3 Simple Ways to Get Your Programming Flow Going

Also published on Medium.

It’s a well known fact in the software world that your productivity as a developer is not linear in the time you spend programming. What this means is that in 4 hours of code writing, you will produce significantly more code than x2 of what you produce in 2 hours of coding.

That happens due to the “Flow” or “Zone” effect. If we are lucky, after coding for a while we go into a “Flow State” where we are uber-concentrated, become one with the code and the loops and conditions stream effortlessly from our brain into the IDE without passing through our fingers. When we are in a flow state we write code faster, better and with less mistakes.

Getting into a flow state is hard, and interruptions and distractions take us out of it immediately (which is why open plan offices are the bane of developers productivity). However, getting into the flow and maintaining it is a mental skill that can be honed, and there are several tricks that help me when I need to do it fast.

Have a Ritual

Rituals are technical things we can do to help our brain quickly snap to a new situation due to the sheer familiarity of the process. I like to:

Move to a quiet location. This is especially important if you are likely to be approached with questions at your desk. If you are a manager, set clear expectation around where you are available and when you need quiet time. Your team should and will survive without you for a couple of hours, I promise.
I like to use the couch in front of the window at the side corridor as my quiet place, so you go and find your own quite space.

Make a fresh cup of coffee. Self explanatory, duh.

Switch off notifications. Your phone should be on do not disturb mode. Close those social media tabs. Close your email client. Turn off browser notification. Seriously, nothing interesting happens there anyway.

Close unneeded windows and tabs. Isn’t it nicer to work in a clean environment? Plus, less chance for distractions and less junk on your RAM.

Remove your shoes. Because how can you write software while wearing shoes?!

Use Mental Reminders

It’s easier to snap back into flow state when you have reminders to where you left off the last time you wrote code.

Draw a design/architecture diagram. I have a notebook of architecture diagrams that I create for my projects. Whenever I need to get back to coding I look at the diagram for the code I am writing and add some details to it, and it helps me to quickly get thinking in design again.

Write where you left off. *Inside your source code*. I have a friend who likes to write inside the source code what he was doing before leaving the office at the end of the day. This way when he comes in at the morning and tries to compile the code, the error messages force him to read the comments and help him pick up where he left off.

Do Some Warmup

Switching between mental states is just as hard and switching between physical states, but where the sports world already realised the trick of using warmups to help these transitions, we keep trying to jump between mental tasks with no adequate preparation and being surprised that we are not very effective at it.

Whenever I start a new task or get back to programming after a pause I tend to feel “lost”, as if my brain is not used to thinking in code anymore. Taking on a simple programming task helps me realign my brain. Here are some simple things I like to do:

Document some code. In them olden days when it was common practice to *gasp* comment your code, I liked to find some pieces of code that weren’t as clear as they should be and document what they were doing. These day I just lightly edit some code to make it self-documenting.

Refactor some code. This is a great passion of mine. I like to start every task by lightly refactoring the code in preparation for the new feature I am about to implement. It’s fun, it helps maintain a high quality code base over time and as a bonus your manager can’t complain that you are wasting precious time on refactoring instead of delivering features.

I like these options because they help improve the project over time, but if you are not excited about any of my options:

Find an unrelated coding task you do enjoy. Coding quizzes? Amazing. Developing a small game? Super cool! Implementing a small feature? Awesome. Anything that gets you thinking in code instead of in human.
Just make sure that the task is well contained and that you are not likely to spend more than ~30 minutes on it, else it will lose the benefit of helping you become more productive in your actual job.

Development Superpower

When a state of flow has such a major effect on your development productivity, being able to get into it quickly and maintain it is a development superpower. It helps you complete your tasks faster and better, makes you more effective at works and leaves your free time to be, well, free.

I’d say it’s a skill worth honing.

The Business-IT Connection

One of the nicer things about being a CTO of a growing startup is being able to experience firsthand all the things the software engineering literature you read all the years talk about.

Hello Heart started as a B2C company. In our early days we built a product – blood pressure tracking apps, and sold these apps to our users. As we grew, we became a B2B2C company  – we started selling our apps to employers who were looking for health benefits for their employees.

With this change, we had to shift our thinking in so many ways. Suddenly, marketing and sales became completely different, as did business development. Along with these changes, the new features we had to implement changed. We were required to implement more and more features that weren’t about the individual experience, but about the employees’ relationship with their employer. Are these employees eligible for Hello Heart? To which employer do they belong? Integrations with other benefit programs. That kind of stuff.

The most interesting thing for me was the way our thinking about the product changed as we started growing. Our “product” is no longer an appliccation that we sell. It’s a service. Complete with enrollment program and dashboards and operations and all the magic that goes into Hello Heart (did I write that? Yes, I did). Our software had to change as well in order to accommodate that. We started writing code to manage clients and enrollments and shipping centers. 

Recognizing this change in the way we need to think took us a while and it has been fascinating to watch. For me, the key was noticing that we do a lot of things in a really hard way, and thinking – hey! Shouldn’t we have software to do that for us? It’s ok to do things in stupid and hard ways when you are a small startup and can’t afford to build all the software you need and just trying to figure out if your busines works. But when you find out it works and start operating as a business, this approach leaves you with a gap between what your business needs and what your technology provides, and your next challenge is to align the two. 

We are have been doing that for a while now and it is exciting and fun. I feel like I live in a fairy tale case study from a software engineering book.