Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

The value of a fresh mind

without comments

I recently read a post by my colleague Sai Venkatakrishnan where he talks about some of the disadvantages of over working on a project and it reminded me of something I’ve noticed a lot recently – notably that after taking a break from solving a problem, either by looking at it again the next day or after lunch or any kind of break I end up solving it significantly more quickly than if I’d kept on trying to solve it without doing so.

I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it seems to tie in nicely with Tip 16 from Pragmatic Learning and Thinking:

Step away from the keyboard to solve hard problems.

The idea that Andy Hunt is promoting is that we should take some time away from the keyboard and keep the problem in mind but don’t focus on it – the rich mode in our brain (used for intuition, problem solving and creativity) will take over from the linear mode (used for working through the details and making things happen) and probably lead us to the insight that helps us solve the problem.

I think it comes down to the fact that when you are really close to a problem for a long period of time and you’re feeling tired you stop seeing the bigger picture and therefore perhaps miss what would be a much simpler way of solving the problem. This has happened on several occasions for me and each time I am surprised that I couldn’t see the obvious solution the day before.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that not only do I start to not see solutions to problems but I start to make more mistakes than I normally would and end up spending time the next day fixing these, meaning the extra time spent didn’t really add any value at all – very frustrating!

I think it’s fine to sometimes spend extra time working on problems, especially if they are critical ones that need to be fixed within a certain time frame – usually production issues or when close to release – but apart from those occasions it really does seem to be true that maintaining a sustainable pace works out more productive overall than over working and being in a consistently tired state.

An idea somewhat related which I’m keen to try out is the Pomodoro technique which I’ve seen the pairwithus guys using during their pairing sessions. From what I’ve read about this technique it might take the idea of keeping our mind fresh and focused to the next level.

Whatever the technique we choose to use the value of stepping away from the keyboard to solve problems more quickly seems counter intuitive but somehow keeps coming true for me at least.

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Written by Mark Needham

May 26th, 2009 at 12:51 am