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 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.
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.
For this, we recommend borrowing a tactic from our tips for better studying habits: 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 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. Try combing through as many free programming books as you can, which can help you build confidence.
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.
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.”
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.
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 to help you get started. In addition, these apps that calm your mind 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, 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?”
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.
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. 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, 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.
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.
As someone who has struggled with programming burnout 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. 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. If you’re really strapped for time, we recommend these exercises you can do right at your desk. 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