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8 Practical tips to stay alert and focused while coding

Coding is the core of what most developers do and as an activity requires sufficient levels of concentration to be performed effectively.

As we live in a world full of distractions, it can be at times difficult to stay alert and focused while coding. Combat this by being aware of the different forms of distractions and taking actions to resist them.

Your well-being, routines, motivations and how effectively you plan, all play a role in your ability to remain focused while coding. Several time management tools and productivity techniques also exist that can aid and boost concentration.

Here are 8 simple factors that can be applied to greatly improve your effectiveness at staying alert and focused while coding.

1. Know your optimum time to code

code-at-optimum-time

This is first on the list for a reason.

If you choose the wrong time to start coding, such as a time when you’re tired, sleepy, unmotivated and so on, the remaining tips in this article will be 10x less effective!

Enter coding sessions ideally at a time of the day when you’re likely to feel the most refreshed and alert. If you don’t know what this time is, experiment until you’ve found an optimum time you can reserve as your coding time.

Some of us are more alert first thing in the morning or some prefer coding later in the day.

How much sleep you get and your daily schedule will also influence the time you have to code as we may try to squeeze coding in between other tasks.

Your ability to stay alert and focused while coding will be massively impacted by how you feel when you start your sessions. It’s therefore crucial you figure out a routine and find an optimum time you can be productive and code effectively.

2. Ditch the distractions

ditch-distractions

You’re at your computer and ready to start coding then.. your phone rings.

What you planned to be a minute of checking the notification now turns into an hour of scrolling and getting lost in the world of the internet and social media.

Most of us are guilty of this and we think we have enough discipline to get rid of distractions at will, but it’s just not always the case!

Instead of relying on will power that we know is likely to fail us, start being intentional about keeping away from predictable distractions like our phones and other gadgets that are dangerous at taking away our ability to remain focused while coding.

Some simple changes can be to put your phone on silent mode or in an entirely different room during your coding sessions. Also consider using apps that block internet activity or social media websites on your phone during certain times.

When you become aware of the common distractions around you, the next step is to be disciplined enough to put in effort to find barriers you can place between these distractions and your determination to remain focused while coding.

3. Decide your to-do before the session begins

know-your-todo

Plan ahead before any coding session and decide what your targets are for that session.

This is advantageous because not only does it avoid wasting time at the beginning of your session, but decision making in itself can take effort and may leave you feeling exhausted afterwards. This in turn affects your ability to focus for the rest of the coding session.

Lack of clarity about what you want to achieve during a session requiring focus can also lead to you jumping between tasks and trying to multitask.

Avoid this by planning each coding session well before it begins and ideally do this the day before you’ll be working on the tasks.

To help you decide on your goals for that coding session ask yourself questions such as:

  • What project will I be working on?
  • What type of activity will I be doing – New feature? Refactoring? Bug fix? Documentation?
  • What are the high priority and critical tasks I need to get done?
  • What is one major task I want to accomplish by the end of the session?

Having a plan is critical even though things may not necessarily go according to that plan. A clear set of tasks and goals will help improve your ability to remain focused while coding.

4. Use a project management tool

trello_workflow_board

An effective project management tool will allow you to plan, view and organise your work in an intuitive and easily accessible manner. There are some tools out there particularly useful for developers and can help to keep you organised and focused while working on development projects.

Trello is an example of such a project management tool and is used by all sorts of engineering teams. Trello allows you to organise, visualise and plan all aspects of your work in a digitised sticky note style system.

For developers, Trello can be used for brainstorming, gathering requirements, listing new features, bug tracking, setting deadlines, workflows and collaborating with others.

I’m a personal fan of Trello and use it daily to organise my projects. As someone who was once a physical sticky note user, I now use Trello to plan projects and ensure tasks don’t get lost in a sea of sticky notes!

Other platforms like Notion and Asana are also well known project management tools for developers. Try out different platforms and stick to the one that works for you. Once you’re over the initial learning curve of getting used to the platform it will surely benefit you in the long term.

5. Work on achievable bite-sized tasks

checklist

This involves analysing major tasks and breaking them down into bite-sized chunks to make it easier to tackle each task one at a time.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” – Unknown author

It will be overwhelming to approach a single enormous task that occupies just one line on a to-do list. That same task will appear less overwhelming when it’s broken down into several subtasks.

This overwhelming factor can scale when working on a major projects requiring several weeks, months or years of development time. Breaking down tasks into subtasks and marking each as complete will act as a better indicator of progress.

This also has some psychological benefits.

A famous study by Brad A. Myers in the paper "the importance of percent-done progress indicators for computer-human interfaces", emphasises how a display of progress can improve our effectiveness in completing tasks.

Using this same principle; breaking down your task into smaller chunks will allow you to notice progress you make and create a positive impact by boosting motivation.

This all plays into greatly assisting your focus while coding as motivation will improve when working on tasks that appear more approachable.

6. Play music to help with concentration

music-for-concentration

Music is not only entertaining and soothing, but in addition, playing certain kinds of music can also help us to stay motivated and focused while coding.

For those that enjoy listening to music, while we all have different tastes, ideally play music that doesn’t have lyrics which can be more distracting than instrumental and background music.

According to entrepreneur.com there are 6 types of music that are shown to dramatically improve productivity. All except one type on this list are without lyrics which again suggests this is the ideal type of music to play when trying to focus.

Six types of music for improved productivity: Classical, Nature, Cinematic, Video game, Beats, Your favourite music – entrepreneur.com

Also play music suitable for the level of concentration you need. The playlist doesn’t matter as much if you’re doing a lighter task that you know doesn’t require high levels of concentration and you can carry out with ease.

However, if you’re doing a high intensity task that requires a lot of focus like debugging, then background music or sound effects will likely be more suitable.

Not only will the right music help you stay focused while coding, it also provides a means to have a little enjoyment!

It’s also important to note this point may not apply to everyone as some may find it a lot easier to focus under complete silence. Do what works for you!

7. Take enough breaks

take-breaks-pomodoro

Taking sufficient breaks during tasks is important to allow recovery and improve our ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

Don’t assume you don’t need breaks and plan them into your session. Try different techniques and develop a routine that involves taking enough breaks to keep you going for the duration of time you’re coding.

The Pomodoro technique is an example of a famous time management technique that emphasises the importance of taking breaks.

It works like this:

  • 25 mins of concentrated work
  • 5 mins break
  • Repeat this 2-3 times
  • Take a much longer break e.g. 30 mins

Following this technique is effective for most people as we are more likely to stay focused during the shorter work sessions knowing we get a ‘reward’ with short breaks in between.

The Pomodoro technique is also flexible and you can choose how long you want to spend working, how long for your breaks and how many cycles you want to perform.

Try experimenting with different productivity and time management techniques such as Pomodoro to find out which works for you to help stay focused while coding.

8. Remember your motivations

remember-motivations

What’s the purpose of you right now sitting down (or standing) at your desk and writing code? What is motivating you? The idea is to have a good enough WHY to keep you going.

Think about your ultimate goal…

  • Are you a newbie learning to code with the aim of landing a job as a developer?
  • Are you growing your skills so you can expand into new areas of software development?
  • Are you working on a project for a business idea or startup?
  • Is this an important task to complete to get your team through the next milestone?

Whatever your reason is, remember it and use it as a motivation.

Having an ultimate end goal could be the difference between seeing your project come to completion or not.

Conclusion

Coding is an activity requiring concentration and several techniques can be applied to keep focused while coding.

Factors like your well-being, ability to plan and discipline to stay away from distractions play a major role in our ability to concentrate. Approaching each coding session with the right attitude and with a plan will also go a long way in helping to keep your alertness.

Project management tools, time management techniques and even music can also assist in improving your productivity and keep you focused while coding.

Do you struggle to stay focused or motivated while coding or performing development activities? Let's hear your thoughts.


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