Git is a my distributed version control system of choice. I almost always pair it with GitHub since, despite it centralising a distributed system, sometimes the conversation around code is just as important as the code itself. (Now I think about it, a distributed issue tracking system which stashes its data, meta-data and history in an orphan branch would be pretty cool.) I’ve been a user, and proponent, of Git, since my friend Mark did a talk on it at the Scottish Ruby User Group, and convinced us all it was better than Subversion.

Fundamentally, git (or any other version control system) gives us a couple of useful features:

  • The ability to keep track of changes over time. If we’re a little careful about creating and describing those changes at the time (instead of a 3,000 line change entitled, “New version”) then we can make use of this information in the future to reconstruct the context in which a decision was made.

  • The ability to share those changes with others.

That’s about it, really. All the rest is just bells and whistles that allow us to create larger work flows and processes.

I’ve seen many, and contributed to some, conversations on work flow using Git. These tend to focus around the second point: sharing changes with others. It’s all about collaboration amongst team members, how to manage releases and how to build larger features. Depending on the size of the team and the business goals, it can be around parallelisation of effort, too.

The ‘right’ answer in these situations is certainly product specific. There are work flows that suit versioned shrink-wrapped products. And if you have to simultaneously support several shrink-wrapped versions, you’re going to build a more complex model for that, too. If you’ve got a web application that’s continuously delivered to production, and you only ever have one version in the wild, you’ll have a different work flow.

The right answer is often team- and culture-specific, too. And, for good measure, the team’s culture can (and probably should) change over time, too. The work flows that work well for an open source project consisting of well meaning, but externally constrained, volunteers might be very different from the work flow required by the next big startup. And neither of those work flows are necessarily going to work in a large corporation who is suffering under rigorous compliance policies imposed upon them by HIPPA, PCI, ISO29001 or Sabarnes-Oxley, for example.


These conversations often revolve around sharing changes with others. They talk about branching (to work on larger features away from the main, stable, production code), the length of time that branches should be allowed to survive for, the maintenance overhead in branching and how, and when, to merge code. They go beyond git, describing how to merge code, but selectively deploy it, or selectively activate it (usually referred to as ‘feature switches’, allowing the business to make a decision about enabling or disabling features, instead of imposing it directly at a code level).

And these conversations are very interesting. They’re important, too. But they’re not what I want to talk about today. What I want to describe is my low level, deliberate, git work flow. It’s the way of working that I, personally, think enables these higher level work flows to happen smoothly.


The key result of my git micro work flow is that I want each individual commit to represent a single, atomic, change which makes sense in isolation. A branch, turned into a patch (in traditional git workflow) or turned into a GitHub pull request is a collection of these atomic commits that tell a single, larger, cohesive story. The key thing is that neither commits, nor pull requests (that’s how I usually work) are a jumble of unrelated stories, all interwoven.

This is how I attempt to achieve that.

It’s hard. I’m as scatter-brained as it comes. When I’m hacking on a bit of code, I’ll often spot something entirely unrelated that needs fixing. Right now. If I’m being exceptionally well disciplined, I resist the urge, make a note on my todo list (an ‘internal’ interruption in Pomodoro parlance) and carry on with what I’m supposed to be doing.

A Rabbit hole full of yaks

More often than not, though, I’m not that good. I’ll get distracted by some yak shaving exercise and spend the next hour working on it instead. Of course, everybody knows that yak shaves are recursive, because they always take you to another section of the code where you discover something you need to fix. A recursive yak shave is collectively known as a ‘rabbit hole’.

Hours later, we emerge. We’ve successfully dealt with all these crazy bald yaks, and figured out how they fitted in a rabbit hole in the first place. We’ve popped our stack all the way back to our original problem and solved it. Win.

The trouble is that our working copy if now a complete shambles of unrelated changes. That’s OK, nobody cares about these things.

git add .
git commit -m "New version."
git push

Time to head to the pub and regale our colleagues with tales of those vanquished yaks!

Well, no, not quite. How is the poor sod that’s been assigned to review my change going to discern the two line change in logic to implement what I was intended to do from the 3,000 line diff that ‘refactors’ all the junk I came across on the way? When I come across a line of code in two years time and wonder, “why did I make that change?”, is the comment of ‘New version’ and a bunch of unrelated code changes going to help me?


No. I can’t possibly lump this up into a single pull request, never mind a single, atomic, commit. That would be irresponsible. But how do I get out of this mess? It’s perhaps telling that there are three git commands I use so frequently that I’ve aliased them in my shell:

  • git diff which I’ve aliased to the lovely, short, gd. This tells me the changes that I’ve made compared to what I’ve already staged for commit. When I just get started untangling this mess, these are all the changes I’ve made.

  • git diff --cached, which I’ve aliased to gdc. I’m surprised this command is relatively difficult to ‘get to’ and really deserves an alias, because I use it all the time. These are the changes that I’ve staged for commit. This is essentially the work-in-progress of ‘what I’m about to commit next’.

  • git add --patch, which I’ve aliases to gap. This shows me each fragment of change I’ve made in turn (not just each file, but (approximately) each change within a file), asking me for each in turn, ‘would you like to stage this fragment to commit next?’

The combination of these three commands – along with git commit (which I’ve aliased to gc) obviously – and a bit of fiddling, allow me to turn my rabbit warren of a working tree into those atomic, cohesive, commits that I desire.


Let’s take an (abstract) example. I’ve wound up with a working tree where I’ve implemented two related things. They’re both part of the current story that I’m telling, but they’re obviously discrete components of that story. And then there’s the rabbit hole. I noticed that one of the patterns we were using for the Controller#show action was still living in Rails 2.3, and I’ve updated all of them to the shiny new Rails 4 idioms. While I was doing that, I had to tweak a few models to support the new Rails 4 idioms that the controllers now rely on.

What a mess! We’ve got four sets of changes in the current working tree:

  • The two atomic changes which are related to the current branch – or plot arc, as I like to think of it.

  • The two completely unrelated sets of changes, which are sweeping across the entire code base and, although minor conceptually, are a massive number of line changes.

Let’s start with the two bits that are related to the current plot arc I’m trying to tell? How do I extract them from each other, never mind from the rest of the code? This is where git add --patch comes into its own. It’s going to show you each individual change you’ve made (not just the files, but the individual changes in those files) allowing you to choose whether to stage that change for commit or not.


It’s worth talking about staging at this point. Maybe I should have brought it up earlier, but it’s one of these things I take for granted now. The ‘index’ (the place where changes are staged prior to commit) is a place for you to compose a commit into a cohesive whole before committing it. This offers you the opportunity to gradually add changes to the index, create a cohesive whole, review it, then finally commit to that hand-crafted, artisanal change. It’s the difference between git and prior version control systems I’ve used (RCS, CVS, Subversion) because it has a staging area between what you’re working on, and what you’re committing.

When you’re working through the hunks offered by git add --patch it’s down to making a semantic choice. What story do you want to tell next (following on naturally from the previous story in this plot arc)? In some cases, it’s easy because there’s a natural ordering. Pick the prerequisite first. Otherwise, I tend to just accept the one that shows up first, then accept all the other changes atomically associated with that hunk.


When you’ve accepted all the hunks associated with that change, you can review the proposed commit with git diff --cached. This is your chance to cast a final eye over the change, make sure it’s complete, makes sense in isolation, and doesn’t have unrelated changes. This is also your chance for a personal code review:

  • Does the code look correct?

  • Are there unit/integration tests covering the changes you’ve made?

  • Is it accurately, and completely, documented?

  • Have you accidentally left in any debugging code from while you were implementing it?

  • Does the code look pretty? Is there any trailing white space, or duplicate carriage returns, or missing carriage returns for that matter? Are things lined up nicely?

  • Does the commit tell a good story?

This is the time to get inspiration for the commit message, too, which is a fundamental part of the story you’re telling, because it’s the headline people will see when they’re reviewing these changes, and it’s what they’ll see when they attempt to find out why this code exists in six months time. You’ve already described what you’ve changed by, well, changing the code. We’ll know from the meta data surrounding the commit who changed it and when. The where is, depending upon how you look at it, either irrelevant (I don’t care if you fixed it while you were sitting on the toilet, but I hope you washed your hands afterwards) or supplied by the changes (you changed line 3 of foo.c). The how you changed it is the subject of many editor wars, but is largely irrelevant, too.

Now is the time to explain why you changed it, what problem you were solving at the time (preferably with a reference to the context in which that change was decided).

Now that I’m satisfied about what I’m committing, I commit that chunk. And then I repeat this process of the other, related, changes that are part of this pull request’s plot arc.

Unrelated Changes

But there’s a complication. What about the other, unrelated, changes? They don’t have a place in this plot arc. Sometimes they’re part of a plot arc of their own, but more often than not, they’re like the standalone ‘filler’ episodes that TV writers bung in to fill up a season.

What shall we do with them? They’re separate stories – no matter how small – so they deserve their own separate plot arcs, of course (whether you represent plot arcs in git as patches or pull requests)!

If you’re lucky, then you can create a new branch (new plot arc!) straight away, with the current master (or whatever your root branch point currently is), keeping your dirty working tree intact:

git checkout -b shiny-refactoring master

then use git add --patch, git diff --cached and git commit to build up and review atomic commits on the new branch for your shiny refactoring.

If your current working tree’s changes will not cleanly apply to master, then the easiest way to deal with it is to temporarily stash them, and pop them from the stash afterwards.

git stash save --include-untracked
git checkout -b shiny-refactoring master
git stash pop

You’ll still need to resolve the conflicts yourself, though.

Splitting Patches

When things get a bit more complicated, git add --patch still has your back. When you’ve got an intertwined set of changes which are close to each other in the source, but are semantically unrelated, it’s a bit more effort to unpick them into individual commits. There are two scenarios here.

If you have two unrelated changes in the same fragment, but they’re only in the same fragment because they share some context, then you can hit s. The fragment will be split into smaller constituent fragments and you’ll be asked if you’d like to stage each one individually.

If the code is seriously intertwined, then you can ask git to fire up your favourite editor with the patch fragment in question. You can then edit that patch to the version you want to stage. If the patch is adding a line that you don’t want to add, delete that line from the patch. If the patch is removing a line that you don’t want removed, turn it into a context line (by turning the leading - into a space). This can be a bit finickity, but when you need to do it, it’s awesome.


I’ve had a couple of people pushing back a little on this work flow (usually when I’m in the driving seat while pairing) over the past few years.

The first was from a long-time eXtreme Programmer, who rightly pointed out, “but doesn’t that mean you’re committing untested code?” Even if the entire working tree has a passing test suite, the fragment that I’m staging for commit might not. It’s a fair point and one I occasionally have some angst over. If I’m feeling that angst, then there is a workaround. At the point where I have a set of changes staged and ready to commit, I can tweak the work flow to:

git stash save --keep-index --include-untracked
rake test # Or whatever your testing strategy is
git commit
git stash pop

This will stash away the changes that aren’t staged for commit, then run my full suite of tests, so I can be sure I’ve got a passing test suite for this individual commit.

The other argument I hear is, “why bother?” Well, that’s really the point of this article. I think it’s important to tell stories with my code: each commit should tell an individual story, and each patch/pull-request should tell a single (albeit larger) story, too.

(Not that I always listen to my own advice, of course.)

A Sneak Peek at
The Internet

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in my new project, A Sneak Peek at The Internet. What happens when you enter into your web browser and hit return? A Sneak Peek at The Internet will take you on a deep dive through the network stack, from HTTP, SSL, TCP and IP, all the way down through the data link layer, back up to Facebook's data centres, and then on the return journey back to the browser.

There's more fun, excitement and peril than a Disneyland rollercoaster!