Programming Discipline: Beware the Hiccup


It’s called the “Yips” in sports. Technically, it’s the loss of fine motor skills - typically in golfers and in pitchers - but it’s normally associated with performance anxiety, especially when a single thought enters an athlete’s head and they can't shake their self-doubt. 

It’s likely every profession has its own version of the yips - doctors hands, lawyers wonder if they made the right call, and entrepreneurs doubt if they they made the right investment. However, there are more insidious thoughts, and programming in particular has an associated condition that is rampant - the hiccups.

Physically, people drink water upside down, hold their breath, and so on. We’ve heard them all, yet I’ve found that the best way to stop the hiccups is to do something that distracts you, and then later you'll notice they're just gone. Still, most have us have probably been there - angrily shouting at our involuntary spasms, pleading for them to just go away.

Along with our feeble attempts at bargaining with the hiccups, we’re distracted from whatever is we are supposed to be doing. This where the symptomatic similarity to the programming profession begins.

Hiccups in programming are where a coder slowly but steadily begins to distract themselves, maybe it starts with a personal email, some busy work like reorganizing a Jira board, or checking Twitter / Reddit / HackerNews just real quick. This usually happens because there was some technical problem whose solution wasn’t immediately obvious.

Of course at this point, whatever problem that was in the coder’s head is gone, so returning to the problem is even more frustrating so the need to further "step away for a moment" increases. If you had checked Reddit, maybe it’s time to check out those SubReddits as well. Also, didn’t you get a LinkedIn notification this morning that you ignored? Should probably check that out too.

And so the initial hiccup starts to become the coder’s sole focus. Further distraction doesn’t help a programmer’s analytical mind, just as in school, when you were stuck on a hard problem, you didn’t simply decide to do no homework at all, instead you moved on to another problem and circled back.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that most programmers enjoy being on computers or that everyone have so many resources / sources of entertainment and education at our keyboards, but the hiccups can ruin an entire day after a couple minutes.

While there’s plenty of tools out there to block websites, in reality any coder knows how to work around these things and typically can perform the mental gymnastics to excuse their behavior.

Instead of using yet another tool, simple mindfulness is the way to go and it starts with giving the problem a name.

So here we go - beware the hiccups.