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Rubber Ducking

by Patty Ryan Lee

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I’m a web developer. Languages change, ways of programming change, and now… I barely touch code because of WordPress. But one thing that hasn’t changed in my 20+ years is how helpful Rubber Ducking is.

When I started in web development, I had my programmer dad to talk to when I ran into an issue. We could converse together and bounce ideas back and forth like a game of tennis and dizzy my non-programmer mother. But when he died, I lost that back and forth problem-solving and brainstorming.

Or so I thought.

In the midst of a massive programming project something weird happened: I began talking to my mom about different things and ideas and issues I was running into and she’d smile and nod and go “Oh, that sounds… hard?” but she couldn’t offer me any programming help because that was not her world.

And her complete and utter lack of feedback helped me help myself problem solve.

I didn’t realize it, but I had discovered rubber ducking.

What the hell is rubber ducking?

Rubber ducking is a programmer’s way of debugging code. It’s referencing the literal toy, a rubber duck, and the story about a programmer that would keep one in his pocket and debug his code by forcing himself to explain each line of his code out loud to the duck.

I can’t remember when I first heard of the term, but the concept is the same regardless of what, or who, you’re actually talking to.

Sound bizarre? It’s not really.

You ever read instructions to do something and find yourself re-reading them out loud? Or you read something, aren’t quite sure what they’re trying to say, and read it out loud? It’s almost an automatic response to overwhelming information. We pause, read it out loud and listen to what we’re saying.

By talking out loud you are forced to slow down and process the information in a new way. The object is to bear your own witness to the processes of your brain. To slow it the fuck down.

When we talk about our problems out loud, whether they’re code or a new business direction, we have to slow down and think about what we’re going to say and how we’re going to explain it. In the midst of this process, it gives our brain a new task: actively listen to and comprehend the problem. So it can be processed and solved.

I’m not a neuroscientist, I’m barely science-ish, but I have bared witness to the power of Rubber Ducking. I’ve solved massive programming problems, helped myself make business decisions, and figured out what to make for dinner that night.

So the next time you’re stuck thinking about a problem, and your thoughts are going in circles, try Rubber Ducking.

You can rubber duck with anything: a favorite crystal, your monitor, your cup of tea, and even, yes, your partner. It’s especially helpful when rubber ducking if the person you’re talking to has no fucking clue what you’re going on about. Because this forces you to either a) explain it in greater detail to break it down for them to understand or b) go off on a higher-level tangent with yourself about why it’s so complicated in the first place.

Talk about the problem, rephrase the problem, and keep explaining the problem. You may surprise yourself with a solution.

Phone Wallpapers

Don’t have a rubber duck? Load this post on your phone, tap and hold and download one of these images and keep it handy. Hell – make it your lock screen!

Tags: brainstorming, idea generation, members-only, programming, rubber duck, rubber ducking

Patty Ryan Lee is the site, systems, and spacious productivity witch behind The Fiery Well, the original tech and business support space just for service-based witches. Read more about her and The Fiery Well journey.
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