The alarm goes off and maybe you hit snooze or maybe you spring out of bed ready for the day. Either way, once you're awake, a routine kicks into gear. Stumble into the kitchen, make coffee, feed the pet, brush your teeth, check email, etc. Basic tasks like these are like switching on autopilot.
Routines are unique to each person: A rigid checklist that demands completion or else the day is lost. A ritualistic pattern that brings the comfort of familiarity. A nearly impossible concept that erratically changes from day to day. A customizable tool that helps achieve personal and professional goals. They look and feel different for everyone.
Routines are proven to benefit nearly every part of life, even if your routine isn't identical day after day. I could go on and on about the mental, emotional, and health betterments that routines offer, but that's not today's point. As a coder, consistent routines are your strongest asset.
This is old news, but you've chosen a career that requires a commitment to lifelong study. The best way to stay sharp and keep learning is to make coding a daily habit. If you struggle to form new habits or get routines to stick, here are 6 tips to keep you on track.
Know your motivation
Motivation propels routines forward. Without it, routines go stagnant and fall to the wayside. When adding coding practice to your daily routine, think about why you're doing so. What's the goal?
Setting a goal helps frame a daily coding routine. It also connects you to a purpose, upping the intrinsic value, and gives you something to strive towards. Your goal can be as general or specific as you want. There are no right or wrong answers.
Passion projects are refreshing
If you're feeling uninspired or stuck, try incorporating code into something you're passionate about. For example, if you're an animal lover, you could work on a web app for a local shelter to help with adoption, donations, or record keeping. Or, if you're into cooking, build a searchable recipe book with your favorite meals. Incorporating your passions with your code keeps your routine interesting and engaging, especially when you've found yourself in a bit of a rut.
Forming a new habit is hard, and the best way to get discouraged is to set an unrealistic goal. Start incrementally, even if it's only writing code for 5 minutes a day. Learn how to become comfortable with those 5 minutes, and then up it to 10. Consistent, small steps will get you farther than unsustainable leaps.
Cliché incoming: consistency is key.
Consistency is how habits are made and broken. It's difficult to make a new habit. Schedules are hectic, and, often, life feels like there aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish everything you'd like to. Being consistent will ease keeping up with a coding habit long-term.
Consistency helps rewire your brain. The act of performing the same task over and over creates new neural pathways, making habits less daunting and more rewarding.
Showing up for yourself every day is an important first step to setting yourself up for success. In routines, this looks like doing a combination of tasks that aren't necessarily fun at the moment but will pay off big later.
Missing a day isn't a failure
Now read it again.
Consistency is key, but missing a day is not something to be ashamed of. Life happens and priorities shift. Your new coding routine isn't ruined forever. Keep going and try again!
Vary your coding routine
A daily coding routine doesn't mean you have to code every day literally. Variation actually improves learning!
Published in the Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer wrote, "Variability of practice facilitates generalization of cognitive schemas and improves transfer of learning, that is, it is most beneficial to performance on novel rather than earlier encountered situations."
So if your routine is feeling stale, you're actually doing yourself a favor by switching it up. Here are some alternative ideas for daily coding practice:
- Read programming blogs
- Review someone else's code
- Collaborate on Github
- Pair program with a friend
- Write about what you're learning
- Work on problem-solving with Codewars
- Watch code streams or tutorial videos
- Research new tools
- Connect with a mentor or mentee
- Plan a personal project
- Freshen up your portfolio
- Take an online course
The power of leveraging rewards to solidify habits is undeniable. Dopamine is the neurochemical driver behind habit formation.
Our brains love dopamine. So much so, that we'll go out of our way to get a little boost without even thinking about it. Our smartphones are plugged with instant dopamine, reinforcing the habitual opening and scrolling - often unprompted.
Delayed gratification feels out of reach thanks to the instant rewards devices offer. Why work for feel-good chemicals when TikTok is a tap away? Working to rewire the brain to seek the dopamine that comes from delayed gratification takes effort. And it's completely worth it.
When forming a habit that requires extra brain power, like writing code, critical thinking, or problem-solving, it can be difficult to get started and stay focused. Try introducing a reward system while forming new habits. Associating a reward with a difficult task is a simple way to hack dopamine signaling.
Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas - Austin says, “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again."
Dopamine and gamification
If you're having trouble sticking to a coding routine, try incorporating gamified coding challenges. The reason gamified learning works is that it encourages the release of dopamine once a challenge is completed. Repeating this process trains your brain to anticipate the reward (dopamine) before you even begin the challenge. Establishing this positive compulsion loop helps solidify your daily coding habits.
Make an accountability plan
Accountability is the act of being responsible for your actions and the willingness to accept the consequences, whether they be positive or negative. It's nearly impossible to form any habit without a sense of accountability.
Accountability plans look different to everyone. You could visually track on a calendar or your phone or ask a friend to periodically check in and see how you're doing. Accountability also looks like changing your approach if your routine isn't working instead of giving up.
100 Days of Code is a public accountability challenge to code every day for 100 days straight. Alexander Kallaway created this challenge in 2016 to better his developer skills. He really wanted to become better at what he did, but he found it hard to consistently make time to practice. His solution was to make a public commitment because "making a public commitment has proven to improve people’s ability to stick to changes and new habits."
Searching the hashtag #100DaysOfCode has manifested into a way of finding community with other folks all working towards the same goal. Getting connected and supporting others' progress strengthens personal accountability, too.
6 tips for building a daily coding routine
To summarize, here are a few tips to help you build a daily coding routine that works for you.
- Know your motivation
- Start small
- Be consistent
- Vary your coding routine
- Reward yourself
- Make an accountability plan
At the end of the day, forming a habit takes time and effort. Don't give up if it's not sticking right away. Routines are a powerful tool to help us stay focused and organized. Whether it's coding or something else, they offer a structure that helps us stay on track. By following the tips above, you can create a coding routine that works for you and helps you reach your development goals. Habits are like a muscle — repetitive use makes them stronger.