I should probably start with a disclaimer. This post contains a list of non-CS activities that have had a positive impact on my career as a developer. Some of it will work for everybody and some won’t. A lot of it is also useful for people in other fields too but I guess they’re unlikely to be reading this.
In no particular order…
Reading is a great pastime and, like most of these points, should be done for its own merit. Being well read provides new insights into the world. Read Feynman on physics and you’ll discover how to think through a problem. Read about the Civil Rights Movement and be inspired by people that could stand by the courage of their convictions, despite overwhelming adversity. Obviously I’m not comparing the struggles of oppressed people to software developers (!) but my point is that the more you learn in life, the more ammo you have when faced with any challenge.
What to read though?
This is going to vary wildly depending on what your goals are but I think there are two golden rules:
- Read as much as you can. If I could recommend one non-technical book for programmers, I’d say Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People”. Despite having a slightly sociopathic sounding title, it’s a classic that will help improve the lives of everyone around you in a genuine and meaningful way.
- Include a healthy dose of things you don’t agree with. Challenging your existing viewpoints is a great way to grow as a person and teaches humility.
Exercise (and eat well!)
Life is easier when you’re stronger and fitter. There’s no reason not to strive for more of both. Exercise releases dopamine and all the feel good chemicals to elevate mood. I find that I’m more focused when I’m training well and eating healthily. The sugar hit from junk food might get you through that hackathon but eat it day in day out and it’ll just leave you feeling moody and lethargic.
Pointing out that “sitting is the new smoking” is cliché these days but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’ll mention some ways to counteract the effects of sitting in the next section but a comprehensive resistance training routine will go a long way also. Performing “ass-to-grass” squats and other compound exercises with good form by themselves will promote better mobility, helping the 9-5 body move beyond its restricted range of motion. The great Pavel Tsatsouline recommends 30 seconds of kettlebell swings for every hour of sitting – please learn how to do them from a good coach first however! That brings me onto my next point
- Find a well recommended personal trainer. I can’t emphasise this enough.
- There are some great apps to help. Check out the Stronglifts app for iPhone and Android but make sure you get someone to check your form is solid before upping the weights.
- If resistance training isn’t your thing, I think you’re missing out but it’s hard to go wrong with just moving more. If you want to get better at running then check out the Couch to 5k app or see if you have a local Parkrun nearby.
- There are some great fitness related subreddits: /r/bodyweightfitness is one of the best, especially if you’re light on equipment and don’t fancy joining a gym. Some of the subscribers have created a great supplementary app containing the official recommended routine and made it available on the Play store.
- I’ll say it one last time to drill the point home: please get a professional/expert to help with your form, especially at the beginning.
Obviously related to the last suggestion. Postural issues are rampant in the software industry. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix but as long as you put in consistent effort, even just a little at a time, the benefits are pretty extraordinary. I experience next to no niggles from physical activity now and improved posture and mobility has had a definite positive impact on my mental wellbeing as well.
More than touching toes
- Get one or two solid stretches for each problem area.
- If you work at a desk I’d put money on you needing to improve your hips, glutes, back (flexion and definitely extension) and shoulders. Probably ankles too.
- Strength and flexibility go hand in hand when done right but if you weight train and never stretch then you probably need even more help – ease into it!
- Some people hate stretching. I personally do it while I’m watching a TV show and that works for me. There are plenty of avenues to explore. Maybe yoga is more your thing? Find what works for you.
- If I had to recommend the most “bang for your buck” stretches I’d say: pigeon stretch, couch stretch, shoulder dislocates (with a resistance band and eventually a stick/bar), sitting at the bottom of a bodyweight squat and back bridges.
- Check out Kelly Starrett at MobilityWOD.
There’s a lot of pseudo science and spirituality attached to meditation which I’m not a fan of but ignoring all that it’s a great tool. Mindfulness has been shown to improve mood, help battle depression and to lead to an increase in concentration. Mindfulness sort of goes hand in hand with mediation although you could argue that mindfulness has a broader scope. Either way, I’ve found that the practice helps me stay in “the zone” for longer periods of time. This obviously applies to all aspects of life but I think it’s especially great for programming because of the high levels of focus required.
I’m not your Buddha, guy
- This is another activity that has some decent apps to help out. Headspace is very popular, especially for guided meditations. I use “Meditation Timer & Log” on the Play store. It’s pretty basic but lets me set some useful options and keeps track of how much I’ve done.
- Reddit to the rescue again. /r/meditation is very active and super patient to beginners – as you’d expect from a bunch of people who meditate a lot I guess!
This is something I’ve picked up over the last few months. In all honesty, I mostly use it to learn stuff that isn’t work related but that doesn’t mean it isn’t suited for CS studies or work too. If you think you have a bad memory then you’re almost certainly wrong. If you’ve read about people with photographic memories then that’s mostly bullshit too. There are a lot of techniques to retaining information and some people pick them up by chance. The good news is that anyone can learn them at any stage in life. Even if you “naturally” have a good memory then chances are you’re can hone the skills you have quite considerably using these simple techniques.
30 days hath September
- Spaced Repetition. There’s a fair bit of research to show that the best time to remind yourself of something is just before you forget it. Each time you do this you’ll remember the thing for a longer period of time. Eventually you’ll only need to remind yourself every few months/years to keep it in your long term memory. Once again, there’s a bit of software to help: check out Anki (web app and iPhone/Android apps). It will send you notifications to remind you to check information you want to remember (saved as flashcards). You can also download a ton of prepared decks from their site if you don’t fancy making your own.
- Using your senses. I won’t try and pretend like I know anything about neuroscience but from what I gather tying information to one or more senses in your mind makes a deeper connection in your brain. Also, the more unusual the sensory experience then the easier it is for you to recall it. For example, say you need to remember that a Lambda is another name for an anonymous function but you just can’t make it stick. Try picturing a little lamb running around in a green field being chased by your dad. You can smell the grass and hear your dad scream “Come back you fecking lamb!”. The lamb gets closer and closer to you and right before it knocks you over you see that it’s wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta that appears in all the Anonymous videos. Obviously that example is ridiculous. It’s meant to be! Next time you hear/see lambda that image will start to play in your head. Even the fact that you sat and conjured up some ridiculous story means you’ve given that fact more attention than you normally would – that in itself will help you remember.
- Memory palaces (loci). You’ve probably heard of these and they’re a highly recommended tool although I personally haven’t made much use of them. They’re suited to learning things in a certain order like speeches.
- Major system and Peg system. I’ll not go into depth here but I recommend picking up a decent book. Harry Lorayne’s Ageless Memory is great and covers these well. Essentially you can translate numbers to words using these two systems. With the words then you create vivid pictures that make learning number based facts easy. They’re surprisingly versatile too since a lot of related facts can be strung together using numbers e.g. I learnt the US presidents in no time by using the major/peg systems to learn when the presidents were in office (by year and position).
- Combine the above! These techniques/tools are all complimentary to each other. Some are better suited to certain types of information but generally a mix and match works best unless the thing you want to learn is very simple. I mentioned that I learnt the presidents. To do that I used a combination of every point above (except for loci). I would find out the president’s position in the order and the years they were in office, then I’d make a flashcard in anki, create pegs out of the numbers and make a strong sensory image connecting the pegs to something about the president’s name.
I choose to draw and I’m pretty bad at it but I love it and it gets my brain working in a different way. Again, whatever you choose should be something you will enjoy.
*insert creative subtitle here*
- Draw, play, sculpt, dance, whatever. Find something, preferably not related to a computer of any kind, and get on with it! Do it every day, even if only for 5 minutes.
Although I’d recommend doing all of these things multiple times a week, I’d also encourage mixing it up. Science has shown that new experiences are recorded differently in memory. You know the way life seems to fly by quicker as you get older? When you’re young, a lot of things are new but as you get older your experiences are usually things you’ve done before. Our brain filters out familiar memories almost like you never experienced them. By doing new things, you not only grow as a person but your life will even seem longer when you look back on it.
Alright I’m just taking the proverbial now right? Nope. A good sleep not only feels awesome and helps with important bodily functions like hormonal balance; it also supports pretty much every other activity mentioned in this post! Exercising needs a recovery period for optimal efficiency. Same goes for stretching. A well rested brain is more able to digest and remember information. You get the gist…
You may have noticed that these things can all be done without going near an electronic device. That is by design. Developing is often a series of “Aha!” moments (in between long periods of “I’m an idiot” moments) and experience has told me that achieving that “Aha!” is usually done after taking a break from the problem.
Have fun, I’m heading outside.