Mindful Software Development

This is a minor distraction piece while I complete the promised article on some fun high performance SIMD financial calculations across several programming languages.

What Is Mindfulness?

Skip this section if you just want to get right to the part speaking directly to software development.

The topic of mindfulness often segues to meditation, which is a rewarding activity that unfortunately falls in Venn diagrams of various superstitions and spiritual beliefs: I’m not pitching any of those. While I’ve long pursued the practice of meditation (finally having some success as of late1), my interest is philosophical and psychological: Gaining a tool of mental relaxation and focus, both critical abilities in the software development/technology field. This piece is more an observation of personal discoveries rather than advice, so consider skeptically, implement appropriately, and adapt according to your own results.

Mindfulness is something we all experience2, and is common when we encounter changing or unexpected conditions.

The first snowfall of the season is often a mindful experience. The crisp air buffeting against your face. The gentle murmur of snowflakes blanketing the ground, absorbing and dulling the ambiance of the normal environmental sounds. Everything feeling remote and less real, and a little more magical. We note the warmth and humidity when returning indoors, with a new awareness of every unique scent.

We enjoy the crackle of the fireplace, and the smell of burning wood. The water gurgling to a boil over the wood stove, and the ebbs and flows of patterns created when poured into a cup with hot chocolate mix. The billowing steam dancing atop the cup. The comfort of a warm drink.

We have a heightened sense of mental clarity.

That is mindfulness. It is being completely involved with the present – by being truly present – absorbing and interpreting and enjoying all of the senses.

My dog, Piper, hanging out while I work

Put in a computer science perspective, mindfulness is like assigning the process responsible for interpreting the now a high priority, preventing it from being pushed to a background role. Mindful periods are often recalled as if time had slowed down (reported especially when we experience emergency mindfulness, like in a car accident or fall), which from a computer science perspective has a rational explanation: Normally our senses, which are the significant arbiter of our perception of time, are a low priority background thread, consuming some hypothetically low percentage of our thought capacity, but in a period of mindfulness it gets far more of the cycles, experiencing much more in a given period of time.

Some experience mindfulness with chemical assistance, where we might become fascinated by things that we normally overlook. A glass of wine in and I find myself captivated by diced onions sizzling in a pan as they dance atop a thin layer of hot oil, overwhelmed with the beauty of the aromas. I become fascinated as slivers of steam wisp off to their escape.

People’s experiences with various illicit substances, often at enormous human cost, is oft pursued as chemically assisted mindfulness. To enjoy and experience the present, people often sacrifice their future.

Meditation can be used to exercise mindfulness, gaining a better handle on safely achieving it on demand. A common exercise is mindful breathing where you sit in a comfortable position (e.g. one where you’re safe and secure and not in distracting discomfort, usually in a quiet location) and focus on the senses involved with breathing: The rush of the air into your nose; The rise of your chest; The fall as you breath out of your mouth. Or you might mindfully focus your attention on parts of your body, “scanning” the various feelings that ordinarily you completely disregard.

Mindfulness is being fully involved. Of being completely invested and aware of your existence at that moment. Not caught in the past or the future, or planning or reconsidering or reliving, or endlessly going through internal narratives and planning about social interactions and obligations, anxiously worried about the meeting tomorrow or reliving the meeting from yesterday, but being entirely focused on the moment and the beauty and complexity of the world around us.

That’s mindfulness.

It seems obvious and trivial, and seemingly available on demand, but actively engaging in mindfulness is a difficult task, our minds having an evolutionary tendency to try to move anything routine or expected to a background process, clearing capacity like an over-eager paging algorithm for the event that something unexpected comes along. Noisy contemplation about the past and the future fill the vacuum.

From a survival perspective, where historically threats were everywhere and our continued existence was a moment to moment gambit, having a mental priority model and IPC that focused on deviations from the norm would be an advantage: Ignore everything not deemed a threat or critical, and only apprise me consciously of changes while I worry about tigers in the area and contemplate how they almost got me a week ago and ways to avoid making that mistake again, predicting how they might get me this time. Taking in the trivia of a moment isn’t an advantage or a luxury to be enjoyed when threats are everywhere and many activities have a very rapid risk/reward return.

Survival dictates that you only stop and smell the roses when they’re novel and you’re figuring out if you can eat them or if somehow they’ll eat you. From then on they’re irrelevant.

We now live in a world where threats are rare, and our survival (or rather prosperity) usually relies upon long term activities, often with a long payback period. Where increasingly careers depend upon intense, sustained focus and attention to very small details, but we often live incredibly repetitive lives, with the same sensory inputs day after day, performing close to identical tasks. Driving the same roads. Drinking the same coffee. Making the same small talk. Having the same arguments. Doing many of the same tasks in slightly different ways.

A copy of a copy of a copy.

The software development field isn’t immune to repetition, and many if not most developers have spent decades doing minor variations on a theme. Most social news sites see the bulk of their traffic during the audience’s work days as we look for something to try to add some novelty to our days, rapidly jumping into and out of links on social news, rationalizing that it’s somehow making us better at our jobs.

[note: try creating a list of “how social news made me better today” at the end of each day. Most days it will be entirely empty, because the truth is that most content is extremely low value, and the minority of enriching content is often quickly scanned as we look to see the things to find wrong – particularly on programming related venues – or just to confirm our longstanding assumptions]

We pass time making grand plans for the future, and anxiously reflecting on the many plans that drifted into the past uncompleted.

Mindfulness is spending some time in the present. It makes life more enjoyable. It makes it more interesting, and makes us better witnesses of our environment, where we are surrounded by incredible beauty (cue the oft parodied plastic bag scene from American Beauty).

Being mindful adds enjoyment to life, and gives us more control over our monkey brain. Controlled mindfulness is the ability to appreciate the routine: That coffee that was just like every other coffee you’ve drank for the past three years is arguably better than one that the greatest king in the middle ages could have enjoyed. As is almost every food you enjoy.

We are surrounded by incredibly luxuries, and enormous beauty, that the process of acclimation makes us jaded and dulled about.

On Demand Mindful Programming

Software development is a mental exercise. We have problems that we focus our neural powers upon and generate results.

Optimal software development is a balance between planning for the future, incorporating lessons from the past, and implementing in the now. The now is the part where we work in the IDE, fingers to the keyboard, grinding out beautiful code and designs. Or it’s the part where we work on a whiteboard and plan for the future. Or it’s the part where we analyze the defects of the past and plan the changes the improve the situation.

Whatever embarrassment, pride, shame, or arrogance we have about the past, and whatever worries about scaling or security or re-usability we might have for the future, the now is when we make a difference.

So what does mindfulness have to do with programming?

Mindfulness is the key to optimal effectiveness in this field.

The zone — the magical mental state where one becomes intensely focused on their effort — is applied mindfulness. The ability to actively control or at least maximize the likelihood of a mental flow state is very beneficial.

I’m not going to describe how to meditate on here – it is a very well worn subject – but it is worth an investment of some time. Meditation is the longer term approach, but given all that I’ve written above what could we draw as lesson for a non-practitioner today? How could you better achieve mindfulness today?

I have a couple of suggestions to give a try. The hope is to force your monkey brain to focus on the now, which can be used to bridge to a flow state.

Mix up your environment and routine.

Change the background color of your IDE. Change the font color. Change the font (a well known trick in the proof-reading world). Sit at a different desk. Sit in a different building (e.g. a library or a cafe, or the cafeteria, tailoring to your ability to ignore distractions). Sit on a bouncy ball. Turn your monitor to portrait mode. Switch to a laptop. Put your mouse on the left side. Skip breakfast, or skip lunch. Use a standing desk one day and a sitting desk the next. Start at 6am one day and noon the next (obviously contingent on ability to do so). Take different routes to work, or stop at different shops. Take different doors. Experience different scents. Talk to different people. Work in the dark. Work outside.

Change things up daily.

This notion of changing one’s environment goes completely contrary to most advice in this industry, where the dominant advice is one where you find the conceptually perfect setup with the perfect colors and fonts and seating and situation, and then follow a routine regiment. The foundation of that approach is that you focus on only the code, all of the other distractions removed by making them blend into the background.

It’s wrong, or at least wrong for most people. The net result of this consistency is that life becomes a grey and dull monotony with a detachment from the now. We skitter around looking for something to try to draw us in (we look for a funny cat picture to jar us into conscious existence), and lose the ability to focus or solve difficult problems.

This notion of focusing better after mixing things up has been demonstrated countless times, but people usually draw the wrong conclusion.

Switching to a standing desk likely didn’t make you more productive. Change itself made you more productive. The same can be said of the countless blog posts on going out to lunch, staying in for lunch, sitting on a yoga ball, using a new chair, working in cafes, getting up extra early, working in notepad (in digital or paper form) or a different IDE, etc. People often euphorically report on the increased productivity seen by a change, never attributing it change itself. There are seldom follow-up reports on these silver bullets as the new and novel turns into the old and mundane.

People experience change and report magnificent results. We often become more capable when a new member joins our team and there’s that period of the new, and just about everyone reports how fantastic it is when they first start a new job, or move to that cool new platform or language. That renewed sense of focus and purpose and achievement.

There is a well known effect that’s oft referenced called the Hawthorne effect, which in a nutshell is the belief that being monitored makes people (temporarily) more productive (demonstrating the observer effect). In that original experiment the observers were trying to measure if lighting changes would improve productivity, so they changed the lighting and productivity improved, slowly fading back to normal. They changed it again and productivity improved, returning to normal. Then they changed it to the original lighting and productivity improved yet again, seemingly undermining the entire study. There have been many similar experiments, including some where the subjects weren’t aware that they were being studied, and again a change of conditions yielded improved productivity.

The reason seems obvious, doesn’t it? While we all strive for consistency under the notion of removing distractions, for most of us consistency is the greatest distraction of all. Monotony makes the effort of mentally focusing on the now a herculean task (which can be embraced as essentially monotonous meditation, of a sort, where the intent is to deeply force a focus on the mundane, such as the case of focused breathing, or even things like a Japanese tea ceremony — this isn’t really usable when it comes to the environment around your work, however), in absolute conflict with the intended effect.

Switch your world up. See how it impacts your focus on the code. Look into meditation.

[the pictures in this post were taken minutes before hitting publish on this post — my dog Piper who always hangs in here when I’m working in the home office, and a few out the back as spring makes its presence known]

1 – I’ve started meditating while exercising on the elliptical. I love the elliptical because it’s smooth and presents very little abuse on the body, and allows me to be mentally free. I have found it very useful to practice meditation while doing this, killing two birds with one stone as it is. And yes, you can meditate doing almost anything that doesn’t demand your attention, and the rhythm and blood flow of the elliptical makes the meditation extra immersive.

2 – As always, there’s a caveat about terminology: Get in a discussion with a serious Zen aficionado and mindfulness will often demand a more restrictive set of conditions, and some demand that it mean being essentially free of thought. In this piece I am referring to mindfulness as truly being wholly and completely present, which is something that we seldom truly experience.