11 Sep

Keep Pressing on my Friend (When programming seems bleak)

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Do you ever get the feeling that you just want to get a cabin in the woods and never see a computer again?

Do you ever feel like someone stole your motivation and sapped your energy like a mosquito in a bug zapper?

I used to think it just happened to me.  The first time it happened to me, I almost switched my major from CS to CIS.  But, the more and more I work in this field and talk to other programmers, the more and more I see the same exact thing happening.  And guess what?  It is happening to everyone.

Not just you.  You are not alone.


I?m not talking about burnout here

This is more than burnout.  This lack of motivation energy-sapping-plague can hit a programmer at any time whether you just finished a week of all nighters or you just came back from a peaceful vacation.

I actually find that it is the time when I am furthest from what should be burn out that this phenomenon is most likely to occur.

So, if it?s not burnout, what is it?

I?ll call it programming lethargy.  It actually happens to two other groups of professionals: athletes and craftsmen.

The truth is it is a perfectly normal cycle.  This ?barrier? is actually the reason why there are many apprentices, few journeymen and even fewer masters.

When you hit this phase be glad, it means you are about to be tested and if you come out on the other side, you will end up with a renewed interest and passion and leave behind the others that can?t cut it.

Oh, and it will happen again, probably several more times.

Press on my friend

What can you do about this problem?

Don?t despair, just press on.  Stay the course and all will be well.

I am not sure why this happens, but I do know that it is a true test of your desire for the goal, whether to be a better programmer or a better athlete, or a better singer or musician.

The test is whether or not you can still press on when the motivation and passion is not there.

The reward waiting for you on the other side?

  • A renewed passion and energy. 
  • A new kind of appreciation for what you do. 
  • Experience and true appreciation for your craft.

The question you have to ask yourself, is what do you ultimately want to become?  If what you do is more than just a job to you, then you?ll find the strength to press on.

How to press on when the motivation is gone

If you agree with me, or even think that perhaps what I am saying is worth considering, then you will probably wonder how you can get through this phase or test to see the other side.

We can look at athletics again as a comparison to provide some insight.

Think about a professional track runner, training for competition.  Consider what would happen if that athlete decided to not have a formal training schedule, but instead only train when he felt like it.

What would happen when he didn?t feel like training for a week?

Now let?s say he had a training schedule and he followed it, even on the mornings when he didn?t feel like getting up to train.

What would happen if his training was not planned out?  If he didn?t know what kind of drills to do or have a long term plan for the training sessions?

If you want to make it through the times when you don?t feel the motivation and passion for writing code and solving problems, then you have to have a plan.  A solid plan that will ensure that you will be able to press on.

Here are some tips to make sure that when you get struck by programming lethargy, you do make it through to the other side.

  • I?ve talked about this several times in my blog.  Make sure you are always reading a technical book.  Create a schedule and stick to it.  Even 15-30 minutes a day of reading will let you read around 1-2 books a month.  That is a huge amount of knowledge.
  • When you don?t feel like working, break up your work into small tasks and start accomplishing those tasks.  Figure out exactly what you have to do to move forward and do it.  Don?t give in and waste time.  The time you feel the most like killing time, is the time when you must throw yourself into your work all the more.
  • Set some goals for yourself.  Short term and long term.  The short terms goals should clearly lead to the long term goals.  Review those goals frequently and always try to make progress towards the goals.  Even a little bit of progress adds up over time.
  • Don?t start thinking about changing careers or looking for an easier job.  Don?t start thinking you will feel this way forever.  Realize that what you are experiencing now is a feeling and feelings are not trustworthy.
  • Clean up.  Clean up your workspace.  Clean up your computer.  Get yourself some new equipment if it will help.  Feeling like you have a new and fresh environment can do wonders for motivation.
  • Challenge yourself.  Your gut is going to tell you to slow down and relax, but that road leads to laziness.  When laziness comes your way, the best way to fight it is to push right into it!

Well, that is all the tips I have for you for today.  Just remember that you are not alone and what you are experiencing is normal. 

If you?re in a period now where you are motivated and feel great about your work and what you are doing, you might want to bookmark this post and come back to it when it can benefit you more. 

Remember though, setting up good habits and routines now can help you cruise through the hard times later.

As always, you can subscribe to this RSS feed to follow my posts on elegant code.  Feel free to check out my main personal blog at http://simpleprogrammer.com, which has a wider range of posts, updated 2-3 times a week.  Also, you can follow me on twitter here.

    9 thoughts on “Keep Pressing on my Friend (When programming seems bleak)

    1. I have a slightly different idea on this: always have a backup job in your head (mine is milking cows, because that is the only other job I’ve had). Is what you are doing better than that?

      Something to also consider, programming is all about making stuff. Take inspiration from other makers. Welders, woodworkers, artist, cooks, etc. Either in books, magazines, or TV. For instance, Make magazine is great.

    2. Great article. I’ve already started of your suggestions such as consistently reading books and ‘subtasking’ more and I look forward to employing the rest. I’ll toss in a few other tips I use when I’m feeling down:

      – Keep around ‘inspiration buckets’: a few of your favorite blog posts, podcast episodes, videos etc. that inspire you. Maybe a list for different types of work such as UI design/web type stuff, project management stuff, SW architecture related etc. Sometimes watching a great talk can get you going and inspire you to up your game.

      – “The Walk”: Term taken from coder to developer (well, the tekpub one at least…). Basically, know when you need a break and you need to step away from what you’re doing and distract yourself a bit.

      Thanks for the great writeup again!

    3. When this happens to me I do not press on. I usually spend my time focusing on other things I like staying away from the PC as much as possible. Lust for coding always comes back after the break.

    4. Wow, timely, I’m going through this myself right now.

      Usually I mope around for about a month, then claw myself back out when I realize there’s nothing else I’m really capable of doing. Kind of depressing but it’s a depressing business and I’m a depressing person.

    5. It reminds me the not-so-bad-if-we-are-talking-about-cheap-motivation the latest Rocky Balboa: “keep moving forward” 😉

      When the motivation is gone (even for a while), methodicalness and a good plan is everything!

    6. I’ve been in that rutt for about 3 years now. Not that I don’t enjoy programming, but rather I don’t enjoy programming for/with other people. Get so far and then something beyond your control or someone throws up a major roadblock in your face, and after you grumble and detour or compromise, it comes back and kicks you in the arse.

      The real noodler is that I think it can affect any “professional”. My sister never completed post-secondary. The thing I really envy is that leaves her free to set out and do a wide variety of general career options. No one of them significantly out-performs the rest financially, and if she takes a break from any of them to pursue hobbies, family time, etc. the financial impact is far less. She’s accustomed to that level of income.

      As a professional you’re rutted into one path. Any other path you might be interested in will net you 1/2 or less of what you can make sticking with your profession until you gain a professional status in that. Even if you do decide you can afford to take a break/chance with something else, stepping away from your profession too long means more difficulty if and when you need to return to it. I had planned to teach Conversational English in Japan a number of years ago, but then thought if I stayed there 2-3 years, what would I do when I got back, 3 years out of date and a huge hole in my resume.

      Cleaning stuff up / organizing does work on beating back depression & frustration though. My wife knows not to bug me when I offer to do the dishes 🙂

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