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Boring People Make Better Managers

Or do they? Two experts weigh the values of instituting a steady-but-boring routine versus consciously shaking things up.
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Each morning when you wake up, do you know fairly clearly what the day has in store for you? You know what you'll eat for lunch, when you'll hit the gym, and what you'll tackle first when you sit down at your desk?

Or are you instead more of a play-it-by-ear kind of person, letting each day unfold as it may, allowing your moods to dictate the flow of your activities and often seeking out new experiences for yourself and your team?

We got to wondering: Is one or the other approach more productive for entrepreneurs, or is it all a matter of personal preference?

This contrast between the routine and the spontaneous was recently highlighted by the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, when two diametrically opposed posts on the topic followed each other in quick succession. Harvard Professor Robert Pozen weighed in first with a post entitled, "Boring Is Productive." Drawing on a recent Vanity Fair profile of President Obama in which he describes his very strict routine, Pozen argues just what you'd imagine from the post's title--make as much of your day automatic as possible. He begins with a quote from Obama: 

"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

I share President Obama's practice of "routinizing the routine." I eat essentially the same thing for breakfast each morning: a bowl of cold cereal and a banana. For lunch, I eat a chicken salad sandwich with a diet soda. Each morning, I dress in one of a small number of suits, each of which goes with particular shirts and ties.

Why do President Obama and I subject ourselves to such boring routines? Because both of us (especially President Obama!) make many decisions each day--decisions that are far more important to us than what we wear or what we eat for breakfast.

Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of a limited resource: your mental energy….if you want to be able to have more mental resources throughout the day, you should identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane--and then "routinize" those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.

Being boring then is a way to conserve your decision-making faculties for the truly important aspects of your day. But not everyone finds this approach so appealing, at least not in every situation, as another post that appeared about three hours later on the HBR Blog Network makes clear.

This one, in the form of a video, was from Frank Barrett, author of Say Yes to the Mess, and it makes a very different sort of argument. Citing jazz great Miles Davis and a customer service-challenged airline as examples, Barrett explains that by forcing yourself (or your team) out of your comfort zone by consciously disrupting your routines, you can generate far more innovative ideas. Check out the three-minute talk for the details:

Although their recommendations are 180 degrees apart, both experts could be correct. Pozen's approach is aimed at maximizing mental energy for tough decisions and rigorous thinking. Barrett is more concerned with pushing the brain to be creative and see the world afresh (similarly, others have suggested changing your physical location to shake up your mode of thinking).

As a business owner, you probably need your brain for both reasoned decision making and idea generation, so how do you balance routine and surprise in your day?

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Sep 21, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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