Why you should squash your commits

When you look at bigger pull requests at open-source projects or in closed-source projects of your company, you can see that they often contain dozens and dozens of commits with a lot of them containing useless commit messages like “Fix.”, “Typo”, and so on.

“Useless” in th sense of the bigger picture - while you might care for a “typo fix” during the lifecycle of your pull request you probably won’t a couple of weeks down the road.

Having a lot of commits in one pull request / branch makes it not-atomic, so it “does not behave like one single entity, but like a lot”.

I believe there are strong reasons for squashing all of your commits into one right before merge.

But let’s start the other way round here.

 What’s the problem with merging pull requests with a lot of commits?

  1. git-log is one of the most important git tools and using it properly can make our lifes a lot easier. For instance, with a proper log history you can just type in git log and you can immediately see the last significant changes to the source - something that is close to impossible when you merge branches with dozens of commits. If one feature is split across many commits git-log is useless because it can’t tell what belongs where. Sure, git-log can show you what commits belonged to what branch but this is still useless in most cases because it is just not terse and concise enough for the human brain to operate on.

  2. Bugfixing can be significantly easier if you know what commit introduced this very bug because it gives you context, something that is lost in multiple, meaningless commit messages. You also make it easier for git’s finest tools like git-bisect.

  3. If a single feature is expressed in one single commit you can easily play around with, e.g. deploy features in different combinations to staging servers, git cherry-pick and so on.

  4. If you realize a feature has gone wrong and you need to remove it from master you can’t do that easily if this feature is spread across multiple commits which are possibly already intertwined with other commits.
    Yes, you can revert merge commits completely with git but it’s a manual process and thus error-prone. Certainly not something you’d want to do at Saturday morning 3 a.m. when you need to revert something that made it live as fast as possible.

 How could we improve this?

The canonical git approach to this would be: Squash it.

Let’s look at an example:

Say you have a feature branch called fancy-feature with a corresponding pull request where you want to squash the commits before you merge the PR.

Here’s what you’d do:

git lp master..fancy-feature  # my alias for log --decorate --pretty=oneline --abbrev-commit

2b2197f (HEAD, fancy-feature) Fix indentation.
5c0ff6b Typo.
1d96940 Fancy Feature.

As you can see, we have 3 commits in this branch that are not in master.

Let’s squash that:

git rebase -i master # -i for "interactive"

Now the following edit screen pops up in your favorite editor (whatever env | grep -i editor says):

1 pick 1d96940 Fancy Feature.¬
2 pick 5c0ff6b Typo.¬
3 pick 2b2197f Fix indentation.

Let’s transform this to:

1 pick 1d96940 Fancy Feature.¬
2 f 5c0ff6b Typo.¬
3 f 2b2197f Fix indentation.

I replaced the pick in the last 2 lines with f for fixup which means: “meld into previous commit, but discard it’s commit message” (there’s a helpful explanation in the rebase view as well).

Save the file and exit it - that’s it. Now let’s look at this branch again:

git lp master..fancy-feature
1e8ae44 (HEAD, fancy-feature) Fancy Feature.

Now it’s just one shiny commit.

The last thing you need to do is update upstream:

git push -f origin fancy-feature

The -f flag is very important here. You changed history in your branch (which is intentional and in my humble opinion acceptable in a topic branch) so git requires us to pass this flag to tell git that we really want this.

 What’s the downside of this?

[push]
  default = tracking

in my .gitconfig, so for me it’s just

git push -f

without even having to specify the branch name so there’s no potential of screwing up the branch name or related errors.

 Who else is doing it like this?

A lot of popular open-source project are doing this e.g. Rails and Sinatra.

Check out the Rails log:

05ab902 Merge pull request #15042 from arthurnn/revert_dirty_transactions
314cbea just call the method and assert the return value
198d9e3 Reverts "Fix bugs with changed attributes tracking when transaction gets rollback"
0a7beb1 Merge pull request #15041 from arthurnn/update_ruby
e019ffa Use ruby 2.1.2 on travis
ea58684 add tests for path based url_for calls

Very clean and readable. You can just read the last 20 - 30 lines and you’ll have a good mental image of what happened in the last couple of days.

 Wrapping it up

If you’re not doing it like that already, I encourage you to give it a shot.
I believe once you get used to having atomic pull requests, you’ll never go back again.

 
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