Building Software Together

Chapter 18: How to Make Yourself Comfortable

Having the right tools on your computer will help you be more productive. Having a comfortable environment will help as well.

Peace and quiet.
Study after study has shown that this has more impact on productivity than a fast network, a fat disk, or caffeine, but most workplaces are still too crowded, too noisy, and filled with too many interruptions [WeziakBialowolska2018]. Some people still say, "If I can't overhear what other people are talking about, I might miss something important," but that only applies if the only people you're overhearing are members of your own team (and even then, it's a dubious claim).
A comfortable chair.
A good chair with a firm back costs half what a mid-range laptop does. A full-sized keyboard (I have large hands—most laptop keyboards force me to bend my wrists uncomfortably) costs fifty dollars, and a lamp with a soft light bulb is another forty. The combination doesn't just let me program longer each day; it also helps ensure that I'll still be able to program five or ten years from now without chronic back and wrist pain. If you have good arches, you may prefer a standing desk; if you have space, sitting on an exercise ball has been good for my abs and lets me bounce up and down during boring meetings.
A good microphone.
You can have a very productive meeting with video turned off, but if you don't have decent audio you're sunk. It's therefore worth investing in a decent microphone. Mine cost me forty dollars; I spent another twelve dollars to get a gooseneck stand to keep it ten centimeters away from both my keyboard and my mouth.
A pad of gridded paper and several ballpoint pens.
I often make notes for myself when programming, or draw box-and-arrow diagrams of my data structures when debugging. I used to keep an editor open in a background window to do the former, but when my wrists started acting up, I discovered that taking my hands away from the keyboard for a few moments to scribble something down provided welcome relief. I also quickly discovered that the odds of me being able to read my own notes the next day rose dramatically if I used gridded paper to line them up. Younger programmers (which from my point of view is most programmers these days) may prefer to use an online note-taking app or something on their phone.
A heavy mug for coffee or tea.
I don't know why, but a styrofoam cup, or a normal teacup, just isn't as satisfying as a little hand-sized ceramic boulder. Maybe it satisfies my subconscious atavistic urge to whack my computer when it misbehaves…
A toothbrush.
You'll feel better, you'll get sick less often, and your colleagues might stop suggesting that the team switch stick with virtual meetings even after lockdown ends.
A squirt bottle of glass cleaner and a box of kleenex.
I can't stand smears on my screen. They drive me nuts. Whenever I'm showing something to someone, and they actually touch my screen instead of just pointing, I find myself reaching for that heavy mug… Then I take a breath and clean my screen.
A rubber duck.
One of the creators of Unix kept a rubber duck next to his computer. If a bug took more than a few minutes to track down, he put the duck on his desk and explained the problem to it, because speaking out loud forces you to marshal your thoughts, which in turn highlights any contradictions or missed steps that you hadn't noticed while everything was just swirling around inside your head.
A chess set, a deck of cards, or some knitting.
I'm a very bad chess player. Luckily, so are most people, so it's usually possible to find someone at my level for a quick game at lunch. Other programmers I know play euchre, or knit—a programmers' stitch and bitch session can be jaw-dropping to listen to. Everyone needs to take breaks to re-set their brain; it's better to acknowledge this and do something social in the middle of the day than to say, "Must… keep… coding…" and produce garbage that just has to be rewritten later.
Everyone wants to feel at home; everyone wants to make wherever they are uniquely theirs. I hang a few postcards on the wall wherever I work, along with a photograph of my wife and daughter taken a few months after she was born (my daughter, that is), just to remind me what's really important.