When To Refactor Code – How To Maximize Efficiency and Minimizing Tech Debt

When developing software, it’s common to come across code that’s difficult to modify, understand, and maintain, or that doesn’t adhere to best practices or design principles. This is where refactoring comes in — but it’s important to understand what it is and when to refactor code.

Refactoring is the practice of improving code by altering its internal structure without changing its external behavior. It’s done to make the code easier to understand, maintain, and modify, as well as to improve its performance and extensibility. By understanding the importance of refactoring and when to do it, developers can make sure their code is always optimized and productive.

In this article, I’ll share what signs indicate that code may need refactoring, what tools and techniques can be used to refactor code, and best practices to keep in mind during the process.

What’s In This Article: When To Refactor Code

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The Importance of Refactoring Code

Refactoring is the process of restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. This means that the output and functionality of the code ideally remain the same, but the code’s internal structure and design are improved.

One of the most significant benefits of refactoring is improved readability and maintainability of the code base. By restructuring the code to make it more readable and easy to understand, it makes it easier to update, debug, and fix bugs in the code. This, in turn, saves developers’ time, making them more productive in the long run.

In addition to short-term benefits, there are also long-term benefits of refactoring code. One such benefit is improved performance. By restructuring the code to follow best practices and design principles, the code can perform more efficiently, resulting in faster execution times.

Another long-term benefit of refactoring code is improved scalability. If the code is not refactored, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain and upgrade as the codebase grows in size and complexity. By continuously refactoring the code, it becomes easier to scale and makes it easier to add new features and functionalities.

Finally, refactoring can improve the extensibility of the code. By restructuring code and removing dependencies on specific architectures or technologies, the code becomes more adaptable to future changes, ensuring that it remains relevant and usable as technology advances.

Signs for When to Refactor Code

Code smells are signs that your code may not be optimized for maximum efficiency or may be prone to unnecessary complications. Ignoring code smells can contribute to technical debt and impede progress in the long run, so it’s important to recognize them and refactor your code accordingly. The following are the most common code smells software engineers should look out for:

Duplicated Code:

This occurs when the same code is repeated across different parts of your codebase. This often leads to maintenance headaches, as changes would need to be made to each copy. Duplicated code can indicate a need to refactor the code and extract the duplicated section into a method that can be called repeatedly.

Long and Complex Methods:

Methods that are too long and include numerous conditions, variables, and nested loops can become difficult to read and maintain. Breaking the method into several smaller ones can make the code more concise and easier to understand.

Large Classes:

When a class becomes too large and contains too many responsibilities, it can be difficult to manage and test. The class may need to be refactored by breaking its responsibilities down into smaller, more manageable parts using inheritance and composition.

Primitive Obsession:

This occurs when built-in data types are overused instead of custom classes or objects. This can lead to a tangled and rigid codebase that can be difficult to debug and maintain. Refactoring code is often necessary to extract custom objects and classes that can help organize the data better.

Violations of SOLID Principles:

SOLID principles are a set of guidelines designed to help software engineers write clean, efficient, and maintainable code. When code violates one or more of these principles, it can create code smells. For instance, violating the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) can result in a class having multiple responsibilities, which can make it challenging to test and maintain. Refactoring should be done to ensure the code adheres to SOLID principles.

Feature Envy:

This occurs when one class contains many methods that use the data of another class. It can cause two classes to become dependent on one another in ways that go beyond their intended purpose. In such a scenario, refactoring code would involve moving some of the methods into the class that contains the data it uses.

Additional Thoughts About When to Refactor Code

It’s worth noting that, while code smells themselves may seem innocuous, they usually indicate more significant underlying design flaws that need to be addressed. Therefore, it’s essential to raise awareness of code to refactor when you encounter these code smells to reduce the technical debt and ensure that your code is maintainable.

Testing practices can help identify code that needs refactoring. Code review tools like Code Climate, Lint, and SonarLint can help identify code smells and provide fixes.

Are you interested in boosting your refactoring skills? Check out my course on Dometrain:
Refactoring for C# Devs: From Zero to HeroCourses - Dometrain - Refactoring for csharp devs - wide

Techniques for Refactoring Code

We now know that refactoring code is crucial to maintain the quality of the codebase. However, it’s also helpful to use the prescribed techniques and ensure that they maximize the productivity of the refactoring process. In this section, I’ll share some popular techniques that you can use to refactor code, like Extract Method, Inline Method, Move Method, and so on.

  • Extract Method: Extract a code segment from an existing method and create a new method from it. This technique helps keep your code easy to understand and maintain by eliminating long and complex methods and promotes consistency throughout the codebase.
  • Inline Method: Remove redundant code segments and integrate them into one call. Otherwise, this can be leveraged when methods were once extracted and their isolation removes readability.
  • Move Method: Move a method from one class to another. This technique is particularly useful when changes made to a method are specific to a particular class that the method is not currently in, thereby simplifying the application structure.

It’s important to test the code after every refactoring to ensure that the changes have not caused any unintended consequences. Furthermore, it’s essential to measure the effectiveness of your refactoring efforts. Make an attempt to set metrics and track the changes made to determine the effectiveness of the refactoring process over time. Also, strive to make necessary adjustments to continuously improve the codebase’s quality.

Balancing Technical Debt and Refactoring

Technical debt is defined as the work that accumulates when development teams take shortcuts or postpone challenging decisions. Well, that’s the conscious way that we accumulate tech debt! This often results in reduced productivity and the need to rework things later on. While refactoring helps keep away technical debt, it can be a balancing act between that and keeping up with the ever-changing demands of clients.

To strike the right balance, the team must use their technical know-how to determine when and where refactoring is necessary and also when to postpone it. They must weigh the cost of technical debt versus the resources needed to refactor the code. When done right, the result is a software product that improves with each iteration. Of course, this is much easier said than done because it requires alignment between engineering and customer-focused goals.

When to Refactor Code vs Continue Tech Debt Example

To illustrate balancing technical debt and refactoring, let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario where a developer receives a request to add a new feature to their software. The developer may choose to put off refactoring the code that is impacted by these new changes. Then, the developer ends up discovering a bug in the code, which would require some refactoring to fix.

Balancing means looking at the cost of leaving the bug as-is versus the opportunity cost of refactoring the affected code area, which potentially slows the project’s progress. In this scenario, the developer must decide the value proposition of fixing the bug versus refactoring the impacted code and the entire codebase.

Some reasons why this isn’t obvious without more details include:

  • How impactful is the bug?
  • How long have we lived with the bug?
  • Can customers still work around the issue? (i.e. it inconveniences them but they can still push forward)
  • Do we have tests over the affected code area?
  • How much redesign is necessary and can it be scoped?

Of course, there can and will be many alternative things to consider!

Best Practices for Refactoring Code

When it comes to refactoring code, there are a few best practices that can help make the process smoother and more efficient.

Incremental Refactoring

One of the best practices for refactoring code is to do it incrementally. This means that instead of attempting to refactor an entire codebase all at once, you should focus on one specific area of the codebase or a single module of the application. Incremental refactoring reduces the risk of introducing new bugs or breaking functionality while also making it easier to monitor the overall status of the refactoring process.

Understanding the System

Before you start refactoring any code, it’s essential to understand the system that you’re working with. This means that you should take some time to explore the codebase and learn how different parts of the application interact with each other. Understanding the system can help you identify areas of the code that might benefit from refactoring and can also help you prevent introducing new issues or bugs that might go unnoticed.

If there are tests in place, this can offer a huge value in understanding how the system is supposed to work. And of course, if there are no tests in place, that will be something you should be ensuring you’re adding to verify behavior.

Documentation and Communication

Another best practice for refactoring code is to document your changes and communicate them with the rest of the development team. By documenting your changes, you make it easier for other developers to understand the changes and the reasoning behind them. Communication is also key when it comes to refactoring code, as it allows everyone to understand the changes that are being made and to address any issues or concerns that might arise.

Personally, when I talk about documentation, I am not necessarily implying writing up a huge design document or a detailed proposal on how to refactor it. Maybe — if it’s helpful. But I am proposing ensuring you can communicate to the correct stakeholders what steps are being taken and planned.

Are you interested in boosting your refactoring skills? Check out my course on Dometrain:
Refactoring for C# Devs: From Zero to HeroCourses - Dometrain - Refactoring for csharp devs - wide

Tools for Refactoring C# Code

Having good tools can make refactoring code more manageable and efficient. Personally, I’m a Visual Studio user and the tools and functionality built right in are sufficient for me. Once you know when to refactor code, leveraging tools to make refactoring a breeze is a great next step.

However, not everyone wants to stick with that! Here are some popular refactoring tools:


ReSharper is a widely-used refactoring tool that offers a range of features to help you write better code and find issues faster. It works seamlessly with Visual Studio, and it can help you identify code smells, refactor code, and even run unit tests. ReSharper’s powerful navigation and refactoring features, including Extract Method, and Inline Method, can help you write cleaner and more maintainable code faster.

Check Out ReSharper


CodeRush is another popular refactoring tool that works with Visual Studio. It offers several features, including smart code analysis, customizable templates, and code refactoring. Using its Quick Fix options, you can apply the suggested fixes to your codebase with minimum effort.

Check Out CodeRush

Now You Know When To Refactor Code!

Refactoring code is an integral part of software engineering. It helps keep the codebase clean, maintainable, and future-proof. However, it’s essential to know when to refactor code and how to refactor code to make the most of it.

In this article, I’ve gone over different signs that indicate when code needs refactoring, the techniques and best practices for refactoring code, the concept of balancing technical debt and refactoring, and the tools that can help with refactoring code. By understanding these concepts and following the best practices, you can maximize efficiency, minimize technical debt, and ensure that your software development efforts are always on the right track.

Remember to check out my course on Dometrain: Refactoring for C# Devs if you want to skill up on your refactoring! If you’re interested in more learning opportunities, subscribe to my free weekly newsletter and check out my YouTube channel! I’d love to help continue to provide you with software engineering experiences to learn from.


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    FAQ – When to Refactor Code

    What is refactoring code, and what benefits does it bring to the codebase?

    Refactoring code is the process of improving its structure and design without changing its functionality. It brings numerous benefits to the codebase like improved readability, better maintainability, and a reduced risk of bugs.

    What are some signs that code needs refactoring?

    Signs that code needs refactoring include code smells such as duplicated code, long and complex methods, large classes, primitive obsession, violations of SOLID principles, and feature envy. Ignoring these smells can lead to technical debt and broken functionality.

    What are some techniques to refactor code?

    Techniques to refactor code include Extract Method, Inline Method, Move Method, and many others. It’s critical to test your code after every refactoring and measure its effectiveness.

    How do you balance technical debt and refactoring?

    Technical debt can sometimes be beneficial, but it’s essential to find the balance between it and refactoring. This balance can be achieved by considering the context of the codebase and using sensible judgement when assessing the risks of ignoring code smells.

    What are the best practices for refactoring code?

    Best practices for refactoring code include incremental refactoring, understanding the system before refactoring, and proper documentation and communication.

    What tools can help with refactoring code?

    Various tools can help with refactoring code such as ReSharper and CodeRush. It’s essential to choose the tool that best suits your needs and to understand its functionality before using it.

    author avatar
    Nick Cosentino Principal Software Engineering Manager
    Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft. Views are my own.

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