Software Creation Mystery -

Achieving Top Mental Performance for Software Developers

Do you want to get all your tasks done fast and furious? Shore up your spectacular software development work with this post!

The Imperfect Brain

Lets start with the brain – the most important organ for software development work (I would be surprised if you have even more important organ for this job). This biological tool, composed from 100 billion of neurons and many legacy structures inherited from worms, reptiles, mammals and other animals, is not really perfect for programming tasks.

I think I know – you want to have between ears obedient powerful and reliable machine like the shiny new computer on your desk that crunches tasks with the highest performance without taking breaks, emotional drops and losses of attention.

Unfortunately, our brain reminds more an old computer that barely runs your development activities competing with other processes for limited memory and processing resources on the top of overloaded unstable Brain OS.

Yes, writing software is not easy and not the most important biological mission for your busy brain. It is difficult to achieve top mental performance for your tasks, especially, if you are just doing your daily job and not writing the next Facebook in your basement.

How can we still squeeze good performance from our programmer’s favorite organ?

Problem definition

Great mental performance for development tasks

Desirable Condition:
Focused & Productive Brain

Main obstacles

  1. Unclear goals – brain confusion with lack of certain direction and understanding what to do
  2. Dissipated Time – absence of dedicated committed time for the task opens rich possibilities to avoid hard work and procrastinate.
  3. Multi-tasking – running several activities in the same time significantly drops your IQ.
  4. Insufficient energy – tired, emotionally overwhelmed or indifferent brain is not productive at all
  5. Distractions – frequent interruptions do not allow to immerse into the task
  6. Mismatching task – too boring or challenging tasks prevent full brain engagement
  7. Brain overload – complex, dull or voluminous information inhibits your brain operational abilities.

There are three elements of your performance

  1. Tasks – what should be done.
  2. Time – how long and what way you work on your tasks.
  3. Mind – mental energy and abilities to get tasks done.

How to become Top Performance Master

A. Master of Tasks – Know Your Goals and Choose Tasks Wisely

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

-Mark Twain

Tasks define your work and results. Your performance and reputation (and quality of life in general) ultimately depends on tasks you chose. Make wise choice – you can work hard long time and achieve little or get amazing results in the short time.

Important considerations:

  1. Know your goals, priorities and abilities – what you want and can achieve in reality.  Focus on the most important high return goals and tasks. Put away low priority stuff – don’t waste your time and valuable energy.  Delegate what possible to others.
  2. Design your work for high speed? Break down goals to small and tangible tasks that have clear outcome and can be done in less than 30 minutes. Avoid working on big uncertain scary tasks that cause fear, disorientation and stomach upset.
  3. Choose to work with ready tasks. Avoid bottlenecks or waiting – have all information and tools ready, otherwise postpone an unready task and prepare ground for subsequent triumphal completion.
  4. Keep backlog for all stuff that you should do later to free your brain from worries about forgetting and let it focus on immediate tasks. Use systems as GTD
    Kanban to manage your mental tasks backlog.

In short, be pragmatic to be fast and furious – work on important stuff and avoid working on tasks which are not ready, big, uncertain, mismatch your abilities and can be delayed or avoided.

B. Master of Time – Run Powerful Sprints

Time is the most precious and elusive element of your performance. You won’t get much done when time is insufficient or used poorly.

Important considerations:

  1. Plan and prioritize first to establish clear path for achieving your goals. Beware – planning uses a lot of energy and meet serious resistance from the brain.
  2. Start with the most important tasks! Your best quality thinking lasts only for a limited time.
  3. Schedule and commit time for the sprints. Have enough dedicated time to accomplish something meaningful, but keep sprints short to avoid running out of energy and interest.
  4. Do one conscious active task at a time. Brain has very limited working memory and processing capacity (about 4 items). Multitasking seriously reduce your IQ and performance as brain can work only in the serial mode.
  5. Start your sprint on the full power and eagerly run until the end of your committed time. Put yourself in the champion mindset to achieve your goals. Forget about everything else and run, run, run…

According a recent biography of Henri Poincaré,

Poincaré … worked regularly from 10 to 12 in the morning and from 5 till 7 in the late afternoon. He found that working longer seldom achieved anything …

Poincaré made tremendous contributions to math and physics. His two-hour work sessions must have been sprints, working with an intensity that could not be sustained much longer.

C. Master of Focus – Remove All Distractions

Distractions kill your performance. Be serious about your time – don’t let others and yourself to spoil, skip or delay your committed time. Remove distractions to keep your powerful sprint.

Important considerations:

  1. Commit to the task and sprint time and nothing else – don’t give chances for your social curious easy-to-distract brain to engage in any unrelated but tempting activities.
  2. Isolate. Turn off phone, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, news – cut your connections to the World, friends and colleagues (exception is Pair Programming).
  3. Recognize and remove distraction early – internal (dreams, stress) and external (interruptions).
  4. Take unrelated pressure off – concentrate on work and leave all troubles far away.

D. Master of Energy – Charge Yourself

Thinking is an energy hungry process. You need a lot of energy and fresh brain to think well. In addition, you need high level of arousal and pull to achieve the top mental performance.

Important considerations:

  1. Clear mind – strive for empty fresh ready brain before starting a sprint.
  2. Entice yourself – bribe yourself or adjust perspective to make tasks appear interesting, exciting and alluring.
  3. Scare yourself – start adrenaline rush (with reasonable level of stress or fear) – why the task is important and threatening if not finished.
  4. Watch the time limit – keep pushing to finish within allocated time

E. Master of Flow – Achieve Peak Mental Activity

Flow is a mental state when you is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity

Flow state is not spontaneous – few conditions should be in place:

  1. Clear set of goals – adding direction and structure to the tasks
  2. Skills should match challenges – task is not too boring or challenging, just right to have confidence and interest
  3. Clear and immediate feedback – helps to adjust performance to stay in the flow state and keep moving in the right direction

Therefore, the ideal task for programmers should

  • have clear challenging end-state reflected in a working piece of software (verified by unit test, user interface or other means)
  • done in small steps as you should continuously learn what works and correct approach

F. Master of Thinking – Use Right and Left Brains Right

Simplify and structure information for left brain and load right brain with visuals. Minimize exhausting brain work to maximize performance.

Important considerations:

  1. Operate in small chunks. Brain has the limit on the number of concepts it can hold and manipulate in working memory (3-4). Ideally, you want to work only with the few most important ideas.
  2. Keep focus on core problems – identify what is out of scope, too difficult or not ready for processing to avoid wasting your brain energy.
  3. Work with simple concepts – your mind will operate better if you reduce complex ideas to just few simple.
  4. Write down and visualize ideas? Interact with information, do not store – overcome mental and processing limitations.Turn on your right brain intuition, visual and parallel processing capabilities.

G. Master of Control – Monitor, Maintain and Improve Your Mental Performance

You have to put special effort to sustain top performance for a series of day sprints.

Important considerations:

  1. Pay attention to your mind – what you think, emotions, stress, level of energy, fatigue. Should you stop, reset or change direction? Correct how you work to return to performant focused state.
  2. Stay fresh during several sprints. Mix heavy with easy or completely different mental activities – to get rest and recharge. A new kind of task can raise interest and spark energy again.
  3. Have mental breaks when necessary. Keep control – do not over relax or overburn yourself too much.

Learn yourself and improve your task execution system

  1. Learn how to focus better on hard (mentally demanding) tasks
  2. Increase performance on repeating tasks, consider automation
  3. Reflect, review, regroup frequently

Final Thoughts

Controlling your powerful, but unruly brain and simultaneously managing external world demands is really hard. But this is the way to achieve Top Mental Performance & Great Results with three key elements – Tasks, Time and Mind

Fortune favors the prepared mind.  – Louis Pasteur


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Software Creation Mystery -
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