Strive for Boring
Be boring and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
My productivity and GTD journey began with a “lifehack” from Merlin Mann on an episode of Back to Work: he used Omnifocus for a recurring reminder every week to take out the trash. It worked wonderfully and that was the extent of my Omnifocus use and pretty much my productivity system. Despite hearing several references to “Getting Things Done” on Back to Work, I never read the book.
A few months ago I decided to get a handle on my productivity system. I had taken up meditation and this made me realize there was a lot in my head. I fired up iBooks and began reading on my iPad, as I waited for my paperback copy to arrive from Amazon (because I’m one of those weirdos that likes physical books).
The principles and methods immediately resonated with me. I did my first “collection” and realized how much was actually on my mind. After a mind-sweep, I saw it all there on paper and it wasn’t just to-dos. David Allen defines “stuff” as “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is”. So yeah, there can be a lot on a person’s mind.
I took a few days and went all in. I setup up the infrastructure and used it for a couple weeks. When anything came up, I knew exactly where it needed to go. It made so much sense and I finally understood why Merlin couldn’t stop talking about it. My mind felt so much lighter and I never worried I was missing or forgetting something. It was incredible. While GTD is for productivity, I recognized that its principles could apply to a system or mindset for organizing other aspects of life. Wouldn’t it be great to know where everything in your life belonged?
More Than To-do Lists
Tim Ferriss had a “in-between-a-sode” for his podcast on “The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle”. It’s a great episode and is actually an audio essay on a post which you can find here. There are six rules but two of them really stuck out to me (emphasis mine):
- Set rules for yourself so you can automate as much decision-making as possible.
- Don’t strive for variation—and thus increase option consideration—when it’s not needed. Routine enables innovation where it’s most valuable.
Hearing the podcast and rereading the essay really drove home the point of the quote1 at the beginning of this post: by minimizing choices, we save ourselves the energy and brain power for things that actually matter, which allows us to be more creative.
I thought about where else I could apply these ideas and principles. Ryan Holiday has a great post titled “The Importance of Having ‘Your Things’” where he discusses the concept of the “inner citadel”:
It was a protected core that could be depended on, counted on for protection and strength. For a philosophy, that meant a series of robust principles that provided guidance in every situation. I try to expand this metaphor in my daily life. Our routine, our choices about what we do and what we own, can be pared down and turned into a source of strength. […]
When you stock your life with things you can depend on and things you can trust, it frees up precious resources.
At the end of the post he has a list of “his things” like what he has for breakfast every morning, the shirts and pants he wears, and where he buys his books. It’s all boring stuff and that’s precisely the point. He doesn’t have to waste any energy on deciding what to eat or wear. Instead, he gets to use his focus and energy on creative output.
Everything in its place
Coming back to GTD, this system minimizes choices. When I get an idea, or email, or think of a “to-do”, I know exactly where it needs to go. It goes to my inbox for collection and follows the GTD workflow from there. If something needs to be filed for reference, I know exactly where in my reference system it needs to go. I don’t have to think about any of this.
Drawing inspiration from the concepts of being boring, the Choice-Minimal Lifestyle, and the inner citadel, I thought about other areas in my life where I could minimize decision making:
- Morning routine — Run through a checklist of my typical morning routine: weighing myself, taking probiotics, making coffee, meditating, pull-ups, and reading.
- Diet — Try intermittent fasting and limiting my eating window between 12-8pm, which means I don’t have to think about what to eat until noon. Eat the same meals repeatedly and save “enjoyable” meals for special occasions.
- Fitness — Separate the concept of fitness and recreation. Focus training on squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and sprints.
- Finance — Automate as many bills as I can. Maintain two checking accounts: one for bills and the other for “conscious free spending”. This way any money that gets deposited into my “Personal” account I can freely spend and not worry if I need it to pay bills.
All of these examples limit, or even remove, decisions I need to make. I encourage you to explore ways to be more boring in your life so that you can preserve mental energy for your creative endeavors.
I didn’t link to the NY Times article in this post, but this is actually the article that got this idea into my head. It gives an overview of ego-depletion and reasons why you may want to incorporate some of the concepts from this blog post.
Other translations of Gustave Flaubert’s quote are: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” and “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”↩