Clearing the logjam

code better • have fun

Programming is a creative activity. And, like most creative people, programmers occasionally succumb to writer’s block. You’ll sit there, spinning your wheels, trying random stuff, and knowing that you’re not really getting anywhere.

I’ve been experiencing this feeling now in a different sphere. I’ve been taking music lessons for some months now, and recently  blogged my first composition (or, at least, the first I was prepared to let out into the wild).

Flush with success, I launched into my next piece. I envisaged it being a set of three pieces set in a run-down dance studio. (Don’t ask why, it just seemed to fit the mood.) The first section was 5/4 and fairly upbeat. The second section was 3/4, and was deliberately clumsy (I saw partners who couldn’t quite get it together), and the last section was 4/4, and knitted things together.

At least that was the vision. I spent weeks on this thing. I had some great themes. But I just couldn’t see my way through to the end. Every lesson I’d come in with some changes, and by the end I’d argue myself out of them.

Now I’ve been coaching developers for a while now. And I know what to suggest when some programmer reaches this kind of state. But for some reason it didn’t occur to me to apply the same advice to myself. It took my teacher to say “stop working on this for a while, and go do something fun.” He gave me an assignment. Choose a simple melody and arrange it. Come back with it finished the next week.

In the end, it was great fun. It only took an hour or so, and it totally cleared my mind. I came back triumphantly the next week with something actually finished, and it felt good.

And then, I found I could get back to the more complex piece. In fact, the first time I sat down to it, I was having so much fun I went of in a totally different direction, and I’m now trying something kind of wild. More on that later…

So, if you’re finding yourself blocked—if you’re going around in circles, or if everything you do you end up throwing away—STOP. Go do something else. Something simple. Something fun. Clear your mind, and remember what it is to enjoy your work.

(Update: Chris Morris took this piece of fluff and turned it into something amazing. I think there are about three notes of mine in there somewhere…)