As programmers, we all share a certain number of universal experiences.
One is an enduring hatred of semicolons, brackets, and parentheses (who hasn't wasted hours looking for the one of these they misplaced or omitted?).
And another is learning to use compile-time for a convenient break when we don't feel like getting anything done (I won't tell if you don't).
But the most universal programming experience of them all is what is now known as coder's block. That's when you end up unable to produce any usable code for no discernible reason.
Like writer's block, it can afflict programmers suddenly and can be near-impossible to overcome. I know, because it used to happen to me. A lot. So often, in fact, that I developed a self-defeating habit of taking career quizzes because I thought for sure I was in the wrong line of work.
Fortunately, I've picked up several ways to deal with coder's block that have kept me working smoothly ever since. And I think that they'd work for anyone prone to running into coding roadblocks.
Here are the five best tactics you can use every day to stay productive and free from coder's block.
1. Start Every Project on Paper
Almost every time I've run into trouble while working on a coding project, I've been able to trace it back to one specific cause. It's that I tried to approach the project by wrapping my head around the totality of what needed to be done.
When you do that, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of even a run-of-the-mill coding project. Plus, starting to write code without a concrete idea of where you need to take it is always a recipe for disaster.
Instead, make it a point to sketch out the rough outlines of your project on paper first. It's something that old-school programmers do by habit, but that younger programmers tend to skip over.
All you have to do is to write out the purpose of the program you're trying to create, followed by a list of sub-functions that you think will make everything work.
This simple act helps you to break the project down into smaller logical chunks that don't seem as daunting. Also, it gives you a chance to pre-discover obvious issues that might slow you down later.
Once you've done this, you can translate your work outline into the online calendar solution of your choice. That will help you visualize all of the small mini-tasks that make up your project.
In my case, just seeing the timeline of a project from beginning to end makes it far easier for me to focus on one logical chunk of the work at a time.
Maybe it's because it takes away the overwhelming sense of scale of a project, or maybe it relieves the perception of time pressure to get each portion done. Either way, it's a far less anxiety-ridden way to work.
2. Play in a Sandbox
Sometimes the best way to overcome coder's block is to build something – anything – that works. So, if I run into a rough patch where it feels like I'm getting nowhere fast, I'll head over to a sandbox platform and try to build something fun.
Because I tend to deal with web front ends, my go-to sites are CodeSandbox and CodePen, but there are others that might suit your needs a little better.
For example, Replit will let you live code in over 50 languages, and you can even turn to their built-in community to ask for help if you get stuck on something.
Sometimes throwing ideas back and forth with another programmer will be enough to help you break the mental logjam that's keeping you from moving forward with your work.
3. Maintain a Task Backlog
One thing that contributes to my own coder's block is not having a list of simple tasks that I can turn to when I want to keep making forward progress on a project.
In other words, when you're working on something particularly challenging and you get stuck, you don't want the alternative to that challenging thing to be nothing at all. That's how you end up banging your head against intractable problems and getting nowhere fast.
To avoid that, you should always maintain a running task backlog list for the duration of every project. I use one similar to a standard Scrum product backlog (even when I'm not working with a team).
Fill it with things like code refactoring and cosmetic changes – in other words, simple low-priority tasks. Then, when you get stuck, you can tackle those simple things as a means of continuing to move forward with your project.
Sometimes, completing even the simplest task will be enough to get you back on track and churning out meaningful code again.
4. Use Breaks Strategically
If you take a moment to look up coder's block on your favorite search engine, every article you see will recommend taking breaks to get your mind off of a difficult programming challenge.
Well, that advice is a double-edged sword if there ever was one. It's a slippery slope from taking a break to perpetual procrastination. And if you aren't careful, your breaks will become another part of a much larger problem.
I recognized this when I first went looking for tips on overcoming coder's block. At first, I was pretty responsible with my breaks – just a five-minute walk or a trip to the coffee machine when I wanted to clear my head.
But soon, I found myself looking for reasons to stay distracted from whatever I was stuck on. Like when I went hunting for the best VPNs for Netflix because I wanted to know what other foreign-language series' like Dark they were hiding over in Europe. Or when I spent half of a day scouring the internet for a reasonably-priced PCIe video card that didn't require getting on a waiting list (thanks, cryptocurrencies).
The point is, taking breaks is a reasonable way to try and break through coder's block, but only if you use them strategically.
I eventually found that using time-limited, computer-free breaks works well as the final step in a deliberate reset process for my brain. When I get stuck, my process looks like this:
- Spend 15 minutes working on the problem
- Take 5 minutes to review things from the top
- Spend another 15 minutes working on the problem
- Walk away for at least 10 minutes to do something unrelated to coding
- Start again from the top
Almost every time, I'll find the answer I was looking for after taking that 10-minute break. But that's why it has to be a short break followed immediately by getting back at it. Any longer and you risk getting so distracted that you'll have forgotten where you left off, logic-wise.
And if you're lucky, you won't have to repeat the above process all that often. That way, you can stay focused and avoid wasting too much time on unproductive tasks.
Be careful, though, not to skip out on breaks entirely. You do need to step away from your work now and then just to stay sane.
In my case, I ended up making up for taking fewer breaks by building some time into my morning schedule to follow along with exercise channels I've subscribed to on YouTube. It helps me burn off some energy so I don't feel like getting up and breaking my focus while I'm working. Plus, it offsets the toll that sitting at my computer all day would otherwise take on my health and well-being.
5. Always Leave a Breadcrumb Trail
When it comes to coder's block, the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure couldn't be truer. That's why I've picked up the habit of controlling when and how I leave off my work in the middle of a coding project.
I do this because I found that getting interrupted and failing to complete whatever I was in the middle of caused nothing but headaches when I tried to pick up where I left off.
Instead, if I need to stop working on something, I'll leave specific and detailed notes telling me what I was about to work on next. Even if I'm in a hurry, I leave that trail of breadcrumbs so I don't have to backtrack my work when I return.
First, it saves me the trouble involved in getting back into 'programming mode' because I don't have to think too hard to pick up where I left off. And it also means I won't fall down the rabbit-hole of overanalyzing code that's already complete while I look to find my place.
Both issues can slow you down and contribute to you falling into a case of coder's block. And once I started making a point of leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, I never had either problem happen again.
Become an Unstoppable Coder
I can't promise you that these five tactics will keep you from ever suffering from coder's block. But what I can tell you is that they will help you stay away from some of the common situations that lead to it.
Since I made them a part of my coding routine, I haven't managed to stay stuck on anything for more than an hour or two here or there. And that's coming from someone that came close to giving up and finding a new career on more than one occasion.
And if they work even half as well for you – you'll be unstoppable! Just make sure to take a vacation every now and then so there will be some work left for the rest of us.
Featured image: DragonImages / Adobe Stock