TODO, or not TODO

A TODO is the coding equivalent of a New Year's resolution: nobody else believes you and in April even you have to admit you are still smoking, drinking and 10 kilograms overweight. What is a TODO then? It is a comment in the source code stating part of the code needs to be changed, removed or improved in the future. Typically the goal is to make the code 'prettier' or more correct than it is now.
public String getPrice(Product p) {
    // TODO: return the price of the product
    return "1.99";
}

// TODO: think of a better name
private void doit() {
    ...
}

Good intentions and the road to hell

Well, you may ask, what is wrong with good intentions and the hope for a better future then? Everything is! The road to a messy code base and buggy software is paved with TODO's and good intentions. If the problem you signaled is serious enough to warrant a TODO, why don't you stand up and fix the bad code, find out how to prevent the hard-coded values or use the new API right away? Just writing a TODO is the passive-aggressive way to avoid a problem while soothing your inner perfectionist with the feeling you addressed the problem and can safely ignore it now.

The majority of TODO's lead an unfulfilling life of confusing innocent passers-by, becoming less and less relevant or more and more confusing, until they are finally put out of their misery by a rewrite or the retirement of the software. Even the author of the TODO will ignore the little orphan, not having the time to address it, and also growing less sure the TODO is still valid, save to fix or at all necessary at the present time.

If not TODO, then what?

If a TODO would only take a few minutes to fix, do it now. Now it will really take you only a few minutes to fix, unlike a potential future fixer of the TODO who will have to reread the code, reverify the possible solutions and all in all spends ten times as much time and effort to do so.

On the other hand, the TODO could involve tons of work or may depend on code not written or decisions not made yet. Now what would be more efficient: relying on a vague comment in your code or using your bug tracking system? If your roof is leaking, would you spray-paint "Please fix my roof" on a nearby wall in the hope someone will help you, or would you contact a handyman? Once you have a ticket in your planning tool you can prioritize the issue and can easily look it up instead of only being reminded when stumbling upon the TODO by chance.

If you think creating a ticket with a description of the problem or spending a few minutes right now is too much trouble, ask yourself how likely it is you will ever fix this. The issue is apparently not that serious and the TODO will never be done. Keep the code clean and the TODO's and FIXME's out! A special case is the named TODO where the author adds his or her name. This is even worse, now no one else will dare to face the problem. Instead, create a ticket and assign it to yourself.

Exceptions proving the rule

Okay, there may be a few exceptions. If you are working on a hobby project all alone and without a bug tracker, or on some other tiny piece of software, or if you are 100% sure you will do the TODO within the next few hours or days, go ahead and create one. And do I do TODO? Yes! However, I try to only do it in the exceptional cases. Also, I will remorselessly delete any TODO showing weaknesses such as vague wording, being more than a year old or having an author no longer working at the company.