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Habits are the peripheral vision of the mind

Achieving a basic proficiency in a new skill requires an investment of conscious cognitive effort, i.e., thinking a lot. Students are constantly in the process of achieving basic proficiency in new skills and conclude that thinking is required for all intellectual activities (an incorrect assumption also held by many teachers).

To get past the conscious thinking stage lots of time has to be spent performing the skill. Repetition provides the opportunity for performance via conscious thought to migrate to subconscious performance (driving being a common example).

Real-time performance requires fluency, that is, being able to handle technical details without having to think about them. Thinking (i.e., conscious thought) is slow and requires lots of effort. It is best held in reserve for the important stuff.

To paraphrase Alfred Whitehead: “Software development advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

Somebody who has spent 100 hours or so (an hour or two a week for a year) learning to code has the same level of fluency as I have in communicating in a foreign language using a phrase book, or Google translate.

After a 1,000 hours of programming a person should be a very fluent coder.

It is said that becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. The kind of practice involved is deliberate practice, not unconscious use of what is already known. Becoming an expert requires learning lots of new things, not constantly applying what is already known. Old habits have to be broken and new ones acquired.

Programming is not Zen, although it contains elements that are. Why would a developer want to create a program without conscious thought (that is what scripts are for)?

I used to run ‘advanced’ programming courses for professional developers with 2+ years in industry. In many ways the material was a rerun of what they had learned at the start of their programming career. The difference was that this time around they could ignore the mechanics of writing code, now an ingrained habit, and concentrate on the higher level stuff. The course had to have advanced in its title because experienced developers would never sign up for an introductory course. Most of my one-on-one tutoring effort went on talking people out of bad habits they had picked up over time.

Perhaps live coding can be done with a Zen mind, probably why I don’t regard it as real programming (which I think requires some conscious thought).

Talking about details and high level material in the same breath is what beginners do because they have not yet learned to tell the two apart and be able to ignore one of them.

Like life, programs are mostly built from sequences of commonly occurring patterns. Our minds have evolved to subconsciously detect and take advantage of patterns. Programmers don’t know what the common source code patterns are any more than a native speaker can specify the syntax rules of the language they speak.

  1. March 24th, 2016 at 20:51 | #1

    Hi – not quite linked to the site, but are you the Derek Jones who wrote BMX Burner for the Sinclair QL (68000 based computer) ?

  2. March 24th, 2016 at 21:20 | #2

    @Rich Mellor
    I did look into writing a compiler for the QL, but never got as far as doing anything else. Somebody I know who did try and port their Pascal compiler to the QL told me that tape drive problems killed the project.

  3. Dave B.
    May 3rd, 2016 at 21:20 | #3

    Great article and very wise words! :-)

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