I hope to expand on some thoughts I have been mulling over regarding the (over)use of BooleanField in Django projects.
I rarely use BooleanField in a Django project. In nearly every case where I might be tempted to use BooleanField, a better alternative exists.
Two of the biggest benefits of BooleanField are its small size in the database and the simplicity of working with the field. But the size of one type of field compared to another is rarely a dealbreaker or a significant contributor to query time or other concerns in building an app for production. And while simplicity is nice, the use of BooleanField in the wrong place can lead to frustration.
As an example of the potential for things to go awry, consider a common situation django beginners experience.
A desire to track the state of something
Starting with a very basic example model:
class Comment(models.Model): user = models.ForeignKey(User, on_delete=models.CASCADE) body = models.CharField(max_length=200) created_on = models.DateTimeField(auto_add=True)
One requirement for our
Comment model is that we must track if the model is approved by the administrator. So a BooleanField is added.
class Comment(models.Model): user = models.ForeignKey(User, on_delete=models.CASCADE) body = models.CharField(max_length=200) created_on = models.DateTimeField(auto_add=True) is_active = models.BooleanField(default=False)
Everything looks good. We can now approve user comments by setting
True in any given
But another requirement is identified: We need to be able to archive comments as well. So, let's add another BooleanField!
class Comment(models.Model): user = models.ForeignKey(User, on_delete=models.CASCADE) body = models.CharField(max_length=200) created_on = models.DateTimeField(auto_add=True) is_active = models.BooleanField(default=False) is_archived = models.BooleanField(default=False)
Now when we archive a file, we have to set both
True. If we unarchive something, we have to set both
Each additional BooleanField we add increased the number of steps we need to take (and increases the potential risk we may get the combination of
Falses wrong). What does it even mean if both
is_archived are set to
True? It is an undefined state 😧
There are two main situations where we might want an alternative to BooleanField
When we are tracking state/status, we can use something that ensures only one valid state is selected at any given time
When we want to track whether a single event or action has taken place, we can use DateTimeField
Let's discuss these in more detail...
Just as in the example above, it is common to need to track the state of a model instance.
Some examples include:
Orderinstance in cart, paid, shipped, completed, or canceled status?
Documentin draft, submitted, published, or deleted status?
Appointmentin requested, approved, confirmed, completed, or canceled status?
In each of these cases, only one status makes sense at any given time.
Alternatives to BooleanField in these cases include:
Using either CharField or IntegerField along with choices to allow selection of each status. I am particularly fond of using TextChoices or IntegerChoices enumeration types, and wrote a small gist cheatsheet when these became available in django 3.0. This is a simple and effective approach when the choices for the status field will not change often, and the user does not need to add new statuses.
Adding a ForeignKey to another model which contains the available state choices can make it possible for end-users to add new states, but adds increased complexity and another database table.
Using django-fsm, django-pgtrigger, or other third-party apps to ensure state is correctly maintained. These tools help ensure that status transitions in the correct order from one state to another. This comes with added dependencies, which may be undesired, but both of the packages I mention here are fantastic!
I tend to use the first or last option, depending on the complexity of the business logic. If I am not concerned about the order in which a model instance transitions from one state to another, I tend to use CharField like this:
class Comment(models.Model): user = models.ForeignKey(User, on_delete=models.CASCADE) body = models.CharField(max_length=200) created_on = models.DateTimeField(auto_add=True) class StatusChoices(models.TextChoices): NEW = "NW" _("New") ACTIVE = "AC", _("Active") ARCHIVED = "AR", _("Archived") status = models.CharField( max_length=2, choices=StatusChoices.choices, default=StatusChoices.NEW, )
Tracking a single event or action
When we want to track an event or action, such as whether a
Notification has been read, we often first reach for a BooleanField.
But what if you could add context about the action without any significant effort? You can! Just swap BooleanField for DateTimeField.
class Notifications(models.Model): # Some fields... viewed = models.BooleanField(default=False)
class Notifications(models.Model): # Some fields... viewed = models.DateTimeField(null=True, blank=True)
When the action or event takes place (e.g., the Notification is viewed), set the field's value to
This tiny change to the model means that we can now:
Show the user whether the Notification was read
List all read Notifications
Show the user when the Notification was read
List all Notifications read within the last week
Create a timeline showing the rate of Notifications read during each month of the year
Calculate the average gap in time between the creation of a Notification and when that Notification was read
With BooleanField, we could only perform the first two of those queries. Being able to query when events took place can easily add value to your end users, and can make it easier for you to audit activities and usage within your project.
When to use BooleanField?
BooleanField does have its use-cases. Here is where I would still use them:
To determine whether a model instance is something or can be used for something, and it does not make sense to track when this state came to be. For instance, if we want to track whether an
Assetis a spare part, we might use
is_spares = models.BooleanField(default=False)Another example is whether the
Assetcan be checked out:
can_be_checked_out = models.BooleanField(default=True). This use-case is squishy. It can be hard to tell when we might be better off tracking when these fields change or when simply keeping it to true or false is more appropriate.
When we are using the field as a setting that does not have state or a particular occurrence time. Usually, this is when setting a value for a model instance that is not expected to change (or at least not often). I use these for configuring tenants in one of my projects. For instance,
allow_tenant_to_place_orders = models.BooleanField(default=True). Here I do not care about when the decision to allow or disallow this tenant from placing orders took place, and there is no other state this decision might transition to. The tenant either can or cannot place orders, and that's it.
Hopefully, some of you find these notes helpful. BooleanField has its uses, but it is often over-used. The alternatives mentioned above can help to prevent spaghetti code as the number of potential statuses increase or help to add value when you may need to track when actions in your project took place.
Have thoughts or questions about these ideas? I would love to hear them 🙂