Work 2.0 - the interruptible programmer

· by Steve · Read in about 10 min · (1977 Words)

I’m 37, and I’ve been a (professional) developer for 16 years. You would have thought that in that time, I’d have figured out an effective work style which delivered the desired outcomes (code cut, products shipped etc) without causing detrimental knock-on effects - but, sadly, you’d be wrong. I think the style in which I practiced my craft for the first 15 years of my career was much the same as every other enthusiastic developer: you put a ton of hours in. 12-16+ hour days, evening and weekend coding marathons, pizza in the keyboard, crunch times, 3am debugging sessions where you just can’t go to bed because you can feel the source of that bug just beyond your fingertips, dammit, desperate last-minute sprints to deadlines where you manage to slot that last piece in, Jack Bauer-like, just before the world goes to hell. If you’re in the demographic I’m talking about, you’re nodding sagely, and probably grinning a little too, reminiscing on past trials and glories. This sort of crazy dedication is respected in our circles, and is pretty much expected of any developer who has claimed to earn their stripes.

But, it turns out this kind of thing is not good for your health - who knew? Those of you who know me or keep up with my blog know that I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming away from my old ways, because of back issues that I initially ignored, then tried to cope with using token accommodations, and finally succumbed to in a big way. Being self-employed, this was a major problem. Crawling out of the pit I dug for myself took a long time and a lot of frustration - I read quite a few productivity books on the subject to try to find answers on how to keep working, and in the end found that the answers you mould for yourself tend to be the best ones. I’d like to share one of the things I learned along the way.

But I’m ‘In The Zone’!!

So, I want to talk about the biggest problem I encountered: concentration periods. I can’t sit at a desk for longer than about an hour at a time now; if I don’t get up and walk around, do some gentle stretching etc, at least this often, I’ll pay for it badly once I do move, and probably over the next few days too. I also can’t realistically work more than a standard 8 hour day without pain any more. The problem with this was that, as a programmer, the style which I developed over 15+ years involved getting gradually ‘Into The Zone’ and coding for very long periods at a time, uninterrupted. This is a common theme among coders, who like to shut themselves away for hours at a time, wear headphones to avoid distractions, have ‘quiet times’ and so on - and it’s also why we tend to react really badly when interrupted. Programming requires concentration, and concentration seems to run on a valve system - it takes time to warm up, and once it’s going, you don’t want to turn it off because starting it up again is a major hassle.

I thought there was no way around this, and had begun to resign myself to just being less productive because of it. However, over the last 6  months in particular, I’ve discovered that, far from being an intractable problem, this ‘slow warm up, long uninterrupted focus time’ approach is to a large degree a learned behaviour, and it’s possible to re-train yourself to cope with things differently. It’s a little like when people learn to adopt polyphasic sleep patterns - it’s not that you can’t do it, it’s just that when you’ve become accustomed to doing things a certain way, changing that is initially very, very hard. But it’s not impossible, given the right amount of motivation and time to adjust.

So, my goal was to acclimatise myself to many shorter work chunks during the day instead of a few very large ones, while still maintaining productivity. The key to this was to learn how to get back ‘In The Zone’ in the shortest time possible - much like the way polyphasic sleepers train themselves to achieve REM sleep more quickly. I’m mostly there now, or at least way better at it than I was, so, what techniques did I use to make this transition?

1. Embrace interruptions

This is less of a technique and more of a deliberate psychological adjustment which cuts across all the practical approaches I’ll cover next. Instead of being the typical coder who avoids interruptions at all costs, you need to accept them, and learn to manage them better. It’s hard - you have to try to set aside years of resisting interruptions and initially, until you adjust, you’ll feel like you can’t get enough done. Many people will probably want to give up, unless there’s something specific motivating them to push through it - for me, daily pain was a great motivator. My main message here is that the transition is just a phase, and that it is possible to be an interruptable programmer who still gets things done. But you have to learn not to fight against it, hence why this is the first point.

2. Maintain context outside of your head at all times

Much of the problem with interruptions is that of losing context. When you’re in that Zone, you’re juggling a whole bunch of context in your head, adjusting it on the fly, and maintaining and tweaking connections between issues constantly. Interruptions make you drop all that, and it takes time to pick it all up again. My answer to this was to externalise as much as possible, on as many levels as possible:

  1. Maintain a running commentary on your current task

    I am my very own chronicler. I write notes on what I’m doing all the time, whether it’s adding a comment line to a ticket, committing frequently and writing detailed commit notes (you do use a DVCS to make light commits more practical, right? ;)) scribbling a drawing on (ordered) pieces of paper. This really isn’t that onerous, and in fact externalising your thoughts can often help you clarify them. Basically the guide is that roughly every 30 minutes, I should have generated some new piece of context which is stored somewhere other than my head. If I haven’t, then that’s context I’d have more trouble re-building mentally if I’m interrupted. It doesn’t take much time to do, and it has other benefits too such as recording your thought & decision process.

  2. Ruthlessly ignore tangental issues

    You might have noticed that in the last bullet, I used the words ‘current task’, singular. Not ‘tasks’. There is no such thing as having more than one ‘current task’ - there is only the one task you’re actually working on, and distractions.

    We probably all use bug trackers / ticket systems to track bugs and feature requests, but when you’re working on a ticket, it’s very common to spot a new bug, or identify an opportunity for improvement, or think of a cool new feature. How many of us go ahead and deal with that right away, because it’s in the area we’re already in, or it’s ‘trivial’, or it’s a cool idea that you want to try right now?  I know I did - but I don’t any more; any tangental issues not related to what I’m currently doing get dumped into the ticket system and immediately forgotten until I’m done with the current task, regardless of their size, relevance or priority. It sounds simple and obvious, and this might even be official procedure in your organisation, but I challenge most coders to say that they actually do this all the time. The benefit is that even the tiniest of distractions add an extra level of context that you have to maintain, which is then harder to pick up again after an interruption. For this to work, you need a ticket system which is fast, lightweight, and doesn’t require you to be anal about how much detail you put in initially. You need to be in & out of there in 30 seconds so you can offload that thought without getting distracted - you can flesh it out later.

  3. Always know what you’re doing next

    This is one from GTD (‘Next actions’), but it’s a good one. When you come back from a break or interruption, you should spend no time at all figuring out what you need to be doing next. Your ticket system will help you here, and so will the running commentary that hopefully you’ve been keeping on your active task. If you’ve been forced to switch gears or projects, so long as you’ve maintained this external context universally, you should have no issue knowing what the next actions on each item are. The important thing is to have one next action on each project. If you have several, you’ll have to spend time choosing between them, and that’s wasted time (see the next section on prioritisation). At any one time, you should not only have just one current task, but one unambiguous next action on that task. Half the problem of working effectively is knowing what you’re doing next.

  4. Prioritise Negatively

    I mentioned next actions in the previous section, but how do you decide what comes next? A lot of time can be frittered away agonising over priorities, and I used to struggle with it; I would plan on the assumption that I wanted to do everything on the list, and I just needed to figure out which I needed to do first. I discovered that I could cut the amount of time I spent on planning, and also get better, less ambiguous priorities by inverting the decision making process - to assume a baseline that I wouldn’t do any of the tasks, and assessing the negative outcomes of not doing each one. So instead of ‘which of feature A or B is more important to have?’, it became ‘Let’s assume we ship without feature A and B. What are the issues caused by omitting them in each case?’. It might appear to be a subtle difference, but having to justify inclusion entirely, rather than trying to establish a relative ordering assuming they all get done eventually, tends to tease out more frank evaluations in my experience.

  5. Recognise the benefits of breaks

    Much of the above is about limiting the negative aspects of taking breaks, but the fact is, that they have many work-related benefits too. I’m willing to bet that all coders have stayed late at work, or late into the night, trying to fix a problem, only to find that they fix it within 15 minutes the next day, or think of the answer in some unlikely place like the shower. The reason for this is very simple - extended periods of concentration seem productive, and can be on operational / sequential thinking, but for anything else such as creative thinking or problem solving, it’s very often exactly the opposite. Not only do tired minds think less clearly, but often the answer to a problem lies not in more extensive thinking down the current path which you’ve been exploring in vain for the last few hours, but in looking at the problem from a completely different perspective. Long periods of concentration tend to ‘lock in’ current trains of thought, making inspiration and strokes of genius all too rare. Creativity always happens when you’re not trying, and it’s an often under-appreciated but vital element of the programming toolbox. Interrupting that train of thought can actually be a very good thing indeed.

There’s more I could talk about, but that’s quite enough for now I think. I hope someone finds this interesting or useful 😀