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When I'm working on a complex / large programming project and I get overwhelmed or lost, I often lose motivation and just don't have the energy to really dig into the problem once again to figure it out.

After some time goes by, I may get back to it and have the renewed enthusiasm it takes to think about the problem from first principles again. This usually works, if I get back to the original problem. More often than not, I get side-tracked on other projects and the original program/problem lies dormant forever.

I know this is a common reaction to complexity, or being overwhelmed by a problem and not knowing where to go to next. You run out of steam pretty quickly. But there are things I've come across that I can focus on for fun, and it often gets me stoked to get back into programming, the more complex the project the better!

These things would sound incredibly dorky on any other site, but probably less so here. I'm talking about things like listening to a Stack Overflow podcast, reading an old Steve Yegge or Paul Graham article, watching an episode of Matt Chat where he's interviewing some programmer that worked on an old game for the Atari 800, or just watching a movie like Wargames (not many other movies come to mind though).

The problem is, sometimes I run out of these ideas that renew my interest in computer science, so I'm asking for some of your ideas. Maybe limit it to one per answer so people can vote for particular answers/recommendations.

Thanks for your input!

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Have clear objectives and requirements. –  rmx Apr 18 '11 at 20:31
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My usual practice is to narrow it down to one task that doesn't intimidate me. When that's finished, I do another task that's small enough not to intimidate me. Eventually, the project no longer intimidates me. –  David Thornley Apr 18 '11 at 20:31

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I have run into this lately... In my opinion it has a lot to do with time management.

I find that when I'm stuck on something it helps to sleep on it. Then the next day attack it from a different angle. When that doesn't work, take a break from it. Work on a different task, get your mind thinking about something else.

For me, I have had lots of balls in the air with no answers. Each morning I think of the tasks that are still open and I just go over them mentally in my head. When I do this, I find that I formulate different ways of attacking the issue(s) than the last time I worked on it. You could also talk out your issue. Many times hearing what you are thinking give s a totally different perspective.

I have also found that doing some manual labor has also helped clear my mind which many times give renewed focus. The same can be said for doing a hard work out.

I don't think there is a silver bullet here. I would offer though that just letting a big problem lie is not going to help you in the employment situation.

Just my 2 cents.

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One thing you can try is to break the problem down into smaller and smaller parts. Keep track of all these little milestones. Log the progress on them. AFter a while you start to see lots of small tasks getting completed and that feels good and can motivate you further. :)

If you run out of interest in computer science in general, that's also OK. It's probably healthy to have hobbies and interests that are not related to computers or programming. Maybe explore one of them, take an evening course or join a club.

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"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." –  jmq Apr 18 '11 at 20:38

I also ran into this sometime back. One think I did or try was breaking things into smaller managable components. Speaking to another work colleague and splitting it also helps with another pair of eyes, including some classic pair programming and even reviweing.

When you have broken things down one by one and start ticking them as complete it can motivate you :). Of course there is no one sollution but what works out best for you.

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Break down what is daunting and overwhelming into small, achievable, winnable battles. Win them one at a time. If the small chunks still feel too big, break them down again.

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