Leave some Ink in the Well

Many writers know Hemingway's tip:

Leave some water in the well.

From Impulse:

It’s a great idea: stop work­ing when you’re writing your best and it’s easier to start writing next time. You leave the work excited to return. You only face the dreaded Blank Page in the middle of your writing session, fresh from a success.

I found the same goes for Coding, albeit for different reasons. And, as a coder, I created a silly little script to help me with that.

Screenshot showing where I left the ink in the
well

You get disturbed.

I get disturbed a lot, during work, anyway. When finally you have mapped the entire stack of some weird application in your brain, your phone rings, alarms for some server start blinking, or you get some new twitter reply. Woosh, the effort is lost; the energy put into mapping everythin in your brain: wasted.

But even more often you have planned interuptions. Such as the end of the day, lunch, or some meeting.

You have many projects intermingling.

Ideally, as a programmer, you work on one problem at a time. Lucky people work on one technology, in one environment with only one language and toolset.

Luckily I don't, because that would bore me to death. I love working on multiple projects simultaneaously. Most of us do, if the average github commitlog is any proof.

So, you are working on some problem in, say, Drupal. And suddenly your time is, up, or a more urgent, say, CSS-issue needs solving. Or some server configuration needs sorting out, because backups or builds are failing.

What do you do? Commit the unfinished state? git stash it? just leave it as it is?

You could leave some ink in the well. Using a simple @INK marker.

For example:

def by_ranking
  # @INK: the rank attribute is not updated or filled
  #       in the database, it seems. @TODO: make a 
  #       migration to add this field to the database,
  #       then an after_update hook to actually fill this value.
  sort {|a,b| a.rank.to_f < b.rank.to_f}
end

A simple '@INK' with a comment. @INK is a different marker then @FIXME or @TODO. Actually, @INK is also a TODO.

Then, whenever you pick up a project, you look for the @INK, have your aha-moment and can jump right in where you left.

The only problem I have with this, is when you get disturbed, you often don't have the time to dump your thoughts and mental-state into such a comment. But telling the person behind you to "wait a sec till I finish this sentence" is not too strange.

Some rules apply:

  • There can be only one @INK. Ever. (A project can have many @FIXME's or @TODO's)
  • @INK marked code may never be pushed to other people's or a central repository. They are your private markers.
  • Whenever you open a project, you must search for the ink first. Then either remove it, replace it with a TODO or start where you left.

And with a simple script, you can find your ink in the well:

#!/bin/bash
echo "-- Last four commits --"
git log --graph --pretty=format:'%Cred%h%Creset -%C(yellow)%d%Creset %s %Cgreen(%cr) %C(bold blue)<%an>%Creset' --abbrev-commit --date=relative -n4
echo "-- Git status --"
git status -s
echo "-- The INK --"
ack-grep -C 4 "@INK" --all

It gets some context with two git commands, one to render a short, pretty git log, to learn what you did last, before you left the project. The other to show the changes in the repository: uncomitted, changed and removed files and such. And the last shows you where you placed the @INK marker, with a few lines of context.

Instead of ack-grep, you can use grep if you prefer. I'ts just slower and needs additional "--recursive *" parameters.

There, it works very @INK [berkes wo may 30 15:09:51 CEST 2012]: write some catchy finishing line; the postman is ringing at the door.

Woodcut from Doré. Purely illustrative
Doré Woodcut. Its only function is to make the layout look better. And these images are really nice themselves

About the author: Bèr Kessels is an experienced webdeveloper with a great passion for technology and Open Source. A golden combination to implement that technology in a good and efficient way. Follow @berkes on Twitter. Or read more about Bèr.

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