How to Improve Your Productivity as a Working Programmer

For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with improving my productivity. During this time, I’ve continuously been monitoring the amount of work I’ve been getting done and have been experimenting with changes to make myself more productive. After only two months, I can now get significantly more work done than I did previously in the same amount of time.

If you had asked me my opinion on programmer productivity before I started this process, I wouldn’t have had much to say. After looking back and seeing how much more I can get done, I now think that understanding how to be more productive is one of the most important skills a programmer can have. Here are a few changes I’ve made in the past few weeks that have had a noticeable impact on my productivity:

Eliminating Distractions

One of the first and easiest changes I made was eliminating as many distractions as possible. Previously, I would spend a nontrivial portion of my day reading through Slack/email/Hacker News. Nearly all of that time could have been used much more effectively if I had only used that time to focus on getting my work done.

To eliminate as many distractions as possible, I first eliminated my habit of pulling out my phone whenever I got a marginal amount of work done. Now, as soon as I take my phone out of my pocket, I immediately put it back in. To make Slack less of a distraction, I left every Slack room that I did not derive immediate value from. Currently I’m only a in a few rooms that are directly relevant to my team and the work I do. In addition, I only allow myself to check Slack at specific times throughout the day. These times are before meetings, as well as before lunch and at the end of the day. I specifically do not check Slack when I first get into the office and instead immediately get started working.

Getting into the Habit of Getting into Flow

Flow is that state of mind where all of your attention is focused solely at the task at hand, sometimes referred to as “the zone”. I’ve worked on setting up my environment to maximize the amount of time I’m in flow. I moved my desk over onto the quiet side of the office and try set up long periods of time where I won’t be interrupted. When I want to get into flow, I’ll put on earmuffs, close all of my open tabs, and focus all of my energy at the task in front of me.

Scheduling My Day Around When I’m Most Productive

When I schedule my day, there are now two goals I have in mind. The first is to arrange all of my meetings together. This is to maximize the amount of time I can get into flow. The worst possible schedule I’ve encountered is having several meetings, all 30 minutes apart from each other. 30 minutes isn’t enough time for me to get any significant work done before being interrupted by my next meeting. Instead by aligning all of my meetings right next to each other, I go straight from one to the next. This way I have fewer larger blocks of time where I can get into flow and stay in flow.

The second goal I aim for is to arrange my schedule so I am working at the times of the day when I am most productive. I usually find myself most productive in the mornings. By the time 4pm rolls around, I am typically exhausted and have barely enough energy to get any work done at all. To reduce the effect this had on my productivity, I now schedule meetings specifically at the times of the day when I’m least productive. It doesn’t take a ton of energy to sit through a meeting, and scheduling my day this way allows me to work when I’m most productive. Think of it this way. If I can move a single 30 minute meeting from the time when I’m most productive to the time of the time at which I’m the least productive, I just added 30 minutes of productive time to my day.

Watching Myself Code

One incredibly useful exercise I’ve found is to watch myself program. Throughout the week, I have a program running in the background that records my screen. At the end of the week, I’ll watch a few segments from the previous week. Usually I will watch the times that felt like it took a lot longer to complete some task than it should have. While watching them, I’ll pay attention to specifically where the time went and figure out what I could have done better. When I first did this, I was really surprised at where all of my time was going.

For example, previously when writing code, I would write all my code for a new feature up front and then test all of the code collectively. When testing code this way, I would have to isolate which function the bug was in and then debug that individual function. After watching a recording of myself writing code, I realized I was spending about a quarter of the total time implementing the feature tracking down which functions the bugs were in! This was completely non-obvious to me and I wouldn’t have found it out without recording myself. Now that I’m aware that I spent so much time isolating which function a bugs are in, I now test each function as I write it to make sure they work. This allows me to write code a lot faster as it dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes to debug my code.

Tracking My Progress and Implementing Changes

At the end of every day, I spend 15 minutes thinking about my day. I think about what went right, as well as what went wrong and how I could have done better. At the end of the 15 minutes, I’ll write up my thoughts. Every Saturday, I’ll reread what I wrote for the week and implement changes based on any patterns I noticed.

As an example of a simple change that came out of this, previously on weekends I would spend an hour or two every morning on my phone before getting out of bed. That was time that would have been better used doing pretty much anything else. To eliminate that problem, I put my phone far away from my bed at night. Then when I wake up, I force myself to get straight into the shower without checking my phone. This makes it extremely difficult for me to waste my morning in bed on my phone, saving me several hours every week.

Being  Patient

I didn’t make all of these changes at once. I only introduced one or two of them at a time. If I had tried to implement all of these changes at once, I would have quickly burned out and given up. Instead, I was able to make a lot more changes by introducing each change more slowly. It only takes one or two changes each week for things to quickly snowball. After only a few weeks, I’m significantly more productive than I was previously. Making any progress at change at all is a lot better than no change. I think Stanford professor John Ousterhout’s quote describes this aptly. In his words, “a little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept”.

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