When working in software development, and in a startup in particular, making the most efficient use of your time is a critical challenge. It can feel like you are perpetually behind schedule, and the next deadline might just be the one you can’t quite pull off no matter how many cases of Club Maté you consume, as requirements are constantly shifting and priorities reorganizing themselves. This problem is exacerbated by the nature of software development itself.
It is no secret that interruption is terrible for programming, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Imagine trying to solve a long division problem in your head, but before you come up with the answer the phone rings and you get pulled away. How long would it take you to get the right answer after returning to the problem? Surely you could just pick up where you left off? Surely not. This is the primary reason so many programmers get their best work done in the middle of the night. At night there are virtually no interruptions, and you are able to concentrate for extended periods of time.
I sometimes like to say that I have “consciousness inertia,” which is probably just a pretentious way of saying I don’t like to get up early. When I am awake it is easy to make myself stay awake, and when I am asleep my body absolutely does not want to get up. Besides being a lame excuse for not being a morning person, however, there is some real truth to that idea for me on the other end of the equation when working late. If I am able to dig into a problem and really get in “the zone,” code flies off the fingers and it is truly sublime development bliss. Achieving such a level of concentration and engagement with the problem at hand is perpetually elusive, but maintaining that highly productive state is comparatively easy. Hence, if I get “in the zone” late in the day, I really want to maintain that state for as long as possible. This is the other big reason I find myself working late. Fortunately there is actually some evidence that the occasional all-nighter is great for the quality and creativity of your work as well. And I have definitely found this to be true for myself, at least in moderation. In general, there is a tremendous amount of inertia when designing software, and tapping into the positive side of that is critical to facilitating optimal productivity.
So, how does one find the “The Zone”? That is a great question, and I certainly don’t have the definitive answer. But here are a some tips that I’ve found help me.
Seriously- it’s amazing. It consistently surprises me how much a little natural caffeination can really clear your mind and enable concentration. Obviously this advice should be taken within reason, however there is no reputable evidence of any downside of moderate caffeine usage in healthy adults. Did you know that there is a positive correlation between caffeine consumption and the period of rapid technological development we’ve seen over the last few hundred years? Prior to The Enlightenment, the primary beverages consumed were depressants (beer in particular), but during the 1600s people switched to consuming primarily stimulants (coffee and tea). True story. Check out this fascinating video by CGPGrey for more interesting information about caffeine. By far my favorite method of caffeination is loose leaf tea, which is wonderful and full of all sorts of other great health benefits as well. I find the relatively moderate levels of caffeine in tea also help guard against the “crash” that is commonly associated with coffee. Tea is so great it even inspired the name of this blog.
Facebook exists to rob your creativity
This point isn’t exclusively about Facebook, but online distraction in general. However, I think Facebook is probably the most annoying offender for me. I don’t even really like Facebook, and yet for some reason I seem to have this muscle memory where in moments of pause I find myself almost without conscious control typing it into the address bar. It is such a frictionless way to interrupt yourself, and it’s awful for productivity. The latest meme from George Takei can wait, and so can the late breaking news on The Verge about the kind of candy Google will use to name its latest mobile operating system, or whatever important online information is vying for your attention. If you need to add “
127.0.0.1 facebook.com” to your /etc/hosts file, so be it. (Special thanks to blissdev for this suggestion). Get offline. You will be so much more productive.
Find some great music
The right music is a huge boon to productivity. It can really help you drown out external noise and distraction (literally) and concentrate on the task at hand. On any given week, I typically find myself listening to an eclectic variety of things. In the last 7 days for example, I have listened to Handel’s Messiah, Michael Buble, Coldplay, Ingrid Michaelson, Christina Aguilera, Enya, the soundtrack from Wicked, the a cappella hip hop group Naturally 7, and a variety of electronic dance music, to name just a few things. However, for me there are a couple music genres that seem to be particularly adept at inducing high productivity. The first is instrumental baroque music, particularly the organ fugues and violin concerti of J.S. Bach. Perhaps it is the interweaving polyphony that helps me tie together threads of thought, I’m not sure. But that kind of music can really help induce some deep and meaningful concentration. The second, and probably that which I listen to most while working, is trance music (I know, how stereotypical of me). Trance is a subgenre of electronic dance music characterized by melodic phrases that build up and down throughout long, uninterrupted tracks. Perhaps it is the “fast tempos and uplifting melodies” (to steal a phrase from the world’s number one DJ, Armin van Buuren) that really help me get in the zone and keep up the mental energy for long sessions of work. I even made a mix of some of my favorite tracks, so I could listen uninterrupted for three hours during times of necessary productivity. These specific generes might not be your cup of tea, but find some that are! The right music can really help isolate your thoughts and remove distractions.
This may seem obvious, but really forcing yourself to concentrate on the problem at hand can be immensely useful. Honestly, all of the above suggestions are just ways to help you concentrate. I find that getting distracted by my own, unrelated thoughts is the most common reason I can’t get “in the zone,” and really making yourself think about the problem at hand initially can often spur much deeper productivity once you get going. Of course, it is so easy to distract yourself by other things, especially those important things you really enjoy, which brings us to my final tip:
Love what you do
There is such a deep connection between happiness and productivity. I recently watched a fascinating TED Talk by Shawn Achor, talking about the effects of positivity on work. There is a tendency to view happiness only as the result of achieving a goal, which inevitably means happiness is never achieved since your goals continually change as you move on to the next goal. However, being happy actually makes it easier to achieve those goals and remain productive. If you really enjoy the work you do, it is unbelievably easier to work efficiently and not get distracted. This is really the reason I’m an entrepreneur. I certainly do not achieve it all the time (don’t ask me about configuring applications for new clients), but finding problems that interest you and creating ways to work on them for your job is an incredible thing.
When I was a kid, I attended a summer art class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as part of their College for Kids program. I don’t remember much about the content of the course, however, I vividly remember something that the teacher told us about life. He said, “Your worst day at school will be better than your best day at work.” Seriously. A teacher said that! Of all people. That is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. And if it’s true for you, I think you should probably change something. Being the obedient square I was, I believed him at the time. But that really should not be true at all, and I have been fortunate enough that it never really has been for me. Certainly you can have some awful days at work, especially because the responsibility and potential levels of stress are so much more heightened than in school, but it shouldn’t be the norm. In Steve Jobs’ inspirational commencement address at Stanford in 2005 he posed the question, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row I know I need to change something.” Loving the work that you do on a day to day basis is the single best way, in my experience, to ensure that you can be consistently productive and “in the zone.” So, find what you love and figure out how to make it your job.