One of the main points that I try to make at CodingMindfully.com is that a programmers work is channeled through their mind, so it’s in their interest to give the mind appropriate maintenance and to study it to understand how it operates; and that mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to do both of these tasks.
I’ve been meditating seriously for over a decade, with an interest that goes beyond that. Here are seven reasons I think it’s made me a better programmer.
1. Stress Management
Programming can be stressful. Whether you are a student or a professional, you probably have deadlines. You spend a lot of time confused, not knowing how to use a particular technology, feeling like an impostor. Stress, when accumulated over time, can cause problems.
By helping you develop awareness of your body, meditation allows you to notice and release physical tension, which helps reduce mental tension. These days, because of my mindfulness practices, I tend to release stress as I go through my day, rather than accumulating stress until it causes physical consequences like sleeplessness or irritability.
2. Reduced reactivity
Software development is a “high change” environment. Clients change their mind about requirements. New information comes to light that changes the technical approach you had in mind. Systems go down and everybody panics.
Responding to change reactively isn’t always useful. Panic doesn’t lead to the best choices or outcomes and can often compound problems. Cool heads are needed to prevail. A nervous system in a state of arousal leads to short term thinking, which might be useful in the moment but can lead to technical debt over time.
Practicing meditation for even a short period can allow you to notice when you are responding from a place of reactivity. I’ve certainly noticed this in myself – I am super aware of when I’m panicking (often completely unnecessarily) and can use my stress management skills to bring myself back to a state where I can make a more considered decision. It’s better for everyone.
3. Better focus through distraction management
Being a meditator doesn’t mean I have laser guided focus and never get distracted. I have picked up my phone at least three times while writing this article. But I noticed quickly, and got back to my writing – which might not have happened if I hadn’t developed mindfulness through my meditation practice.
Although meditation is a discipline that involves training your attention, you do this by developing the capacity to notice when you have become distracted. You come back from your distraction more quickly. You get better at un-distracting yourself. The net result is more time spent with your attention on the task at hand.
When coding, it’s easy to get lost down Stackoverflow rabbit holes and mazes of YouTube tutorials. Being able to notice when this has happened, and to bring yourself back to the task at hand, is a superpower. The net result is better focus, and for me, typically better productivity.
4. Emotional intelligence
Meditation has made be better able to manage my emotions, in particular anxiety, frustration and impostor syndrome. Each of these, if they get intense, can interfere with my ability to code, or just the quality of my life.
Meditation allows me space to process difficult emotional states. It also trains me to notice my emotional condition “in the moment” so I can take appropriate steps to moderate how I’m feeling.
For example, I often get frustrated when trying to put together a piece of code with a new library (who doesn’t?). The mindfulness I’ve developed through meditation allows be to spot this. Instead of the frustration building to a frenzy, I’m able to make the conscious decision to take a break, or reach out for help – each of which allow me to make faster progress.
Meditation is discipline where you pay detailed attention to your own internal processes. It’s a bit like debugging yourself – monitoring your state, seeing how one thing leads to the next.
After a while you begin to notice patterns – patterns of thinking, patterns of emotional reactions, patterns of physical tension. This is very useful knowledge.
For example, I’ve become very familiar with my tendency to procrastinate when I’m not feeling super confident that I can actually do a programming task. Because I know this about myself, whenever I spot procrastination in action I force myself to “just write a line of code” – it often starts the ball rolling and leads to the completion of the task.
It can sound like meditation is just for solving problems. It certainly has helped for me, in many ways. It’s also helped me to savour the joys and successes of programming life.
I always encourage my team to absorb how they are feeling when they crack a particularly nasty problem, or when a big pull request is accepted. Humans have an in-built bias towards negativity, so it’s important to skilfully appreciate the wins that happen along the way as well.
Applying mindfulness to these moments of success has allowed me to develop the habit of feeling good – and who doesn’t want to feel good?
Meditation and you
Clearly I’m an advocate of meditation for programmers. I’m curious if any of these strike a chord with you? As always I’d love to hear your questions and comments, so please reply!