Programmers are sometimes thought of as machines that turn caffeine into code.
Ask any programmer when they do their best work and there’s a high chance they will admit to a lot of late nights. If a programmer wants to avoid distraction they we could just lock the door, what’s so special about the night?
I think it boils down to three things: the maker’s schedule, the sleepy brain and bright computer monitors.
1) The maker’s schedule
Paul Graham wrote about the maker’s schedule in 2009 – basically that there are two types of schedules in this world.
- The traditional manager’s schedule where your day is cut up into hours and a ten minute distraction costs you, at most, an hour’s worth of time.
- The maker’s schedule – a schedule for those of us who produce stuff. Working on large abstract systems involves fitting the whole thing into your mind.
This is why programmers are so annoyed when you distract them.
Because of this huge mentally immersed requirement, we simply can’t truly start working until we can expect a couple of hours without being distracted. It’s just not worth constructing the whole model in your head and then having it torn down half an hour later.
The sleepy brain
But even programmers should be sleeping at night. We are not some race of super humans. Even programmers feel more alert during the day.
Similar to the ballmer peak, being tired can make us focus better simply because when your brain is tired it has to focus! There simply isn’t enough left-over brainpower to afford losing concentration.
I seem to get the least work done right after drinking too much tea or having a poorly timed energy drink. Makes me hyperactive and one second I’m checking twitter, the next I’m looking at reddit or liveleak and I just seem to be buzzing all over the place..
You’d think I’d work better – so much energy, so much infinite overclocked brainpower. But instead I keep tripping over myself because I can’t focus for more than two seconds at a time.
On the other side, when I’m slightly tired, I just plomp my arse down and code. With a slightly tired brain I can code for hours and hours without even thinking about checking twitter or facebook. It’s like the internet stops existing.
Bright computer screens
This one is pretty simple. Keep staring at a bright source of light in the evening and your sleep cycle gets delayed. You forget to be tired until 3am. Then you wake up at 11am (pre-children life) and when the evening rolls around you simply aren’t tired because hey, you’ve only been up since 11am!
Given enough iterations this can essentially drag you into a different timezone. What’s more interesting is that it doesn’t seem to keep rolling, once you get into that equilibrium of going to bed between 3am and 4am you tend to stay there.
Or maybe that’s just the alarm clocks doing their thing because society tells us we’re dirty dirty slobs if we have breakfast at 2pm.
To conclude, programmers work at night because it doesn’t impose a time limit on when you have to stop working, which gives you a more relaxed approach, your brain doesn’t keep looking for distractions and a bright screen keeps you awake.