited. That’s the definition. It was about doing boring things, and that sometimes we could do boring things. We could put structures in our lives that made us less exciting in some way. But what they allowed us to do was they allowed us to focus. They allowed us to do more amazing things in other ways. So that structure wasn’t an inhibitor of creativity, as I thought it was. Structure was actually an enabler of creativity. It was an enabler of a more fulfilling life.
So I thought about boring people. Or at least, I thought about people who were boring in some ways but who did incredible things in other. And I looked for traits and behaviors that they had in common. And I found a few. I’m going to talk about them today. But I laughed when I found them, because they were so boring. They were so commonplace, so easy to implement, so obvious that I think we skip right by them. We try and be exciting right away. We don’t worry about doing that structure part, because that’s damn boring. But I’m here to tell you that that is the absolute key.
The first thing I found was that boring people who did amazing things wrote things down. Nothing exciting, that’s the way it should be.
And why do we have to write things down? Well, first, let’s think about how many things we can actually remember, because if we could remember everything, writing things down wouldn’t be a competitive advantage at all.
To show this, I am going to use a bit of a non-traditional example. This is Microsoft’s home page. They are an enormous corporation. They have hundreds of products, millions of customers. And when they’re describing themselves on their homepage, which is their face to the entire world, they do so in just six words. Microsoft knows it has more than that going on. But what they also know about us is that we are not smart, and in some cases we’re so comically unintelligent. They know that if they put 10 things here, by the time you reach the 10th we’d already have forgotten about the first three. They knew about this idea of the magical number.
This was George Miller, he wrote a research paper couple decades back now. And he argued that our short term memory, our working memory was limited to about five to nine items. So we think of these as mental juggling balls. As soon as we have more than five to nine things in the air, some of them start to drop off.
Now think about your schedule. If they’re anything like mine and I imagine a lot of yours are. There are dozens of events, meetings, appointments, classes, and you probably have a whole bunch of projects going on as well. And when I thought about this, I was amazed to find that since September of this year, I had started 182 projects. Six months, almost 200 things that I added to my life.
And I thought, well, I’m the kind of person who can actually write all this down. I’m probably a bit of an outlier in this respect. What I found when I looked closer was that on average people had about 50 simultaneous things going on. So every single one of you on average has 50 things, some of them are big, some of them are small. But they’re all wearing on your brain there. They’re all using that same five to nine items that you have for your working memory.
So it’s not too hard to come up with a fairly simple chart here. This is how many things we have to do, how many things we have to remember, and this is how many things we actually can, how many things our physiology lets us. And in between here we’ve got a big red gap. And I’ll call that read gap the danger zone.
And what’s the danger zone? The danger zone is every single time anyone has handed in an assignment late. Every single time they haven’t made it to a meeting on time. Every single time that they’ve had a project that they put off for a day, or a week or a month or a year. If every single time we’ve had more than those five to nine mental juggling balls and some of them started falling through the cracks.
So how do we manage this? Well, I’ll use a bit of an analogy. Mathematicians would bemoan the fact that we really can’t do mental math anymore. We’ve basically given that ability to calculate. But I see it in a different light. I think it’s incredibly smart that we let the calculator do all the calculating, because we’re really not that great at. Multiplication, division, that’s pretty tough stuff. But a calculator is perfect at, it will never make a mistake. So what we do is the division of labor. We tell the calculator to do the calculating and we do the actual math, because we’re the only ones who can.
And by the same token, we’re terrible at remembering what we have to do and when we have to do it. So the only logical thing then is to give that off to an external tool that can do it better than us. And we have these, and we’ve had them since we were in Grade 3 probably. They’re agenda, to do lists, calendar, notebook, simple boring things but they will never forget. Their working memory is effectively unlimited.
And when we off-board that information to them, what we can do is we can focus all of our attention, all of our energy on to just one or two projects at a time. We can remember every single thing about them and devote the energy that they deserve. So the first thing that boring people did was they wrote absolutely everything down.
Second thing is they reduced to the essential. I went to the grocery store and I took a picture, this is an aisle. And this is all toothpaste. And to be clear, toothpaste is something you put in your mouth and then you spit out. And we have dozens of brands of them.
Barry Schwartz talks about this idea of the paradox of choice and he looks at all of those brands of toothpaste and all the different things we can buy, and all the different restaurants we can go to, all the different games we could purchase. And he says that this actually doesn’t make our lives any better. And I think intuitively we know that’s true. We know that we now have too many choices that those choices start to hurt us, because we’re afraid of making the wrong choice. And sometimes we’re so afraid that we don’t make any choice at all. We just go with everything.
I don’t know how many of you recognize this outfit. It’s certainly something that I’m quite fond of. This is what Apple co-founder Steve Jobs wore almost every single day and to every single keynote for more than a decade. And obviously he was a bit of an eccentric guy but he is not the only one either. President Obama says that he only has two colors of suit, he’s got a blue suit and he’s got a gray suit.