I picked up the New Scientist for my in-flight reading on the way to JavaZone and came across a fascinating article.
For those who don’t have a subscription, it turns out that willpower is a limited resource, like exercising a muscle. Different people have different limits, but when they’ve used it up they need time to recover. Worse, the relevant part of the brain may also be worn out by making difficult decisions and coping with stress. This is why it’s a bad idea to try to reform all your habits at the same time, there isn’t enough mental strength to go round.
The implications for us Agilistas are interesting. It explains the value of ceremony and automation that we emphasise so much, they relieve us from wasting willpower on known practices. It also suggests a validation for pair programming in that it allows one member of the pair to recharge their motivational batteries whilst the other pushes on. Another interesting result, from Peter Gollwitzer at NYU, is that doing task breakdown for an activity helps to get it done,
Planning can turn a difficult conscious decision into an unconscious habit, which makes the whole process faster and more efficient without depleting energy levels.
which sound like a good reason to crack open another pack of index cards.
Two more relevant points. First, willpower takes physical energy. Spending long hours slumped in front of the keyboard means that much of that work will be done when the brain is too tired to think things through. Second, willpower can be strengthened by practice. Exercising self-control in one area can boost it in others, which suggests to me that the benefits of building a high-quality culture will be better than linear.
The research also reinforces Roy Osherove’s point on the difficulties of getting TDD adopted, even if we differ on the solution.
Perhaps this means that there could be a measure for the hidden costs of organisational drag, what Ivan Moore and Rachel Davies referred to as Gumption Traps. If just making it to your cubicle burns up a significant fraction of your store of willpower, then there’s less left for writing great systems; that’s why I think the regime at DEC SRC was so remarkable.
Perhaps it might also explain why so many geeks who write perfectly clean code live in such a mess.
P.S. The New Scientist web site currently includes this infinitely depressing story about how, in a world that can find nearly a $1G to save the banks, we can’t save the cod.
Fishing vessels on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland are this week destroying the best hope for years that the region’s cod fishery, once the world’s most abundant, might yet recover.
And at a meeting in Vigo, Spain, governments have rejected a simple measure that might have given the cod a fighting chance.
That’s why I can’t read it all the time.