Programmers have one of the most intensive intellectual jobs. It requires great focus and concentration to write software productively.
If you measure the productivity of a programmer you might be surprised at the range. At the bottom there are software developers that actually create negative productivity; every line of code they write is one that someone else will have to re-write. At the top end is the so called ’10x’ programmers who can single handedly churn out multiple hundreds of lines of code per day.
Average programmers experience ’10x’ performance occasionally as being in ‘the zone’. When in the zone, time zips by, you find yourself knowing all the code you need to write and are limited only by your typing speed.
Getting to this 10x level of performance consistently requires a lot of prerequisites to be met. You need to be proficient with your programming language syntax, you need to know the libraries you’re using and you need a base of understanding of computers and your problem set so as to avoid the need to refer to Google to answer “how to” questions.
If you find yourself asking things like “How do I write a foreach loop in this language?” or “What’s the API for doing an HTTP request?” or “How do I add authentication to this?” then you need to step back and do some more learning.
Getting past this first bar to productivity is pretty clear: buy a book, read it.
There is a second bar to productivity that is not so obvious how to improve on. Truly difficult problems require intense focus for long periods. External distractions can be mitigated with ease. Turn off your email client, silence your phone, put on headphones.
Internal distraction something that I haven’t heard many discuss. Mental focus is a skill of the mind. Meditation is a practice for training the mind. By practicing meditation you can extend your ability to focus without interruption and gain a deeper perspective on the problems at hand.
When you are able to think about a problem for only 5 minutes at a time before your mind wanders or you get distracted then you can only gain a shallow understanding of the problem. With an hour of single minded focus you can get very deep into the rabbit hole.
Training your mind for this level of focus can take a long time.
Start your meditation by eliminating external distractions. Find at least 15 minutes in the day to focus inward. Start by thinking about your toes individually making sure each of them is completely relaxed before focusing on the arch of your foot, then the ankle and so on until you get to thinking about all the muscles in your face and head. Do not move during this exercise – even to scratch an itch.
By giving yourself a routine like this to practice it’s easier to identify when and how often your mind wanders to other thoughts. When you do find yourself de-railed just bring your self back and continue relaxing where you left off.
When you can maintain 100% focus on relaxing yourself through toes to head then you are ready to start pondering the problems at hand.
Over time work yourself up to an hour of focused thought.
Not only is the time you spend in deep thought productive at forming ideas and solving difficult problems, but you’ll find that your ability to focus when working also greatly improves as well. You’ll find yourself in “the zone” more often and for longer.
To those who have never tried to meditate I challenge you to try this relaxation thought exercise just to see how difficult it is to keep your mind from wandering or finding yourself focused on an itch you can’t scratch. It’s not easy.