Overcoming Pair-formance Anxiety

Pair programming is fantastic. And daunting. It’s one of the most effective ways to build high-quality code quickly and efficiently in a flexible way. But your first time pairing can be terrifying.

If solo programming is like making your own lunch in the morning, switching to pair programming can feel like being asked to make Michelin Star meals on live TV with a food critic staring over your shoulder. Every morning. Before you’ve had your coffee.

When I joined Atomic, I worked with an experienced developer and consultant who knew Vim backward and forward. They would absolutely fly through the codebase. As a much more junior dev, I was intimidated. I felt painfully slow, incompetent, and out of my depth. Just finding the right file to edit seemed to take me about 100x more brain cycles than it took my pair.

Fortunately, “Pairformance Anxiety” is a common emotional state that improves when you consciously work on it, especially if you have help.

If you’ve ever been in that spot, or if you’re there now, this is for you. (This is also for the “me” four years ago, in case we ever perfect time travel.)

Signs You May Be Suffering from Pairformance Anxiety


Do you find your eyes blurring out when your pair is running the keyboard? When asked, “What do you think we should do next?” or, “Does this function make sense?”, does your brain lock up and refuse to produce anything like a recognizable sentence? You might have Pairformance Anxiety.

When your pair leaves for a moment, do you find yourself instinctively reaching for Slack or Hacker News instead of your text editor? That’s also a pretty good sign that your brain might be trying to help you process anxiety.

Aggressive Apologies

If you find yourself apologizing for your slowness, for missing a semi-colon, or for not magically intuiting which file your pair meant when they asked, “Can we go back to that other function?”, you might be dealing with Pairformance Anxiety.

Here in the Midwest, some apologizing is just part of saying hello. But it can go too far. If you cast your mind back over the day and it seems like every other sentence started with, “Ope, sorry…” there’s a good chance your brain is using your vocal cords to mitigate the risk of what it considers a dangerous social situation. By the way, sorry if that “hello” joke was too regionally specific.

The Stall

When it’s your turn to type, do you find yourself fluidly continuing the thought that your pair started, or does your brain seem to think that now would be an excellent time to just wait for a minute and see if the other clever human will tell it what to think next?

I see this symptom quite often in developers who are new to a tech stack and working with a more experienced pair. Taking the reins can feel weird and unnatural.

Like, if Tim Cook popped over to your office and said, “Okay, it’s your turn to run my trillion-dollar company for a bit. I’m sure you’ve got this.” Sure, Tim. Sure.

How Anxiety Affects You and Your Team

The risks associated with developing while your brain is in an anxious state can be pretty severe. If left unchecked, worrying about how well you’re doing can cause a vicious cycle. Part of your brain will actively monitor for signs that your pair perceives you as not good enough. On high alert, you’ll start to read judgment into subtle gestures, minor corrections, and valuable criticism. Perceiving a threat to your identity as a smart, capable developer, your brain will divert even more attention to active monitoring. Now you’re programming with something like half a brain and putting everything you type through the world’s most pessimistic linter at the same time.

Even a champion programmer would have trouble writing good code quickly if they were working with half of their normal faculties.

It gets worse. Programming while anxious can also hurt your relationship with your pair in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. When you feel like you’re under a microscope, your tolerance for constructive criticism and teaching goes way, way down.

On a normal day, you might hear,“Hey, if you spend 10 minutes learning about Vim surround commands, you could save yourself an hour every week,” as a helpful tip from a trusted colleague. When suffering from Pairformance Anxiety, you’re more likely to hear it as a biting critique.

The words are the same. The intent is the same. But your reaction is completely different. Instead of building trust, those words can break down your trust. A seed of distrust in a relationship with someone who shares your desk is a dangerous thing.

Even worse, it makes you feel like garbage. If every day at work, your brain is telling you that your pair is better than you and that you aren’t really doing valuable work, your groggy, pre-coffee self is going to have an increasingly difficult time convincing your body that it’s a good idea to spend time in that environment.

Hopefully, this is all foreign to you. Hopefully, you’re never at a spot in your career where you feel the effects of Pairformance Anxiety. But if you do, take heart.

Things You Can Do To Make It Better

1. Zoom Out

When you find yourself worried that your pair might think you’re not very good at Emacs, try to remember that software is a huge, arguably fractal, field of knowledge.

If, dear anxious developer, the problem before you was only picking an acceptable solution to a perfectly articulated set of requirements within the perfectly reasonable amount of time in your estimate, it would be a challenging puzzle. But your job isn’t that. No.

Your job is to dive into the murky, foaming waters of human communication and find a pearl of precision while the kraken’s suckered arms of vague requirements, changing priorities, and miscommunication tear at your scuba mask.

On top of that, your job is usually to make a delightful experience that works on dozens of device types, sizes, and speeds for humans with widely varying goals, skill levels, and interaction modes, each carrying a unique set of preconceptions and biases about how software should work.

It’s difficult work. Incredible, rewarding, fulfilling work, but difficult. Your pair is doing that work, too. They might have more experience than you in some areas, but they’re diving into it with you.

It’s their job, if they happen to be more experienced, to help teach you the ways of fending off the kraken while also fending it off themselves. And they’re pulling for you. They want you both to succeed. Remember that you’re not alone in this foaming maelstrom. You’re part of a team that supports you and needs your whole brain.

2. Take a Breath

Mental well-being, including coping with Pairformance Anxiety, is a learnable skill that improves with concerted practice. Find yourself an app or a teacher that will help you start a daily mindfulness practice. Even a few minutes of consciously taking control of your focus and moving it around on purpose can build your resilience and help you bounce back when you feel anxious about work.

The Center For Healthy Minds is doing amazing research into the foundations of mental well-being. Spend a few minutes perusing their site. It’s well worth the time.

3. Share the Pain

As terrifying as it sounds, sharing the fact that you’re feeling anxious with your pair can do a world of good for your working relationship and your own feelings. If you’re in a place where you rationally feel safe and you just have a hard time convincing your brain in the moment, reaching out can help you feel better.

Most people don’t want to make the people around them feel crummy about themselves. They’re usually happy to help you out if you let them know that you’re in a bad spot and need some encouragement from time to time. Many developers (most that I know) have felt Imposter Syndrome at some point in their career, too.

You work with this person for eight hours a day and share a direct view of how your brain works with them the whole time. If you can safely do so, starting an ongoing dialog about how you can work effectively together is a fantastic practice.

It’ll help build trust. You’ll feel like your pair is on your side, and they’ll feel like you’re taking active steps to improve the work and the relationship. You might even discover that they’re feeling Pairformance Anxiety about working with you.

Wrapping Up

If you’ve never felt Pairformance Anxiety, you’ve probably worked with someone who has. Start watching out for the signs above and see if you can reach out and start a conversation of your own. You might just be able to help your pair work through it.

If you’ve felt it yourself, you know how debilitating it can be if left unchecked. It’s a thing that some brains do sometimes, and it’s common, especially among people in high-achieving professions who work with really smart people. But it’s not your destiny. It’s a bit of buggy brain software that you can work around with a little bit of perspective, mindfulness, and teamwork.