13 May 2016

I was just getting in my terminal when I noticed that the cursor was not blinking.

C’moon! I can work with a non-blinking cursor. When a cursor blinks it sets up the pace. I keep moving as the cursor blinks. It is hypnotizing. I can leave my thoughts behind and operate in a state of flow.

The blinking cursor is easy to see. I don’t need to look for the white rectangle. I can spot it much easier even when I’m not focused on the screen. It is the only thing moving and changing.

But most of all, I’m used to it. It doesn’t matter that much that it is easier to notice and that it sets the pace. Those are nice features of the cursor, but they are not essential. The essential thing about the blinking cursor is that it puts me in a familiar environment. There, I don’t spend extra effort trying to find my bearings. I can then think about the purpose at hand.

The familiar blinking cursor is comforting. When I am trying to develop a new habit, having that extra familiarity and comfort counts.

Developing new habits is one of the hardest problems I’ve seen. It is harder than solving math problems, or constructing proofs. It is harder than writing code and doing data science. Because there is no single solution and no way to know if a solution will work. The only thing I can do is to try different strategies for habit formation. The Internet is full of advice but most of it doesn’t generalize well.

When I first start a new habit, I have motivation. I stick to the habit for a while, until I forget about motivation. Then, the real test for my approach begins. If I have picked an exciting habit, or a habit which makes me feel better, I’ll be more likely to stick to it. If I’ve picked an easy habit, which doesn’t take much time to do, I’ll be more likely to stick to it. But if I’ve attempted a harder habit, I’m more likely to abandon it.

Having discomfort is a hindrance to the habit formation. But having additional comfort, or reward can foster the new habit. The blinking cursor is calming and provides mental comfort, but it hardly gives any reward. As I am trying to build my writing habit, it helps to have the comfort but it is not enough. Completing an essay is super fun and rewarding, but I don’t complete a new essay every time I write.

Recently, I developed the habit of shaving every morning. I gave my self a “pleasure boost” as a part of the shaving. The pleasure came from a hot towel, which I used to clean my face and soften my facial hair. I’m sleepy in the morning, and the hot towel is refreshing and wakes me up. It feels amazingly good! And I feel awake and energized after that. This sends a strong reinforcement signal to shave every morning. It was one of the easiest habits I’ve developed.

I want to write a lot more essays. I feel pumped and pround after I finish an essay. But if I write a half-essay, I don’t feel half-pumped. I feel at base level. I have a comforting environment, with blinking cursors, spell check, weasel word check and other nice tools which point out complicated sentences.

I don’t have a hot towel for writing… yet.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.