Breaking coder's block

It’s not just writers, arteries and blitzing linebackers that can get blocked - programmers can also

Credit: flickr/photosteve101

We’ve all heard of writer’s block: when a literary type just can’t figure out what to write. If you’re a programmer, though, chances are you’ve experienced the cousin of writer’s block (Cousin Oliver, if you will), coder’s block.

What’s that, you non-programmers say? How could coders get blocked? They just have to follow instructions, right? Doesn’t somebody else figure out what an application is supposed to do and programmers just have to, you know, make it work? It’s not a creative process like writing, now is it? So how could programmers get “blocked”?

Au contraire.

Like writers, programmers can have days (or longer) where they have trouble writing code, or writing good code or just feeling like they’re “in the zone”. Programming isn’t just about following instructions and making something work. There’s often a lot creativity involved in how you make something work, and a near infinite number of paths to implementing a given functionality. Some ways are good, some ways not so good, and some ways downright bad. It’s a much more creative process than most non-programmers think.

Plus, programmers, like anybody else, can have lots of different projects on their plate, and sometimes simply deciding what project to tackle first can be daunting and can prevent you from getting started on any one chunk of work. Ergo, henceforth and QED your average coder can be just as blocked staring at his or her favorite code editor as a writer can staring at a blank Word document. It’s a real problem for some.

How to deal with coder’s block is a topic that comes up regularly in developer forums. The suggested remedies are often familiar and, truth be told, not all that different from those offered to break through writer’s block. You’ll often see suggestions like:

  • Get some exercise to clear your head
  • Take a nap 
  • Treat yourself to ice cream
  • Just write something, anything, no matter how crappy it is

Then there are suggestions that are fairly programmer specific, that probably wouldn’t have worked for, say, Hemingway, such as

  • Write some unit tests
  • Take a break to learn a new programming language
  • Phone a fellow developer

The big question, though, is what to do if you’ve tried these old chestnuts and you still can’t get your brain in gear enough to spit out some brilliant code? Well, then you may need to get a little more creative to bust out of your rut. Try something like:

  • Doing a triathalon - Maybe you just didn’t exercise enough. Try swimming 2 miles, biking 100 miles and running a marathon, right in a row. That oughta clear your brain, though - WARNING - it might also kill you, especially if your normal solution to coder's block is to eat ice cream. Seriously, consult your doctor (and ease up on the ice cream).
  • Start looking for a new job - Your coder’s block may be your subconscious telling you that your current gig is going nowhere. Start perusing career sites; you may see lots of exciting opportunities, which may inspire you to code again; or, there may be nothing out there, in which case you’d better snap out of it, pronto, so you don’t lose your current job, crappy though it may be.
  • Going around the office and removing the trademark symbol from all of the corporate signage - Oops, I’m sorry - this is a method for breaking CEO's block. That’s a whole different thing.

How about you? Have you suffered from coder’s block? How did you break out of it? Do tell.

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