Dave's Notebook

How To Be an Awesome Programmer

It isn’t what you think. Being an awesome programmer, or being awesome at anything has a lot less to do with any given topic: programming, boxing, writing. It has a lot to do with being a healthy human. So, the simple answer to the question of “How to be an awesome programmer” is simply, “be healthy.”

But what does healthy look like?

I really couldn’t tell you what got me started, but I’ve been reading an experimenting with Brain Hacks, Diet, Exercise, and Social Skills for over a year now. Turns out, they are all related. Now, most of my audience has less than 5 years of experience. I can say that because most of the programming population has less than 5 years of experience, so I’m going on the assumption that the people who read this blog, are a small representation of the global population. Many symptoms I will reference are going to be things you may not suffer with … yet. If you fall in that group, think of this post as a letter from your older self. I was young once too. I remember, I thought I was immune to some of these issues and if I wasn’t, there wasn’t much I could do.

But we’ve learned SO much in the last 20 years. Much of what we’ve thought was “normal” really isn’t. We are just proverbial frogs in a pan of water being heated to death.

Photo via VisualHunt.com


Now, the stuff I’m going to talk about in here is what I’ve learned and from my experience. I’m a programmer. Not a doctor, Jim. I write this in the hopes that it helps at least one other person. But, I also leave the research and due diligence to you. Just like I could give you some general programming guidance, but I would expect you to dig for more details. Not that I do that intentionally when I write about programming. Just be aware that I’m definitely not giving details here.

Also, there is this funny little thing called “reactance” that causes us to want to believe that what we currently believe is the right way. So, I’m going to ask you a simple little question. It is the one I try to implement every time I hear a new idea. “What if they are right? What if I am wrong?”

The truth is, just because you are used to living a certain way, doesn’t make it the right way.

Brain Health

So, as I’ve thought about what I want to write, I could literally start from just about any angle. The cool thing about our bodies is that they are SO intertwined. When one system gets out of whack, other systems in the body fail as well. But I wanted to start with Brain Health because if you can hack that, it seems most of the other stuff we should be doing becomes quite a bit easier.


So, our first stop in brain health is sleep. There are a lot of hacks that you can implement to get better sleep, but if you are going to be late and getting up early so that you are in bed for less than 8 hours, you are already starting out in a bad place. I’ve always been pretty good at sleeping. But there was a time when I was trying to cram more useful day out of my 24 hours so I was getting up an hour earlier than I currently do.

Meanwhile, I developed aching shoulder muscles that I caulked up to a change in office chairs.

Then I changed sleep habits. I decided I didn’t really need that extra hour. Almost immediately, my shoulders stopped aching.


Talking about food is like talking about religion. People have some very strongly held beliefs. I’m guessing you do too.

Now, before I try to break through some myths, let’s address where our current beliefs about how to eat “right” come from.

When I was a kid, we had the “4 square meal.” Equal portions of different categories of food. Then, it was a REALLY big deal when USDA came out with the “Food pyramid.” And now we have a “food plate.”

How can you believe that any one of those is “right” when they’ve changed so often? Either our research is flawed, or something else is influencing the changes. They sure aren’t reliable. And, we want to believe them because an “authority” says they are.

Let me tell you something about “authorities.” They aren’t all knowing and sometimes, they are wrong.

Another thing that sticks with me is something a psychologist (employer) of mine told me. “The schools are at least 20 years behind the research.” WOW! This means that your doctor is recommending things he learned 20+ years ago. And it gets worse. With lawsuits as prevalent as they are and insurance companies in control, few doctors are going to tell you what the current research says about what you should be eating, even if they know. The “system” moves slowly.

Now, it doesn’t take long to find information on the Internet that supports the following basic food truths:

  1. Stay away from sugar
  2. Stay away from carbs
  3. Eat more fat

You’ve heard it before. Probably from some diet thing. But, did you know that eating primarily carbs and sugars, as we’ve been doing now for over a generation, also makes us dumber?!

Now, I’ve been on a basically ketogenic diet for several years now. Up until recently, I struggled with the temptation of eating foods on the naughty list. There are two things that turned that around for me.

First, I realized that the foods that held the strongest temptation had some emotional trigger or event tied to them. But, in truth, I didn’t REALLY like the food.

Second, I increased the amount of fat in my diet. Now, I crave vegetables. And as an added bonus, I don’t eat as many calories and I’m almost never hungry.

Now, what does this have to do with brain health?

It turns out that your brain is mostly fat. And not just any fat, but the kind of fat you’ll find in butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and meat. There is still “bad fat” but it is the fat that is manmade. Margarine, and corn oil for example. Anyhow, if you remove good fat from your diet, your brain doesn’t function as well.

In fact, there are studies that indicate that a lot of brain disease is caused by a lack of fat in our diets.

Carbs are bad. Fats are good. Check it out for yourself.


The next thing that heavily influences brain health is exercise. Yes, it helps for dieting too. But, that’s not the only benefit. And only certain kinds of exercise is beneficial to exercise. But the simple act of walking for 30 minutes every day 6 days a week, has several brain healthy benefits:

  1. Improves confidence
  2. Helps fight depression
  3. Improves sleep (which also helps your brain)
  4. Reduces stress
  5. Generally improves cognition.

It is a simple thing to do that has so many benefits that using the excuse, “I’m too busy to exercise.” Is just that. An excuse.

Cortisol and Oxytocin

Cortisol is the hormone that is triggered by stress. It isn’t all bad. But the amount we generally live with is bad. The thing about Cortisol is that it can wreck your diet. You’ve been trying to shed pounds but you’ve reached a floor. It could be you are under too much stress. Maybe because you aren’t getting enough sleep. Or maybe you’ve just forgotten how to relax. Or, it could be you aren’t eating correctly.

Oxytocin, on the other hand, is the “feel good” drug. There are a lot of ways to increase this and the great news is, no one has yet run a study that has concluded you can get too much.

And once again, what is generally bad for our general health is directly linked to our brain health.


This one kind of surprised me. Just doing nothing more than focusing on your breath for 10 minutes a day, lowers cortisol and has many other health benefits.

Sometimes you’ll see this phrased as “meditation” which kind of freaks some people out. So, don’t meditate. Just go to a quiet place and focus on breathing. If you want to move it up a notch focus on breathing and relaxing on the exhale. 10 minutes a day. Who doesn’t have time for that?

Ask Good Questions

Now, when I mention some of my practices to people I work with, I’m invariably met with, “I could never do that.” Which reminds me of what my dad always said, “Can’t went to the poor house and died.”

The point is, if you think you can’t, you surely won’t. I won’t go so far as to say, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, in either case you are right.” But, thinking you can will lead you to asking the right question and will at least get you closer to “there” where ever that may be.

Here are some questions for you to ponder:

  • How can I get the right amount of sleep?
  • How can I get good quality sleep?
  • What is keeping me from sleeping?
  • How can I eat healthier?
  • What foods will help me?
  • What foods will hurt me?
  • What in my environment needs to change?


I’d put resources here of stuff I’ve read. But I want you to do the research. If I give it to you, you are a lot less likely to put it into action.

Instead, I want to ask you a few questions.

Listen, I know you are reluctant to change. I get that. I really do. But if you were to change even just a few of your habits, what might some of the benefits be for you?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to investigate some of the changes mentioned above?

Why didn’t you rate it lower?

Imagine you’ve investigated the changes and implemented them, what kind of impact would that have on your life?

Why is that important to you?

Now, what are you going to do about this next?