Programming Gives Grist for the Mill

Most of the time, thinking too much leads to a negative result. “Do I want to do my work today or goof off?” “Do I want to get that ice cream I saw on sale at the store?” “Is my butt too fat?” These are questions whose answers will never lead anyplace good. The questions are exercises in over-thinking. If you hear yourself ask these questions, forget that you asked them and do not wait for an answer.

Unfortunately for me, I have probably wasted years of my life trying to find answers for these questions and many others like it, all equally fruitless. The funny thing about the mind is that it will try to answer whatever question you give it. Even if the question itself is dumb.

I think there are names in psychology for this very human situation, when the brain tries to protect us or tries to serve us, but winds up screwing us instead.

If we’re too tired or hung over to do our work, for example, the smartest thing is probably to just do the work anyway, and then gut your way through. Later on, after a day’s wasted effort and its resultant fallout, there will be another question to answer: “Why on earth did I stay up late or drink too much the night before?” It’s just that the more complicated we let ourselves become in how we treat our daily decisions, the less organized and more self-indulgent we become as human beings. The less effective we are in our lives.

This leads to more suffering, not less.

Keeping It Simple

The trouble with letting the mind work on too many important problems that don’t need solving is that it will find answers for those problems. It will find answers to questions that don’t need answers, and those answers will defy common sense rather than enforce it.

If you ask the question, “Would I like some ice cream today?” the answer will be “yes.” This answer doesn’t require a psychic to predict. It may lead to another question, such as “Would I like to finish the entire carton of ice cream all in one sitting?” Probably, that will lead to a yes answer also. The problem was that we even asked the question in the first place. Once the question was asked and answered, our lives became more complicated. It becomes more obscure whether the next time ice cream is on sale whether we will avoid the question. Also, we may find it necessary to fill our heads with excuses and self-justifications as to why we should or eventually did kill the carton of ice cream, and whether our stomachs really hurt as much as they seem to.

One justification or rationalization usually leads to another. Pretty soon, you’re up to your ass in over-thinking.

When To Keep It Complex

Minds will be minds, and sometimes over-thinking can lead to something good, like solving problems that area already complicated.

“Shall I pay my bills today?” is an example of a question you should not think about. “Just do it” is probably the answer that should follow with only a minimum of thought. However, the mind wants to work harder than that. It wants to create work for itself: “Do I want to use recursion in my FizzBuzz algorithm?” That would be a much more appropriate place to let the mind wander.

If the mind occupies itself recursively on whether or not to use recursion in solving a problem, that’s energy that will not be wasted finding answers whose questions are self-defeating.

One of my favorite sayings is:

The mind cannot see its own blind spots. So it think it sees everything.

Another way I try to remind myself to see this is:

The mind is a hammer. The mind thinks all questions are nails. Some questions are not nails, but raw eggs. Or cowpies. They don’t need a hammer.

The Greatest Thought

The greatest thought the mind can think is “Be Quiet!”

Zen monks spend the better part of a lifetime trying to achieve this. Some normal people achieve it too, at least some of the time. And I suspect lots of people can benefit from this achievement. One of the ways of doing this is giving the mind some task that keeps it busy, like counting the breaths to four, then resetting the counter to zero in one long while loop, until a timer or something goes off, or someone rings a gong.

But when we have to think and our minds will simply not shut up, then there’s always learning to write FizzBuzz in a new programming language.