Programming: When you’re stuck, write it down

Hey. Long time, no blog. Been busy.

Thought I’d share a tip that I’ve used for many years when programming (or learning almost any new thing) and I’ve been using recently: when you’re stuck, write it down.

Say you’re trying to figure out how to do something in [pick a framework], and you’ve Googled the heck out of the most-likely search terms, and nothing’s coming up.

Then write down your question as if you were going to ask a teacher/email it to a friend/post to a Google group/etc. Write down all the details: explain the thing you’re trying to do, the problem you have, and the number of things you’ve tried. Be as clear as you can, but don’t worry about being concise.

Literally every single time I’ve ever done this – and my rule-of-thumb is to do it after ~1.5 days worth of trying to figure it out myself – I find a number of new avenues to try, and almost always solve the problem on my own.

Writing it down forces you to take the jumbled thoughts in your head (they probably weren’t jumbled when you started, but you’ve changed paths so many times now) and turn them into a narrative. The process makes visible paths that your random walk opened up but that you didn’t see.

(This has been a procrastination for completing a writeup of my own.)

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