Code faster by typing less

Sometimes it’s disappointing to see how much code you’ve written in a given day, so few lines for so much effort. There are big picture techniques you can use to do better, like planning ahead so you write the most useful lines of code. But in the end you still want to be producing as much code as possible given the situation. One great way to do that: type less.

If you’re only producing a few lines of code in a day, where did all the rest of your time at the keyboard go? As a programmer you spend a lot of time typing, after all. Here’s some of what I spend time on:

  • Opening and closing files.
  • Checking in code, merging code, reverting code.
  • Searching and browsing code to figure out how things work and where a bug might be coming from.
  • Stepping through code in a debugger.

If you pay attention you will find you spend a significant amount of time on these sort of activities. And there’s a pretty good chance you’re also wasting time doing them. Consider the following transcript:

$ git add
$ git add
$ git add --interactive
$ git diff | less
$ git commit -m "I wrote some code, hurrah."
$ git push

You’re typing the same thing over and over again! Every time you open a file: lots of typing. Every time you find a class definition manually: more typing.

What do programmers do when they encounter manual, repetitive work? Automate! Pretty much every IDE or text editor for programmers has built-in features or 3rd party packages to automate and reduce the amount of time you waste on these manual tasks. That means Emacs, Vim, Sublime, Eclipse or whatever… as long as it’s aimed at programmers, is extendable and has a large user base you’re probably going to find everything you need.

As an example, on a day to day basis I use the following Emacs add-ons:

  • Elpy for Python editing, which lets me jump to the definition of method or class with a single keystroke and then jump right back with another single keystroke. It also highlights (some) errors in the code.
  • Magit, which changes using git from painful and repetitive to pleasant and fast. The example above would involve typing a a TAB <arrow key down> Ctrl-space <arrow key down> a c I wrote some code, hurrah. Ctrl-C Ctrl-C. That’s a little obscure if you’ve never used it, but trust me: it’s a really good UI.
  • Projectile, which let’s me jump to any file in a git or other VCS repository in three keystrokes plus a handful of characters from the filename.
  • undo-tree-mode, which makes my undo history easily, quickly and visually accessible.

Each of these tools saves just a little bit of time… but I use them over and over again every single day. Small savings add up to big ones.

Here’s what you should do: every month or two allocate a few hours to investigating and learning new features or tools for your text editor. Whatever your editor there are tools available, and sometimes even just keyboard shortcuts, that will speed up your development. You want to limit how much time you spend on this because too much time spent will counteract any savings. And you want to do this on an ongoing basis because there’s always new tools and shortcuts to discover. Over time you will find yourself spending less time typing useless, repetitive text… and with more time available to write code.

You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place by reading The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

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