Don't eat the first cookie

3 minutes read

Today I came to the realization that we tend to repeat certain actions once we have done them for the first time. My best example is the title of the post, and in fact, it’s what -happened to me today- inspired this rant.

To give you some context: I was on my way to dietetic success; avoiding sugar like a champion until a wild pack of cookies appeared in the way. I thought: “one cookie won’t do no harm, I only have to control myself and not eat more than one.” The thing is, controlling myself after the first one is extremely more difficult… and the difficulty increases after every cookie.

From the particular to the general

We can extrapolate this example into a wide variety of situations, in fact, this reminded me of a pattern described in the book “The Pragmatic Programmer:”

“In inner cities, some buildings are beautiful and clean, while others are rotting hulks. Why? Researchers in the field of crime and urban decay discovered a fascinating trigger mechanism, one that very quickly turns a clean, intact, inhabited building into a smashed and abandoned derelict.

A broken window.

One broken window, left unrepaired for any substantial length of time, instills in the inhabitants of the building a sense of abandonment—a sense that the powers that be don’t care about the building. So another window gets broken. People start littering. Graffiti appears. Serious structural damage begins. In a relatively short space of time, the building becomes damaged beyond the owner’s desire to fix it, and the sense of abandonment becomes reality.”

In this section of the book, the authors are arguing that you shouldn’t have “broken windows” in your code because it damages your project in the long term. Same principle.

Identifying broken windows

The tricky part about this is that breaking the window sometimes is a habit, something that we are so used to do that it’s difficult to notice.

So, instead of looking for broken windows, I suggest looking at the things that we want to change in our lives and try to identify if there is a broken window associated with that behavior.

For example, I was expending too much time in social networks. As I wanted to change that, I started to look at why I was doing my first visit to the page. Turns out that my broken window was to type the URL in my browser while I was waiting for another thing (for example for a page to load). This first instinct to do something while waiting was so natural to me that I ended up engaged in those sites for more time that I was willing to do it. As Cal Newport pointed out in his talk, social networks are conceived to be addictive.

Repairing the damage

As with any other thing, I think that the only useful advice is to take action. I firmly believe that how you do it is up to you, generally the process doesn’t matter (at least while you are getting started). What matters is the determination to start, and the grit to not resign.

Roberto Dip