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Git introduction: Using the Git staging area


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • Why do we recommend to first add, then commit a change?
  • What should be included in a single commit?
  • Demystify the Git staging area.
  • Learn how to tell a story with your commit history.

git add vs git commit

We have been using git add every time we want to commit a change, separate from git commit. Why? We will demystify this now, and learn how to keep organized.

Commit history is telling a story about how your code came to be

  • Code is rarely self-documenting.
  • Code also doesn’t reveal how it came to be, only what is there now.
  • It would be great if all changes were documented, but that is too much to ask.
  • What is a good compromise?

Git forces you to create version history and commit messages, and if these are clear then you are a long way to organized code.

It is useful to have a nice and readable history

Bad example:

b135ec8 now feature A should work
72d78e7 feature A did not work and started work on feature B
bf39f9d more work on feature B
49dc419 wip
45831a5 removing debug prints for feature A and add new file
bddb280 more work on feature B and make feature A compile again
72e0211 another fix to make it compile
61dd3a3 forgot file and bugfix

There are multiple things that are not so stellar in this version control history.

  • Very often you will be obliged to do archaeology in your code.
  • Imagine that in few months you discover that feature B was a mistake.
  • It is very difficult to find and revert B in this example.

A better example would be:

6f0d49f implement feature C
fee1807 implement feature B
6fe2f23 implement feature A

We want to have nice commits. But we also want to “save often” (checkpointing) - how can we have both?

  • We will now learn to create nice commits using the staging area.
  • Staging addresses the issue of having unrelated changes in the same commit or having one logical change spread over several commits.
  • The staging area isn’t the only way to organize your history nicely, some alternatives are discussed at the end of the lesson.

An analogy

  • You’re moving and you have a box to pack your things in.
  • You can put stuff into the box, but you can also take stuff out of the box.
  • You wouldn’t want to mix items from the bathroom, kitchen and living room into the same box.
  • The box corresponds to the staging area of Git, where you can craft your commits.
  • Committing is like sealing the box and sticking a label on it.
  • You wouldn’t want to label your box with “stuff”, but rather give a more descriptive label.

What can go wrong without staging

  • You wait too long before you record a change.
  • You may have done too many changes and cannot go back just the last step.
  • You do several things at once (different files or same file), but commit them at the same time.

States of a file.

Note: the “staging area” has also alternatively been referred to as the index and the cache.

Files can be untracked, modified, staged, or committed, and we have a variety of commands to go between states:

$ git add <path>       # stages all changes in file
$ git add -p <path>    # stages while letting you choose which lines to take
$ git commit           # commits the staged change
$ git diff             # see **unstaged** changes
$ git diff --staged    # see **staged** changes
$ git rm               # removes a file
$ git reset            # unstages staged changes
$ git checkout <path>  # check out the latest staged version ( or committed
                       # version if file has not been staged )


  • git add every change that improves the code.
  • git checkout every change that made things worse.
  • git commit as soon as you have created a nice self-contained unit (not too large, not too small).
  • Discuss/think about what is too large or too small.

Example workflow

$ git add                 # checkpoint 1
$ git add                 # checkpoint 2
$ git add         # checkpoint 3
$ git add         # checkpoint 4
# ... further work on ...
$ git diff        # diff w.r.t. checkpoint 4
$ git checkout    # oops go back to checkpoint 4
$ git commit                      # commit everything that is staged

Exercise: Using the staging area

  1. In your recipe example, make two different changes to ingredients.txt and instructions.txt which do not go together.
  2. Use git add to stage one of the changes.
  3. Use git status to see what’s going on, and use git diff and git diff --staged to see the changes.
  4. Feel some regret and unstage the staged change.

(Optional) Interactive staging

One option to help us create nice logical commits is to stage interactively with git add -p (you can also directly commit interactively with git commit -p):

  1. Modify multiple lines in instructions.txt. Make sure that they are separated by at least one unmodified line.
  2. Run git add -p instructions.txt.
  3. Type ? and Enter to get an explanation of what the different options mean.
  4. See if you can use the s (split), y and n options to include only a subset of your modifications in the staging.
  5. When you’re done, inspect the situation with git status, git diff and git diff --staged.
  6. If you want, you can try repeating the procedure above but use git commit -p instead of git add -p to commit directly.

Test your understanding

  • When is it better to “save” a change as commit, when is it better to “save” it with git add?
  • Is it a problem to commit many small changes?
  • What types of problems can occur in other version control systems without a staging area?

Key points

  • The staging area helps us to create well-defined commits.