Habitual Thinking

A programmer friend of mine wrote me a note the other day, lamenting that he tried to figure out how to solve a programming problem, but was having trouble because he just couldn’t “see” the solution like he used to be able to. He’s been working for over 20 years in more of a system design capacity than a programming one. He says he tends to think in terms of architecture and latency instead of the details of programming. Once upon a time, he was very good at churning out programming solutions, and even did well in the university’s programming contest.

I don’t know how long it takes thinking the same way, but we all probably have our own version of a thinking rut, or limited perspective. Unused skills, including thinking and problem solving, shrink with lack of practice until they no longer qualify for the label “skill”.

Even if you haven’t been doing the same thing for 20 years, you could still be prone to the limited perspective aspect of a thinking rut. Society conditions its members to think a certain way, by advertising, peer pressure, the school system, and subtle suggestion of all kinds. Why do you suppose the phrase “think outside the box” is meaningful?

How do you know if your thinking is limited? Here’s a little test for you:

During a visit to the mental asylum, a visitor asked the director, “How do you determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalized?”

“Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient and ask him or her to empty the bathtub.”

“Oh, I understand,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No.” said the director, “A normal person would pull the plug. Do you want a bed near the window?”

If you’re expecting me to end this with advice on how to get out of your habitual thinking rut, well, think again. By not providing solutions, I hope I’m actually helping you think in a different way!


  • I think that is very thought provoking.
    I mean, I’ve been in this box so long that I think of cardboard is my second skin. I’d break out if I only had a box cutter. But they are illegal, I think.
    I’m looking forward to some more comments to help us all break out.