Software development productivity tip: regularly step away from the computer.

In these days of covid-19, people are learning that productivity is imperfectly correlated to the amount of time one is physically present in an office. Indeed, the time you spend in front of you computer is hardly correlated to your productivity. After all, programming productivity isn't measured by typing speed. Additionally, you can waste much time at the computer, checking Twitter, watching cat videos on YouTube, etc.

Pomodorobut #

I've worked from home for years, so I thought I'd share some productivity tips. I only report what works for me. If you can use some of the tips, then great. If they're not for you, that's okay too. I don't pretend that I've found any secret sauce or universal truth.

A major problem with productivity is finding the discipline to work. I use Pomodorobut. It's like Scrumbut, but for the Pomodoro technique. For years I thought I was using the Pomodoro technique, but Arialdo Martini makes a compelling case that I'm not. He suggests just calling it timeboxing.

I think it's a little more than that, though, because the way I use Pomodorobut has two equally important components:

  • The 25-minute work period
  • The 5-minute break
The 25 minutes is a sufficiently short period that even if you loathe the task ahead of you, you can summon the energy to do it for 25 minutes. Once you get started, it's usually not that bad.

When you program, you often run into problems:

  • There's a bug that you don't understand.
  • You can't figure out the correct algorithm to implement a particular behaviour.
  • Your code doesn't compile, and you don't understand why.
  • A framework behaves inexplicably.
When you're in front of your computer, you can be stuck at such problems for hours on end.

The solution: take a break.

Breaks give a fresh perspective #

I take my Pomodorobut breaks seriously. My rule is that I must leave my office during the break. I usually go get a glass of water or the like. The point is to get out of the chair and afk (away from keyboard).

While I'm out the room, it often happens that I get an insight. If I'm stuck on something, I may think of a potential solution, or I may realise that the problem is irrelevant, because of a wider context I forgot about when I sat in front of the computer.

You may have heard about rubber ducking. Ostensibly

"By having to verbalize [...], you may suddenly gain new insight into the problem."

I've tried it enough times: you ask a colleague if he or she has a minute, launch into an explanation of your problem, only to break halfway through and say: "Never mind! I suddenly realised what the problem is. Thank you for your help."

Working from home, I haven't had a colleague I could disturb like that for years, and I don't actually use a rubber duck. In my experience, getting out of my chair works equally well.

The Pomodorobut technique makes me productive because the breaks, and the insights they spark, reduce the time I waste on knotty problems. When I'm in danger of becoming stuck, I often find a way forward in less than 30 minutes: at most 25 minutes being stuck, and a 5-minute break to get unstuck.

Hammock-driven development #

Working from home gives you extra flexibility. I have a regular routine where I go for a run around 10 in the morning. I also routinely go grocery shopping around 14 in the afternoon. Years ago, when I still worked in an office, I'd ride my bicycle to and from work every day. I've had my good ideas during those activities.

In fact, I can't recall ever having had a profound insight in front of the computer. They always come to me when I'm away from it. For instance, I distinctly remember walking around in my apartment doing other things when I realised that the Visitor design pattern is just another encoding of a sum type.

Insights don't come for free. As Rich Hickey points out in his talk about hammock-driven development, you must feed your 'background mind'. That involves deliberate focus on the problem.

Good ideas don't come if you're permanently away from the computer, but neither do they arrive if all you do is stare at the screen. It's the variety that makes you productive.

Conclusion #

Software development productivity is weakly correlated with the time you spend in front of the computer. I find that I'm most productive when I can vary my activities during the day. Do a few 25-minute sessions, rigidly interrupted by breaks. Go for a run. Work a bit more on the computer. Have lunch. Do one or two more time-boxed sessions. Go grocery shopping. Conclude with a final pair of work sessions.

Wish to comment?

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Monday, 11 May 2020 07:04:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 11 May 2020 07:04:00 UTC