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6 Ways that Programming is Like Juggling

In my continuing effort to draw connections between programming and every other activity in my life, I thought I would tackle the similarities I see between programming and juggling. I find that juggling is a pretty fun way to kill some time when I don't have the time to do anything more involved. It's relatively easy to find three or more relatively small round objects that I can try to keep in the air.

Since I have a couple of small children, I can generally look down at my feet and find a multitude of toss-able things readily available on my very own floor. Building blocks, plastic eggs, wooden fruit - it's all fair game, and entertaining for the kids as well. I once tried using a couple of medicine balls, but that didn't work out so well. Balls that heavy tend to screw up your tosses, and boy do your arms get tired fast. I suppose they would be good for training to juggle chainsaws, though.

Juggling has some nice advantages beyond wasting time. It improves your hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and spacial awareness. It's a neat party trick, for kids at least, and looks pretty impressive once you get a few tricks beyond the basic three-ball juggle under your belt. Okay, enough about the virtues of juggling. How does it relate at all to programming?

You have to keep multiple balls in the air. And when those balls are in the air, there is a lot going on. Your eyes are spotting which ball to catch next. Your hands are adjusting to where the balls are going to land. You're launching the ball you just caught so that hand is free for the next ball that's already on its way down. Each of your hands and your eyes are acting independently, but they are still connected through the paths of the balls and acting synchronously. At no point can you be aware of everything that's happening at once. Your hands have to know what to do and react without conscious thought.

With programming, you are juggling with your mind instead of your hands, and you have to keep numerous variables, functions, and processes in the air at the same time. The bigger the program, the more that's potentially going on at once. If you had to consciously think about everything, you would have a hard time making progress. You have to depend on your mental reflexes to retrieve the necessary information at the right time for the particular code you're writing. If you have to constantly jump around the code to remember which variables do what and where that other function is called and what were the side effects, you're dropping the balls instead of keeping them all in the air.

Consistency and accuracy are your two best friends. When learning to juggle, one of the first things you have to train yourself to do is throw the balls exactly the same height and distance every time. If you watch a good juggler, the balls or rings or clubs will all travel along exactly the same path as if they are wired together. When they deviate from that path, the juggler is either inserting a quick trick into the juggle, or he is transitioning into a different juggle that will become the new path.

A routine is made up of a series of transitions from one steady state to another with slight deviations thrown in to surprise the audience. The absolute consistency and accuracy of every single throw allows the juggler to think at a higher level about the next part of the act instead of how to throw and catch each ball as it's happening. That ability to step back from the basic mechanics and let the subconscious take over allows a smooth, dynamic performance to happen.

The same principles free a programmer to think at a higher level. If you consistently use the same design patterns and conventions when you're programming, you can do more forward thinking. You can get to this state of mind more easily by adopting standard naming conventions, method and class structures, and coding style. Once you are thinking less about what to name things, what you did name things, and how to structure code, you can relieve your mind to concentrate on achieving your goals. Increasing your accuracy frees up even more time that you were spending correcting compiler errors and simple coding bugs, leaving more time for higher level thinking and design.

Juggling requires efficiency of motion. It's quite tiring at first. It seems like you have to move your arms and hands in a dozen different directions, as if they need to be everywhere at once. After a few minutes all of your muscles get pretty worn out. As you get better, you figure out how to combine separate movements into more fluid motions that conserve energy and use the momentum of the balls to your advantage. As you move your hand to catch a falling ball, you let your wrist relax at just the right moment to load it like a spring and then bring your forearm in slightly and relaunch it to your other hand with a light flick of your wrist. You make less course corrections and all of your movements get smaller and more focused. Eventually you have all of the time in the world to catch the next ball, and you conserve your energy to keep juggling for much longer stretches of time.

In programming, efficiency of motion would apply directly to typing skills. That much is obvious, but let's cast our net a little wider. Efficiency of motion also applies to the entire programming environment. Take the time to learn the shortcuts of the operating system, IDE, and editor you're using. The more efficiently you can move around your programming environment, the faster you'll be able to program, and the more mental energy you'll have to put towards programming better. Whenever you find that you're making a course correction by interrupting your coding flow to accomplish some task, take a little extra time to see if there's another way to do it that will flow more smoothly. Eventually you'll be able to dance around your programming environment much more efficiently, spending less time wrestling with the environment and more time writing great software.

It is hard to learn new tricks. Once you have the basic three-ball juggle down, you'll want to expand your repertoire. Maybe you want to learn to juggle two balls in one hand or sneak a throw behind your back. You'll quickly find that every new trick is practically as hard to get right as the original three-ball juggle. Your hands have no idea what to do, and you have to force them to move where you want them to go because they will no longer do anything right on their own. Suddenly, juggling takes all of your mental focus again. More than in any other activity I can think of, in juggling it is difficult to learn new tricks.

Sticking with the same old tricks is boring, though, so there's quite a bit of motivation to challenge yourself and learn new ones. Learning new programming tricks can also be difficult, but also necessary. If you don't take the time to learn new languages and frameworks, your skills will stagnate and programming could become quite tedious. Overcoming the difficulty of expanding your bag of tricks is well worth it. Don't let the fear of temporary awkwardness stop you. You'll get past the initial pain of learning something new, and you'll be a stronger programmer when you're done.

Juggling has a natural progression. Start out passing one ball back and forth between your hands. Then add a second. Once you're comfortable with that, add the third. Then try juggling two balls in one hand, then two in the other hand, and then try two in each hand at the same time. Once you can juggle four at once, add a fifth. You can also branch out into bounce juggling or juggling clubs or passing with a partner. I'm drastically oversimplifying, of course, but the point is that there is a definite progression to getting better at juggling.

I don't believe that learning to program has a natural progression. For every programmer, there is likely a different path to getting where they are. But there are parts of programming that do have progressions. When you're trying to refactor a section of code, even if it is a great big tear-up and redesign, there is likely a natural progression that will get you from the current code to the desired code through a series of smaller, simpler steps that maintain working code. If you can find that progression, you can make your life much easier because you'll know everything is working at each step of the way instead of doing a major overhaul and finding that nothing works at the end. Take the time to find that natural progression.

Improvements come suddenly and without warning. When I was first learning to juggle three balls, I would keep a running count of how many throws I successfully caught. It was slow going at first, and I felt like I was stuck at six throws for a long time. Then all of a sudden I could do 15 throws, and I was stuck there for days of practicing. Then I jumped to 25 throws without consciously doing anything differently. Once I took the step beyond 25 throws, I could basically juggle three balls as long as I wanted, and I stopped counting and moved on to other tricks. None of these advances were gradual. It was as if the motions had suddenly sunk into my muscle memory, or some subtle change improved my efficiency of motion, and I took a big leap forward in skill.

I noted that when learning the guitar, techniques or pieces of music that were once difficult could become easier without noticing. Juggling isn't like that because the feedback is immediate and obvious. You have an absolute reference to always compare against: are you keeping everything in the air, or not? Programming can have absolute references like that, too. Can you suddenly write 100 lines of code without making any syntax errors? Or maybe you've done a large refactoring without introducing any new bugs. Or you've become so proficient with a new framework that you can keep coding without having to look things up in the documentation. These kinds of improvements will all be immediately noticeable.

Experiencing these leaps in programming skill is quite satisfying. Something clicks, and suddenly you can do things that you previously only admired in more experienced programmers. Keep practicing, work for those improvements, and your efforts will be rewarded.

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