Do the simplest thing first

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The road to redemption sometimes starts with a software mantra.

In test driven development, doing the simplest thing is a guide intended to keep you unblocked and moving:

  • When you are writing a new test…do the simplest thing first.
  • If you have something complicated to implement…do the simplest thing first.
  • If tests are broken…do the simplest thing first.

However, doing the simplest thing can still be a challenge and might not even look like it is immediately moving you forward. Often, the simplest thing is a hack that looks like a badly drawn picture or a step in the opposite direction.

It takes practice to rewire a bold and busy, future-driven, human brain for this type of thinking. The trick is in repeating and following the mantra. The challenge is in continuing to follow the path. Your steps and tests won’t be perfect every time and your brain won’t like the fact that you are discarding so many fancy plans, but this is the practice. You are walking a path and each next step is the smallest, simplest one you can take.

This path will wind itself further into your thinking slowly and steadily over time. Your brain will relax into the small steps. The architecture of your code will change. Your focus will sharpen until you see only the step in front of you.

Although this may look and feel like tunnel vision, you will eventually find yourself reaching for the simplest thing when you are faced with larger challenges either in software or in real life. It is this focus on taking a single simple step that will start to open some doors and help you break through limitations in your code and also within your own mind.

Often, when viewed from the outside, the simplest thing equates to something far beyond easy. It could be making a change that breaks all of your tests or it could be admitting that you were wrong about something or, even harder, wrong about someone. It’s here that doing the simplest thing means tearing down a wall you’ve built inside yourself. That’s not easy.

Although the software lesson is in the accumulation of small, simple tests that become a safety net for experimentation, the larger lesson has more to do with how we approach our own inner limits, choices and patterns. As humans, we have a tendency to remain stuck in our own lives, unable to see what is blocking us as we debug, console.log, and pry ourselves until we can’t pry anymore.

When we are in a state of discomfort, the simplest thing can appear to be a tiny kite hovering far above and out of reach, amidst the thick dark storm clouds we hang over ourselves. It might look far away, but it’s not. This is when the simplest thing turns into whatever it is that takes you one step away from frustration. This might mean walking away or it might mean doing something you feel certain is wrong or something that is scary but that will keep you moving.

In the end, that is what doing the simplest thing is all about: keeping you moving with smaller steps. This focus in a moment when you are wracked with self-doubt and frustration is not going to give you a test suite, but it will give you something far deeper: a sense of relief. With practice, relief eventually turns to confidence and you will see the clouds in your own mind begin to disperse.

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