React Christmas

The mysteries of setState

A 2 minute read written by
Kristofer Giltvedt Selbekk

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Although we hear a lot about MobX, Redux and other tools for handling state, React ships with its very own.

Most applications deal with at least some type of state: visual state, validation state, or even asynchronous state fetched from some API.

I think I'll go out on a limb and say that state is actually one of the hardest parts of application development! And because it's something we as developers consider complex and hard to do, there's almost as many state management libraries out there as there are web sites on the internet. Well, I said almost.

Here's another gutsy statement - you probably don't need them.

Nanananananana setState!

As you may know, React ships with its own state management tool, namely what we call component state. Simply put, it's state scoped to your component. React usually gets its data via props, but for data (state) that is local to a component, it often makes sense to keep that state internal to your component.

You initialize your state as an object, read from it as this.state and write to it with a instance method called this.setState. This method accepts an object with changes to your current state (note - not the entire new state), and triggers a new render of your component.

It's asynchronous!

React is actually pretty clever when it comes to saving you render cycles. So instead of just setting the state right away, it tries to batch as many changes to state as possible into one single update call.

Now this is all jolly good fun and all, but this has one pretty sketchy downside. You can't count on state being set right away! Here's an example showing a common pitfall:

class extends React.Component {
  state = { name: 'Dan' };
  someMethod() {
    this.setState({ name: 'Kris' });
    // prints 'Dan'

Luckily, React gives us a way to make sure state has been set before we continue - in the way of a callback:

  state = { name: 'Dan' };
  someMethod() {
    this.setState({ name: 'Kris' }, () => {
      // prints 'Kris'

If you need to set the next state based on the previous state (like a counter), you can send in a single function, which receives the previous state and props as arguments. Here's an example of that:

  state = { count: 0 };
  increment() {
    this.setState(prevState => ({
      count: prevState.count + 1

It's for some things, not all the things

So React's internal state is great for a lot of things. For internal UI state like whether some UI panel is open or stuff like that, internal state is your friend. If you need to share state like this between different components, you can hoist state to a parent component. But as your application grows, you might get into a situation where all you do is hoist state, and pass it down several layers of components. In that case, some global state management library might be just what you need.

We won't discuss this in detail today, but perhaps Santa will bring another blog post one of the coming days.

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