How to Debug Your Thought Code

Human beings are strong pattern machines. Like any machine, we sometimes need updating and fixing.

I picked up the phrase thought code from a reddit post I read last week. It’s a perfect analogy for how we work. Our brains find patterns. We develop habits easily and break them with only a great deal of effort. This can leave even the stupidest habits ingrained in us far too long. If we don’t debug our internal code, we’ll never change.

Everyone has stupid pieces of code they need to get rid of, but we don’t always know how. This means a ton of wasted time and resources when we could be doing things simply.

In other words, we need to debug our own code– our own thought processes and habits.

Personally, one of my most pointless patterns is that when I save any document, I Cmd-Tab into Firefox so quickly it makes my head spin. It happens without me thinking. Next thing I know, I’m reading news, Twitter, or otherwise wasting my time instead of working.

This simple patterns causes an easy half-hour of slacking and distraction per day.

How do I debug this, or any, program? Easy– I break it. If I cause an error to occur, make the inefficiency evident and startle myself into awareness of it.

I can do this by closing all other programs (so I can’t Cmd-Tab into anything at all), or by shutting off my web connection (with Freedom). This makes me notice what I’m doing and laugh at myself a bit. After many broken patterns like this, the awareness of it becomes stronger, and the habit vanishes.

Another piece of stupid code is my avoidance of certain things on my todo list, such as emails I need to send. I break this, once again, by getting verbose with myself– in other words, literal. I ask myself, out loud, what are you afraid of? This jolts me into realizing that there’s nothing to worry about, which frees me to get it done.

The key to success and efficiency in any program, including your own, is recognizing inefficiencies and fixing them. I believe the first, and most important, step in this is awareness of your own mistakes.

The second– the easy part– is coming up with something that’s slightly better. Iterate this process, and the incremental improvement will keep you moving, progressing, and maybe even happy. But none of that happens without seeing what you are doing.





27 responses to “How to Debug Your Thought Code”

  1. Jeremy Palmer Avatar

    Great post Julien! It’s easy to overlook distracting/unproductive habits. It’s one of the reasons I use Leech Block. There’s too many shiny buttons on the web.

  2. Kyle Reed Avatar

    I do the exact same thing with twitter.
    Sometimes when webpages are loading I will check twitter or am working on something I will check twitter and then get very distracted and go off reading other links and stories.

    I need to build some kind of reset.css code into my brain

    1. Julien Avatar

      How many pageviews does Twitter get out of this do you think?

      Seriously, we need a bulk reset across the entire population.

  3. Howard Stein Avatar

    Yes, awareness is the debugger. The codesphere is the continual pushing and pulling in a forest where all the trees are moving and one has to shimmy through it sideways, all to get to the next day,or just tonight. It’s ridiculous to find myself in there when I should simply be working. Fortunately I can pop out and work for hours before some code grabs my throat.

  4. Jason Sandeman Avatar

    My code to get rid of? Negative self-talk, anxiety, procrastination. There is so many to count, but all are just that, bad habits.

  5. Ricardo Bueno Avatar

    I’m aware of the things I do that cause me to be inefficient. So, over the last ~3 months, I’ve changed things up a bit. I don’t carry the laptop with me everywhere I go, and I put the phone on silent. Instead of being online (and distracted), I write in my moleskine notepad or read at the local Barnes & Noble or coffee shop. If I do have the laptop with me, I write using a program called WriteRoom (for mac). Then, if it’s a project I’m working on (writing a tutorial, etc.), I’ll use a timer much like the clock you have on your site I suppose. I set it for 10 – 12 minutes and I just sit there and write until it buzzes. I stand up and reflect on what I’ve done, edit, etc. Then, I hit it again.

    That’s my process anyway…

  6. Lindsay Avatar

    I started and stopped reading this article 3 times, getting distracted by emails, texts and another article. I need to debug my thought code for SURE!

    1. Julien Avatar

      Exactly. Now figure out the mechanism behind WHY and WHEN you get distracted.

  7. Tobey Deys Avatar
    Tobey Deys

    This is very true – and interesting how are brains really are wired a certain way. I’ve been doing some work around ‘re-wiring’ specific brain ‘pathways’ that were created in each of us at some early point in our lives. Sometimes those ‘pathways’ are beautiful and work perfectly to help us achieve … some are faulty belief systems that are so trodden, they’re deep ruts.

    Great point, Julien, about cognitive awareness and mindfulness ~ recognizing ruts and re-paving new pathways takes work (and maybe a little fork stab? 😉 Taking time, and recognizing the need, for mindfulness allows for much more self-energy (and the mail finally gets opened!)

  8. Ryan Critchett Avatar

    You’ve struck a note. This is my area man.

    I think everything we do has to do with patterns.

    I see it like:

    Primitive – Not aware of patterns

    Intermediate – Aware of patterns, no deliberate attempts to change or interrupt them.

    Advanced – Aware of patterns, identify patterns that don’t serve and become adept in the area of breaking and installing new patterns.

    Huge deal isn’t it? Thought code. Cool term for it.. it totally works that way. There is so much to say about this topic, you tend to talk about these kinds of things within your posts, which is a great part of the reason I read your stuff J.

  9. Jeff Goins Avatar

    Truth is, we need a new mind. How do we get a new mind? By intentionally thinking new thoughts.

  10. Peter Paluska Avatar

    I am excited to say that, without even knowing what the post was about to tell me, I read through this whole piece in just one sitting. I didn’t check e-mail or Facebook, or Twitter, or get up to get a drink of water, I just read it.

    Debugging is huge if we truly desire to get anywhere of note in this big, bad world.
    Good solid point!


  11. Mike Avatar

    My bad habit of checking my google reader too often brought me to this post.

    Often when I check twitter and/or facebook I find myself clicking on pointless news stories, only to find 20 minutes has gone by without me realizing it or even remembering what the hell it was I read the next day!!

    I think I’m going to follow Nassim Taleb’s advice and cut out “the news” for a while.

  12. Joshua | The Minimalists Avatar

    I noticed the same thing when turned my phone off for a week. I was even reaching for it at the freaking urinal (even though it wasn’t with me). I couldn’t even take a piss without connecting. That broke my pattern.

    Joshua Millburn

  13. Mark Vasko Avatar

    Our responses get to be almost pavlovian when it comes to checking our phones for messages, or when we see the little blinking light letting us know their is a message for us. The message is a connection, like a little reward when we see the light or take the time to even check for messages. What does this potentially say about the state of our human interpersonal “real-world” interactions?

    I’ve found that the pomodoro technique can be helpful for forcing me away from these little diversions but I’m not always perfect at it. Nonetheless it helps with awareness and also helps with focus on task.

    I have a similar (if not identical) model up on the wall at my desk which has been helpful for me and could be helpful for others looking to make changes: Start small -> 1/2 backed idea -> try it out -> be cognizant of success and failure (evaluate) -> adjust/iterate forward. This gets you through changes through changes that build up over time headed toward a goal. That about sum it up?

  14. Carole Avatar

    Well, now I feel really stupid. Command-tab into Firefox…what the heck does that mean?

    From someone who’s been using Firefox for years!

  15. Kevin Avatar

    As always, excellent post! Now all I have to do is follow-through on it…hmmmmm

  16. Tamsen McMahon Avatar

    The trick with habits is that as much as we talk about “breaking” them, really all we can ever do is exchange them for some other behavior.

    We are such creatures of habit that our internal systems *must* replace a gap in the code with more code — different behaviors, not just the cessation of them. That’s why going cold turkey on something is nigh on impossible for most people — they forget to replace one behavior with another, and so their minds obsessively dwell on what they’re *not* doing rather on a what (new thing) they are.

    You’r wise to point out that sometimes we have to have external forces to shock us into a realization that we’re falling back into a complicating or detrimental habit. To create an internal, and thus longer-term change of habit, we have to generate new code from within — we have to figure out what we’ll regularly do instead.

  17. John McLachlan Avatar

    I think our constant desire and ability to see patterns is both a benefit and a curse. The benefits are clear when it comes to things that help us survive, but we take it so far in another direction that it really becomes a curse.

    The problem comes when we attach meaning to patterns that actually have no meaning. That leads to magical thinking as in “oh my God, I shuffled a deck of cards, like 42,005 times and when I laid them out, they were in the original order.” Ooh, wow, yah, there’s a pattern and it means nothing. Any order of cards being laid out is equally as random but because we attach meaning to a specific pattern, it becomes magical.

    Ok, I’m off topic, sort of. My point is that patterns are one thing, but more important is how much importance we give to them. They can have a lot of power if we let them, and we don’t have to let them.

  18. Jim Genet Avatar

    Time to reboot my brain. Thanks for the distributed fix

  19. David Avatar

    My problem is creativity can’t be turned on and off at will. So sometimes I’m like, great I have some free time to create something or get to work on a product or site and then hmmm nothing. So I lose myself in the web for a bit as i’m “off” at that moment.

    Then I need to take a break from wasting time! 2 hours later I have done nothing when I could have read a book or increase my knowledge intelligently. Instead I’m watching “Friday” on Youtube and thinking WTF is this!

    So it’s not so much debuging as I wish I could upgrade myself to turn creativity on and off when I need it.

  20. Steven Perchikov Avatar

    This post is awesome! Most interesting for me was your use of the technology metaphor to describe breaking bad habits. The computer system is the most integrative and most fast updating metaphor we have and I love that you are using. It’s a big inspiration for the direction I’m taking my blog. Thank you Julien.

  21. Jaime Avatar

    When does connection become negative or irrelevant? Facebook friends who you will never converse with face-to-face or following celebrity Twitter that has no bearing on your life or development? It is all just noise unless you are deepening your connection to others or to yourself and your self-awareness.

    Sometimes distraction in the form of blog reading can be useful and can spark creativity and we all need a break from work in order to be productive, but a walk around the block would probably be better than multiple facebook or Twitter checks.

  22. Amy Tobin Avatar

    I drill myself regularly on the Chris Brogan method:

    No Outlook notifications of incoming email; I just shut the whole program so I’m not tempted to check it.

    Only 1 tab open when browsing; this one was the toughest because of my learned ADD.

    And his most recent: The 20 minute plan; set a timer, shut the door and just get it done.

    That and a Leadership Training based on becoming Pattern Aware by

  23. Gab Goldenberg Avatar

    Funny, I have a similar habit. When i’m waiting for a page to load or something to download, I’ll often open minesweeper and have at the dangerous fields… wasting an average 2-3 minutes instead of 2-3 seconds waiting for the page load. D’oh!

  24. Mary Jane Saras Avatar

    A pattern is a pattern is a pattern and so on. There are 13 common patterns in the workplace, says Sylvia Lafair, author of “Don’t Bring It to Work”. Check out and take the quiz to find out if you are a super achiever, rebel, persecutor,procrastinator, pleaser, martyr, clown, victim, rescuer, drama queen,avoider, denier or splitter.
    These patterns relate directly to how we manage work, check it out to see what you are, it’s fun!!

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