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Lazy. Overwhelmed. Confused. Aimless. Every programmer encounters an array of negative emotions over the course of their journey, and if left unchecked, these emotions can have a profound impact on progress — even causing some to give up entirely.

If you’ve ever felt like you were simply unable to write code even though you’re technically proficient enough to do so, then you’ve confronted what’s known as programmer’s block (or coder’s block). It’s basically writer’s block for programmers.

Mental blocks 10 Motivational TED Talks To Help You Chip Away At Your Mental Blocks 10 Motivational TED Talks To Help You Chip Away At Your Mental Blocks The valuable lesson from the lives of achievers is that they chip away at their mental blocks more consistently than others. Ten TED Talks underscore one simple thing – it’s all in the mind. Read More are never easy to overcome, but the silver lining is that there’s always a root cause. If you can identify the root, you can start on the road towards victory and success.

Let’s explore some of the most common causes of programmer’s block and what you can do to beat them.

Root Cause #1: Helplessness

The first big source of programmer’s block, particularly for newbies, is helplessness. It’s that feeling of being so overwhelmed that you freeze up and run from your problems, resulting in hours spent on Netflix or browsing Reddit.

Helplessness itself can be broken down into two sub-problems: a lack of knowledge or an issue with task management.

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Let’s say you’ve been hired as a coding intern and your first assignment is to clean up a few bugs in the massive in-house development tool used by your company. There are millions of lines of code to wade through, thousands of pages of documentation, and none of it is pretty.

Where do you begin? It’s a tough spot to be in, and it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how this kind of scenario could lead to the death of programming enthusiasm.

programmers-block-helplessness

For this, we recommend borrowing a tactic from our tips for better studying habits 5 Ways Tech Can Help You Foster Better Study Habits 5 Ways Tech Can Help You Foster Better Study Habits It's been a while since I've been in school, but I know a few friends who are still studying their way towards graduation. It amazes me how many tools currently exist out there to aid... Read More : break it down into smaller and smaller tasks, then use a to-do list to track your progress one step at a time. In fact, we recommend the 3-Strike System The 3-Strike System: How To Prioritize Your To-Do List The 3-Strike System: How To Prioritize Your To-Do List Are you not getting through your to-do list? The problem might not be your productivity, it might just be your priorities. Let's learn how to prioritise the to-do list, and get things done. Read More for maximal productivity.

Another thing that helps is to sharpen your overall skills as a programmer. Maybe you need to familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar, like mastering a new programming language 7 Useful Tricks for Mastering a New Programming Language 7 Useful Tricks for Mastering a New Programming Language It's okay to be overwhelmed when you are learning to code. You'll probably forget things as quickly as you learn them. These tips can help you to better retain all that new information. Read More . Try combing through as many free programming books 9 Free Programming Books That Will Make You A Pro 9 Free Programming Books That Will Make You A Pro Calling all programmers, whether new, old, or aspiring: we've found a great selection of free (as in beer) books to boost your coding skills to the next level. Hop in and enjoy. Read More as you can, which can help you build confidence.

Or if books aren’t your cup of tea, maybe look into a few Udemy programming courses Learn With Coding Projects: 9 Udemy Courses for the Beginner Programmer Learn With Coding Projects: 9 Udemy Courses for the Beginner Programmer The real difficulty is finding good programming tutorials and courses that not only teach you the necessary skills, but do so with practical projects. That's where Udemy steps in. Read More instead. The point is, learning as much as you can will make programming not so overwhelming How To Learn Programming Without All The Stress How To Learn Programming Without All The Stress Maybe you've decided to pursue programming, whether for a career or just as a hobby. Great! But maybe you're starting to feel overwhelmed. Not so great. Here's help to ease your journey. Read More .

Root Cause #2: Fear of Failure

Tangentially related to the idea of “being overwhelmed” is fear of failure. This can affect both newbies and veterans alike, and although it doesn’t afflict everyone, it does afflict many.

In short, you know what you’re supposed to do and you have the relevant skills to make it happen, but you’re so anxious about whether you’re good enough to pull it off and this anxiety cripples you from even starting. Some people procrastinate, others quit programming completely 6 Signs That You Are Not Meant To Be A Programmer 6 Signs That You Are Not Meant To Be A Programmer Not everyone is cut out to be a programmer. If you aren't completely sure that you're meant to be a programmer, here are some signs that may point you in the right direction. Read More .

There are many out there who are unsympathetic to this issue. It’s not uncommon to find terse advice that feels insulting, like this bit from Bill Schindler:

“I’ve never suffered from it,” said systems software consultant and XML specialist Bill Schindler. “Why we let people get away with silly things like writer’s block/programmer’s block, I don’t know … The only cure for programmer’s block is start programming something, anything — just as the only cure for writer’s block is to start writing.”

HT: ZDNet

But people who have suffered from this kind of mental setback are quick to offer suggestions and tips that might help, such as sleeping it off, taking a walk through nature, or even meditating:

“I like to make an analogy to meditation as being like defragging the hard drive, flushing memory cache, and throwing out temporary files,” offered [one] Slashdot poster.

HT: ZDNet

Meditation has proven effective for lots of folks when it comes to reducing anxiety and clearing the head, and we recommend checking out these free meditation tools Meditation Made Easy: Tools & Resources To Aid Your Well-Being Meditation Made Easy: Tools & Resources To Aid Your Well-Being If you have come to the conclusion that meditation is a method to calm your mind and achieve well-being worth trying, then we can help you with resources and tools. Read More to help you get started. In addition, these apps that calm your mind 10 Calming Apps to Destress & Clear Your Mind 10 Calming Apps to Destress & Clear Your Mind You are not alone if you have you ever felt stuck in your thoughts? Like you're trudging and not able to make any headway. Calming, thought-organizing apps can rescue the mind. Read More might work wonders.

But at the end of the day, fear of failure is an immaterial and internal problem to overcome. It may not be particularly helpful to say “just do it”, but often times it is the most practical path to take.

Root Cause #3: Pointlessness

For those who are programming on behalf of another — which is pretty much true of any programmer who isn’t part of their own startup idea — motivation can sometimes be sapped away when you begin to feel like your work lacks any real meaning.

When we look at the science of motivation 6 Mind-Blowing TED Talks About Psychology & Human Behavior 6 Mind-Blowing TED Talks About Psychology & Human Behavior The human brain is complex and confusing, which explains why human behavior is so complex and confusing. People have a tendency to act one way when they feel something completely different. Here are a few... Read More , we find that motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic.

An extrinsic motivator is something that gets you to do something that you don’t want to do. Common examples include paychecks, bonuses, threat of termination, etc. An intrinsic motivator comes from within — you do it because you want to do it even if you have nothing external to gain from it.

You can be under the influence of multiple motivators at any given time, and those motivators can be a mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic. But if your fuel consists of only extrinsic motivators, you may begin to wonder, “What am I doing here?”

programmers-block-pointlessness

At this point, you have two options. You can either find an intrinsic motivator for your current project(s), or you can find another project for which you feel intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation boils down to vision and mission. Are you personally invested in the outcome of your work? Are you in line with the goals and beliefs of your company? Do you feel like you have part ownership over the work you do?

If not, it may be a good idea to start asking yourself where you can begin investing yourself. Look for ways to make your project your own, even on a partial basis. Worst case scenario — if you simply can’t find any intrinsic motivators — then maybe it’s time to move onto greener pastures.

Root Cause #4: Boredom

Some programmers, particularly those who are somewhat experienced, lose their interest in programming because it starts to feel boring. This problem is subtly different from the aforementioned pointlessness issue because this one is more about challenge than it is about mission.

Or in other words, when the projects you’re working on are too simple, too trivial, or too mundane, you find that your mind is consistently turning on autopilot. It’s too easy, and because of this, you feel less engaged with your work and less driven to keep coding.

programmers-block-boredom

The solution is to find a way to challenge yourself again.

If you work for a company, maybe you can volunteer yourself for bigger responsibilities. Instead of just cleaning up bugs and implementing trivial utilities, maybe ask about switching tasks or joining another team. This isn’t always an option, but it’s worth asking nonetheless.

The other path — and this one is more practical — is to take on a personal side project 5 Project Ideas To Help You Learn Programming Faster 5 Project Ideas To Help You Learn Programming Faster There are a few ways to ease the learning curve for programming. Get your hands dirty and learn faster with side projects you can start anytime. Play around with these five. Read More . Try building something in a field unrelated to your main programming duties. If you create games during the day, try building a website at night.

I recommend programmers have 2 or 3 active tasks going at a time that he/she can work on. When you get stuck somewhere, it’s nice to be able to switch gears and work on something else for awhile and then come back to the problem with a fresh perspective.

HT: Stack Exchange

Few things are as effective for curing boredom than a change of scenery, and programming is no exception. Sometimes you just need a dose of something new.

Root Cause #5: Burnout

If none of the above causes seem like the right one, then maybe you’re just overworked and burned out 5 Signs That You're Working Too Hard (And How to Fix Them) 5 Signs That You're Working Too Hard (And How to Fix Them) Do you suffer from an insatiable desire to work? Here are some of the signs to recognize this ailment and how you can overcome it. Read More , perhaps even verging on workaholism. Signs include anxiety, fear of being unproductive, neglecting your health for the sake of your work.

Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Burnout has been assumed to result from chronic occupational stress (e.g., work overload).

The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of clinical depression; in a study that directly compared depressive symptoms in burned out workers and clinically depressed patients, no diagnostically significant differences were found between the two groups: burned out workers reported as many depressive symptoms as clinically depressed patients.

HT: Wikipedia

A real case could be made that workaholism causes physical changes in your brain and body, and these changes can have a serious impact on your mental well-being. Loss of motivation to code is just one of many potential symptoms.

programmers-block-burnout

As someone who has struggled with programming burnout Programming Burnout: How to Regain Your Lost Motivation Programming Burnout: How to Regain Your Lost Motivation Writing all those lines of code can be draining physically and emotionally. All you need to get back up is the awareness that motivation can be regained. Read More myself, I know that it can be a steep hill to climb. No particular solution is right for everybody. However, if you do feel like workaholism is a real problem, it might be time to evaluate whether or not to give up programming.

And to be clear, you can be a programming workaholic even if programming is isn’t a full-blown career for you. Side projects and hobbies can be just as detrimental when you let them spin out of control.

Here are a few tips for recovering from burnout Is Burnout Making You Hate Your Work? 5 Ways To Find Your Flow Again Is Burnout Making You Hate Your Work? 5 Ways To Find Your Flow Again Read More . Ultimately, however, the answer might be to move on for good.

How Do YOU Beat Programmer’s Block?

One last thing I want to mention: sometimes programmer’s block can be caused by hunger, thirst, or being sedentary. If your brain doesn’t get enough nourishment or hydration, you can experience acute bouts of depression and motivation loss.

As for exercise, it’s possible to workout without going to the gym How To Workout Without Going To The Gym How To Workout Without Going To The Gym It's hard enough setting aside time for actual exercise, but throw in your commute and it can add up to a lot of wasted time. Try these effective workouts without ever leaving your home. Read More . If you’re really strapped for time, we recommend these exercises you can do right at your desk 8 Easy Exercises To Help You Stay Fit At Your Desk 8 Easy Exercises To Help You Stay Fit At Your Desk Staying fit at your desk is actually possible. Here are some exercises anyone can do. Some don't even require getting up, others take no longer than 10 minutes out of your daily routine. Read More . A healthy body goes a long way towards a healthy mind.

Have you ever struggled with programmer’s block? How did you get out of it? Or are you still struggling with it now? Tell us about it by sharing in the comments below!

Image Credits: Stressed businessman by alphaspirit via Shutterstock, Confused Nerd by lassedesignen via Shutterstock, Frustrated Woman Worker by Stokkete via Shutterstock, Bored Programmer by Nomad_Soul via Shutterstock, Stressed Businesswoman by KieferPix via Shutterstock

  1. halcyon
    April 27, 2016 at 10:34 am

    >>> If you work for a company, maybe you can volunteer yourself for bigger responsibilities. Instead of just cleaning up bugs and implementing trivial utilities, maybe ask about switching tasks or joining another team.

    -----

    For four months I was only fixing small defects in some web services. Coming from an earlier project where there were all sorts of exciting techs, I began to feel bored. I asked for a switch to another project. I joined another team. In two weeks, I was beginning to pick up the threads again. But I was told to leave because I wasnt performing well enough. In two weeks?! Out of which one week was the Xmas week, and they used an unconventional dev environment (intellij on linux with groovy instead of java, instead of the usual java eclipse windows combination).
    I guess just plain politics !! In any case, I was so bored that I left Java UI stuff (sick of all those JS frameworks), and took a project where I will focus only on the serverside.

  2. fcd76218
    August 19, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    All 5 problems can occur with any job, not just with coding/programming.

    "Root Cause #1: Helplessness"
    Big part of the problem is the supervisor's fault. Cleaning up a bugs in "the massive in-house development tool" should be assigned to a programmer who has been with the company for some time not to a green intern just walking through the door for the first time. It can also caused by not having sufficient skills for the job. Of course, it could be the "let's throw him into the deep end and see if he can swim" approach of testing the new hires.

    "Root Cause #2: Fear of Failure"
    The basic problem is lack of self-confidence. "Sleeping it off, taking a walk through nature, or even meditating" is nothing more than procrastination. After you're done sleeping, walking and/or meditating, the task is still there. To build up self-confidence break the task down into smaller and smaller tasks, then use a to-do list to track your progress one step at a time. As each step is completed, you're self-confidence will improve.

    "Root Cause #4: Boredom"
    The narrower the scope of your work, the quicker it becomes automatic and mechanical. A reassignment to a different team is will revive interest.

    "Root Cause #5: Burnout"
    A very serious case of Boredom. Burnout can be prevented or at least ameliorated by a major change every couple of years in the type of projects one works on. When working on the Payroll team, asked to be re-assigned to Human Resources or Accounting team. Instead of developing software, write documentation. As a last resort, take a sabbatical.

    "Have you ever struggled with programmer’s block? How did you get out of it?"
    Programming is 99% mental and 1% physical. After a day at work, I engaged in physical tasks where minimum of thinking was required. I chopped and stacked wood, I ran and rode a bicycle, I went fishing, in the winter I did cross-country skiing.

    • Joel Lee
      September 2, 2015 at 5:46 pm

      Absolutely, fcd. A lot of problems are "human issues" that just manifest in different ways depending on the circumstance. These problems do show up in other fields!

      Thanks for all of those tips. Very helpful and insightful. The point about engaging in physical tasks is one that I can attest to. When I feel mentally drained, it's amazing how refreshing it can be to clean the apartment, wash the dishes, or go for a run. I'd love to go fishing but I prefer not to do it alone and I have no fishing buddies. :(

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