The Zen-Stoic Programmer


In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to the concepts presented by Zen Buddhism and Stoicism. I’ve incorporated many of these concepts into my life, adding to the ever growing system of beliefs that guide my daily choices.

These ideas have been valuable in my career as a programmer. I work in a high-demand environment and need to build high-quality software while delivering new features and improvements quickly. By staying present and focusing on what I can control, I make better decisions, keep stress low, improve communication, and clarify priorities.

Present and Rational

Zen focuses on “direct experience and personal realization through meditation and mindfulness practices”. In short, it teaches you to stay present and be accepting and interested in the current moment. It’s a little spiritual, but not necessarily. It isn’t religious in the traditional sense.

Stoicism encourages the development of wisdom and inner strength through self-control and rationality. It focuses only on what is within your control and making wise, rational decisions. In practice, this means noticing your emotions, reactions, and mental state. Being Stoic means not letting emotions dictate decisions. It does not mean suppressing emotions.

Together, these belief systems create a sturdy framework for living. They encourage you to be present, enjoy the moment, and set aside future stresses. They also ask you to be rational, think clearly about what you can control, and make decisions without emotion.

For me, this looks something like: I meditate, focus on the present, and become calm. From this place, I decide what’s important right now and act.

Building with Calm

Companies use apps like Headspace to reduce worker stress levels through meditation. I’ve experienced the effectiveness of this, but it’s not the only stress-relief method. Over time, I’ve learned that meditation can be proactive. Now I use meditation and journaling as a morning practice to prepare mentally for the challenges of the day.

This means I pre-load my mind with calm and rationality before I start building. When the first meeting of the day begins, I’m not still waking up or quickly finishing my coffee in an effort to prepare myself. I’m not stressed, worrying about the things I have to do, or what someone might be asking from my team today, or concerned about newly added bug tickets. Instead, I am calm and prepared. I have already decided on my priorities for the day and reminded myself of the things I can control. I have reflected on why I enjoy programming and how building something new and valuable for the world brings me joy. I know there is much to do - the list is always growing - but I am focused on my ability to choose what is most important.

The Details

How can you use these ideas daily as a programmer? The answer depends on you and your situation. There are core concepts that you could focus on to improve your situation.

Recall your last high-stress experience as a programmer. It could be a production incident, a high-priority bug fix, or a situation where you felt out of your element. How did you react? Were you stressed and thinking about all the potential problems? Worried about the consequences of going slowly or what your manager might say if something unfortunate happened? How much was within your control? How much was a future possibility?

How much of it was in the present moment? How much was caused by your emotions and reactions?

When facing high-stress scenarios, incorporating Zen and Stoic practices can greatly improve decision-making and communication while reducing stress levels. Staying present and focused helps you approach challenges with a calm and rational mindset.

What about low-stress situations? Like writing code, reviewing pull requests, fixing problems; times when you need focus, meaning, and enjoyment in the work.

Zen practices help you stay focused, accept imperfection, and embrace simplicity, minimalism, and non-attachment. In short, you’ll write cleaner code, find “flow state” more frequently, and accept that perfection in your work is unattainable. Instead, you’ll focus on being present and finding meaning in the work.

These practices will enhance your coding abilities and cultivate mindfulness and joy in your work. By letting go of perfection and embracing imperfection, you’ll approach each coding task with a calm mindset, creating cleaner code and enjoying the process more than the outcome.

Until next time. Happy coding!