Mindfulness and Programming

I recently read an article on Business Insider, titled The Stress Of Being A Computer Programmer Is Literally Driving Many Of Them Crazy. The title alone seems to me to be a bit on the sensationalist side, however it does highlight a core issue that is often ignored: stress and the inability to self-regulate and manage your emotional states can have a serious effect.

This is obviously not unique to programmers, but we tend to be well practiced at adopting mindsets that lead to stress:

“What mindset? Focusing on the negatives, rather than the positives. Hour by hour, day after day, I do this. Always searching for what’s wrong with what I’m creating, rarely thinking about what’s good about it. It’s a negative reinforcement feedback loop.” - Myles Recny

Negative feedback loops are quite stressful!

  1. Stress causes depression.
  2. Perfectionists are more prone to depression.
  3. Isolation reinforces depression.
    As a software developer, those frequently go along with the job description. - Timothy King

How can we insulate ourselves against stress? Mindfulness is an attractive option. Mindfulness is simply a present moment awareness in which we observe what is naturally arising in the moment without judgment or attempting to manipulate our experience.

Mindfulness is not magical, mystical, restricted to a single spiritual or religious tradition, or an aggressive pushing away of our unwanted emotional states.

A few scientifically proven benefits from mindfulness:

  • Reduced rumination
  • Stress Reduction
  • Boosts to working memory
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility

Neural Pathways

Daniel Siegel states, “people who practice mindfulness meditation...neurologically disengage the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enable present-moment input to be integrated in a new way”

This may sounds vague, but is actually a huge deal. In simplified terms, the neural pathways he is referring to are our habitual patterns we develop and reinforce over years of reactive behavior.

For years we considered the brain to be relatively immutable after a certain point in development, this has now been proven to be false.

The revolutionary idea here is that even though our responses feel automatic and immediate, we actually have a choice in this process. Instead of simply following these habitual behavioral patterns, mindfulness begins to develop a 'gap,' or choice point, between the impacting event and our habitual reactions.

As we begin to behave differently we slowly close down our reactive neural "superhighways" and develop new pathways which reinforce behaviors that better serve us and those around us.

Traditional Mindfulness Techniques

Modern Adaptations

Anything can, and from a traditional viewpoint arguably should, be used as a mindfulness practice. No one enjoys doing the dishes, but as Thich Naht Hanh says, "to my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can only occur when you are not doing them...when you are doing the dishes, just do the dishes."

Mindfulness Benefits for Programmers

  • “You develop mental self-discipline that helps you write necessary-but-boring code”
  • “You become more effective at dealing with what's really going on”
  • “You're much calmer when coding, and thus more productive”
  • “You take better care of yourself”
  • “You learn more about yourself: what you are and aren't good at, what you do and don't like”

All of these benefits are essential and quite extraordinary, however, I believe I would be doing a disservice to all reading this if I were to portray mindfulness as simpy a stress reduction technique. As such, I will end with this quote:

"“The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people, and operate in the world with greater compassion towards others and ourselves” –Elisha Goldstein

Further Resources

Ian Andersen

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