Productivity suggestion: keep lab notes

I’ve recently been getting into various discussions about science and faith with friends at church and on Facebook, and one of the things I’ve been doing is explaining to them exactly how the scientific method works. This got me thinking—there are some aspects of the scientific method that we don’t always apply to software development, that maybe we should.

People with no scientific training often don’t appreciate just how rigorous and exacting the scientific method is. It has a lot of very strict protocols to ensure that research meets stringent standards of quality control. One of these protocols is keeping detailed laboratory notes. In other words, you document everything you do. In meticulous detail. As you do it—not after the fact.

There are several benefits to keeping a detailed record of everything you do in this way. It helps you to keep focused on the task at hand. It gives you something more constructive to do during slow edit/compile/test loops than reading Reddit. It helps you to pick up where you left off after your lunch break or when you get into work first thing in the morning. It jogs your memory for your daily stand-up meeting. It provides you with a searchable audit trail that you can consult to figure out where to find things, why things were done in a certain way, or what exactly happened when you tried X. It provides source material for when you need to write up the documentation proper. And it covers your back. For example, if you’re working from home, it provides evidence—should you need it—that you were actually working and not slacking off.

Of course, if you’re a fan of the Agile Manifesto, you are probably cringing at this idea. Aren’t we supposed to favour working software over comprehensive documentation? In fact, the whole idea no doubt sounds like anathema to many software developers, who hate writing documentation with a passion.

But if we were research scientists rather than software developers, we would be doing this as a matter of course, and we wouldn’t think twice about it. Besides, as Martin Fowler says, if it hurts, do it more often.