Programmer’s block: it happens to the best of us

You’ve likely heard of writer’s block, where writers stare at the blank page in front of them, willing the words to come to mind.

But the page stays crisp and white, and writers take to Twitter to complain about their creative slump.  

Well, there’s a coding equivalent called programmer’s block. And it’s more normal than you might think.

But how do you tell when you have programmer’s block, and how can you overcome it?

What is programmer’s block?

Programmer’s block is a type of creative block that afflicts programmers. It’s also known as coder’s block.

It describes an inability to solve a problem or write any code at all. (Despite, that is, having the prerequisite knowledge and skill to do so usually.) The goal of the project in question is a distant dream, ideas are non-existent, and everything has simply stalled.

As dismal as it seems when programmer’s block strikes, there’s good news. It’s completely normal, you aren’t alone, and it will generally go away on its own, given enough time.

However, for programmers working to a deadline, waiting it out might not be an option.

Programmer’s block can sometimes lead to imposter syndrome, frustration and even quitting. But it doesn’t have to end that way.

Remember, it’s a super common problem with many possible causes. And, as frustrating as it is, it’s possible to overcome your creative slump.


There are several symptoms of programmer’s block. The main one is the inability to code — but this can manifest in a few ways.

For example, you might find yourself procrastinating more and having difficulty concentrating on your project at all.

Looking at your code, or thinking about your project could result in ‘drawing a blank’ — where your mind feels devoid of ideas or inspiration. Conversely, you may have many ideas flitting around in your head but feel too anxious or otherwise unable to implement them.

Programmer’s block may also come alongside a variety of emotions. These could be confusion or helplessness, or even frustration at the inability to keep coding.

Why programmer’s block happens, and how to overcome it

Overcoming programmer’s block starts with understanding the underlying cause. When you know what’s caused your slump, you can address it and get back on track.

1.      You’re overwhelmed

One potential cause for programmer’s block is having an overwhelming task ahead of you. You look at your project and just don’t know where or how to start. And so you don’t, instead succumbing to block.

When the task seems too big, the best way to overcome it is to break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Smaller jobs are easier to wrap your head around and give you an easy starting point to start coding again.

Plus, achieving smaller goals can help you build your momentum for the bigger tasks ahead. So, you can fight back against the programmer’s block.

Another approach is to take a break from the project. Make yourself a cup of tea, meditate for 15 minutes, go for a walk. Letting your mind rest from the problem can often help you find inspiration when you return to your work.  

2.      You’ve lost sight of your goals

If you aren’t sure where you’re trying to go, it becomes harder to forge a path. So too with coding — if you aren’t clear on your goal, how can you write code to achieve it?

Sometimes, we programmers get too caught up in the deadlines and forget where we’re going. Other times, programmer’s block makes us forget our goals — and so perpetuates itself.

Another way to overcome programmer’s block, then, is to zoom out from the code and revisit your goals. Why are you writing this code — why is it useful? What does it need to do?

Sometimes we get too close to the problem, and taking a step back can help us to regain perspective on what needs to be done. From there, it’s easier to see the path we need to take.  

3.      A feeling of pointlessness

Sometimes programmer’s block stems from a lack of internal motivation. Yes, you might have external motivators — like a pay-check or someone waiting on your work — but that’s not always enough.

A lack of internal motivation is where you don’t believe or care about the project. You’ve lost interest — and so you’ve hit a wall.

There are a few ways to address this cause of programmer’s block. Zooming out to remind yourself of the big picture can rekindle past interest.

If that fails, however, it’s time to find a new internal motivation. This means looking for a reason to want to do the project. For instance, does it represent an opportunity to learn something new?

Another approach to this form of programmer’s block is to change tasks for a little while, where appropriate. Some programmers like to have more than one project on the go. So, find a change of scenery until you’ve got your coding mojo back.

4.      Burnout

A more serious cause of programmer’s block is burnout. Burnout is a state of exhaustion both mental and physical, brought on by prolonged stress or overworking. It’s a serious condition with symptoms clinically similar to depression. If you’re burned out, you may experience anxiety, low motivation, fatigue and feeling unwell.

It takes a while to recover from burnout. If burnout is causing your programmer’s block, it’s time to take a break from the project.

Take some time to rest, then evaluate your work/life balance. Make sure you’re spending time away from the computer, so your brain has a chance to rest.

5.      External stress

If something is bothering you external to your programming, it can eat away at your mental energy. As such, external stress is another potential cause for programmer’s block. This can cover a wide range of issues.

For example, it could be that your messy workspace is distracting you. Or, it could be more major, such as dealing with illness or experiencing bereavement.

The answer when programmer’s block comes from external distractions is to address those distractions.

Much like burnout, this can mean taking a break and practising self-care. That means eating well, giving yourself time to grieve or recover, and getting regular exercise. When major life events are the cause of programmer’s block, it’s important to remember to put yourself first. Coding can come later.

Programmer’s block: you aren’t alone

Programmer’s block is a common phenomenon with a host of potential causes. When it strikes you, remember: you’re not alone, and you will be able to code again.

Sometimes, overcoming programmer’s block means finding a way to push through it. Other times, it’s about taking a break.

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