Save off context

Dear new developer,

A key part of software development is being able to pick up where you left off. You are going to have interruptions during your day, and you want to be prepared for them. Whether you took a break to rest your eyes, stepped away for lunch or have left for the day, you’ll want to capture the context of whatever you were working on.

This is especially true if you are being interrupted in the middle of the day to help a teammate or go to a meeting. These tasks are crucial to being a good team member, but often halt progress on a technical problem.

We all have to handle this type of timeslicing, but it can be difficult to remember where we were just before we stopped. Oftentimes if you are building or debugging something, you need to remember many small bits of knowledge: how pieces of a system fit together, what that blog post recommended, what tasks remain to be done.

When someone says “Hey, gotta sec?” a lot of this knowledge gets evicted from my short term memory.

It’s worth taking a minute or two and capturing the most important pieces of information so that when you return to the task, you can jog your memory easily.

The first thing I do is prepare to make time for this. If a co-worker pings me on slack to see if I have a second, I’ll reply when I see it with “sure, give me a few minutes, please”. Side note, I am a big believer in turning off notifications for slack, email and anything else. I always provide my teammates with my cellphone number and ask that if there’s anything urgent, they contact me there. (Haven’t been called yet.)

When you know an interruption is impending, plan for a context recording buffer. For example, if I have a meeting scheduled, a few minutes before the meeting, I’ll stop what I’m doing to capture the context.

Next, use that time to record what you’ll need to pick the task back up. I like to do this in a few different ways. I sometimes write things down in a paper notebook. This is great because it is free form, portable, works when I’m away from the computer, and quick. However, my handwriting is atrocious and I’ve definitely peered at notes I’ve written trying to decipher them.

I’ll also open up a text document and write down a couple of lines of context. These could be tasks I need to undertake, something I need to research, someone I need to talk to, or something I know is half working and needs to be looked at. I often do these in standalone files, but have also put them in comments in the code as well. I usually save these off, just in case my computer crashes. I could do this in a Google doc or slack message to myself, but find that a local text file is durable enough.

You can also capture this context in a more formal manner, by writing a failing test. That way, when you return to the problem, you can re-run your tests and move right to the work in progress. This is great if you are in the middle of code, but doesn’t work so well for other types of knowledge.

Another formal way to capture the context of whatever task you are doing is to use a checklist. Write it initially, modify it as the task progresses, and keep your progress up to date. If this is a complicated, multi day task, I’ve found a checklist to be useful, but if it’s an hour long task, I find the overhead of keeping the checklist up to date outweighs the benefit I receive.

These notes, by the way, aren’t designed to be your knowledge base. They don’t need to be authoritative. You aren’t going to consult this later. This isn’t full fledged documentation, these are scrawled notes which will be tossed as soon as you pick the task back up. So don’t stress over capturing everything in a way that someone else could use. Doing so will take too long for the value you’ll get.

Now that the context of your current task is saved off somewhere more durable than your poor neurons, take care of the interruption. Help that teammate. Go take that walk. Attend that meeting. Head home for dinner.

When you return, whether in 15 minutes or after a week vacation, return to the flow as soon as you can.

Re-read your notes, re-run your tests, review your checklist. And get back to it.