My Git Workflow

Posted by Douglas Drumond on July 20, 2013 · 10 mins read

Proceeding with my sequence of posts about version control systems, I’ll explain my Git workflow. It’s quite simple, after set up, the day to day workflow is as follows:

  1. get the latest information from remote server: git pull --ff-only
  2. create a new branch and switch to it: git checkout -b branch_name
  3. work, work, work, then commit: git commit
  4. go back to master: git checkout master
  5. check if there’s something new: git pull --ff-only
  6. merge my work back into master: git rebase branch_name
  7. upload the modifications to server: git push

And since I reached the magic number seven, those are the seven steps.

Set up

During the rest of this article, I’m supposing you’re using git from command line and it’s a Unix-like operating system (Mac OS X is Unix and Linux is Unix-like) and you know basic command line stuff, such as cd, ls and pwd.

Once for a lifetime

The first thing you need to do after installing git is letting it know who you are:

git config --global "John Doe"
git config --global ""

Of course, replace the values with your real name and e-mail. What do these lines do? Git uses a special file called .gitconfig that lives in your home directory. That is just a plain text file with several lines in the format key = value grouped into [sections]. You can edit it in a plain text editor such as Vim, Sublime Text 2, Gedit and so on. That file stores your global configuration, i.e., configuration you want to use everywhere. There’s a similar file called config inside the project’s .git directory that stores the configuration for that specific project. If two configurations overlap, the per project one is used. So, above two lines put these in your .gitconfig file:

    name = John Doe
    email =

Later I’ll show these values in action.

Once per project

There are two ways here: you’re creating the project from scratch, or you’re downloading the code from someone else’s repository, I’m considering the latter, so, let’s download the repository:

git clone git://

That’ll create a directory called project inside current directory where the command was called from. cd into it and you’re ready for the work loop.

The work loop

Now that you’re in your working mode, just do the five steps from the beginning of this text. Let’s dig into them, but not so much, just enough to justify them.

  • git branch

This isn’t really needed, it just to certify where you are. You should see something like

* master

Probably just master, if you recently cloned the repository. Even if there are other branches, make sure that master has an asterisk beside it. If it doesn’t, do git checkout master and check git branch again.

  • git pull --ff-only

This is used to get the latest information from the remote server. If you just cloned it, you can skip it for now, but if you’re working in a team, do this so you avoid headaches later. Well, it doesn’t hurt, do it and commit it to muscle memory. Why --ff-only? So you won’t create merge bubbles, I’ll explain them in a later post.

  • git checkout -b branch_name

This will create a new branch called branch name and switch to it. It’s a shortcut for

git branch branch_name
git checkout branch_name

While not strictly necessary, it’s good for your sanity when trying to merge things later if someone uploads new code while you’re working on yours. Replace branch_name with the name you want. I usually put what kind of work I’ll do, for instance, git checkout -b user_login when working on the login feature.

  • Time to work, then git commit

Now it’s the time to work. Edit your HTML, style it with your CSS, write your Go server code, your fancy Rails site, your amazing Ruby program, your Python script, do whatever you need. When you reach a milestone, commit it to the repository. You don’t need to commit it just when you’re ready to upload, you can do several small commits. For instance, suppose you’re refactoring some code and changed a method, but with just this change, the software breaks (you need to modify something in another class). Well, you can commit this right away since it’s just in your local repo. This way, if you screw something later, you can rollback to this point easily and redo the screwed part. Think of these commits as save points in a videogame. Later, when you finish the level and kill the boss, you can squash the save points into one big level clear commit before uploading it to the remote repository.

Here I cheated, there are two commands: first you must add the files you want to commit with git add. Then you can commit them with git commit. Alternatively, you can use git commit -a, but explicitly adding provides much finer control over what you’re committing. For instance, if your editor creates temporary files, with commit -a you’re putting them into version control as well. There are ways to deal with this, but let’s keep it simple for now.

When you call git commit, an editor will pop up for you to write a commit message. This message should describe what you just have done. Good commit messages are descriptive. Keep the first line short and direct, the second line must be blank and write freely from the third line to describe the work. Lines starting with hash sign (#) are skipped. Which editor will open is governed by GIT_EDITOR environment variable.

Now that you finished working, let’s see if someone worked on something while you were doing your stuff.

  • git checkout master

Now you’re back to master branch, where our main development lives.

  • Check if there’s something new: git pull --ff-only

This is the same as step one above, it brings new code from the remote repository.

  • Put your work back into master: git rebase branch_name

There are two ways to put your work back into master, either by rebasing or merging. The final result may look the same, but they have different meanings and do different things behind the curtains. Since the created branch is just a private branch, just do git rebase as stated, I’ll explain the differences in a later post.

  • upload the modifications to server: git push

Finally, upload your changes so other developers on your team can see it.


When pulling or pushing, if the repository isn’t correctly set, git may complain. Just read the error message, it’s usually tells what must be done to fix it. For instance, maybe git pull doesn’t know where to pull from, and shows you this message

There is no tracking information for the current branch.
Please specify which branch you want to merge with.
See git-pull(1) for details

    git pull <remote> <branch>

If you wish to set tracking information for this branch you can do so with:

    git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/<branch> master

Just do what it just told you and configure your master branch to track from the remote master:

    git branch --set-upstream-to=origin/master master

If it’s while pushing, git may show this:

fatal: The current branch bla has no upstream branch.
To push the current branch and set the remote as upstream, use

    git push --set-upstream origin master

Just do what it tells:

git push --set-upstream origin master

and don’t be bothered again.

In later posts I’ll explain how git works, so these commands will become clearer. Also, this is my workflow, it’s not the only way to work. Adapt it to suit your style or needs.