Dec 24, 2015

Deliberate Practice Series - 2: My Own Deliberate Regimen

This morning, I worked out my initial draft of a Deliberate Practice (DP) framework to aid my development as a software developer. The schedule appears intimidatingly rigorous and demands discipline. Gradual attempts to ease into this routine will be more sustainable than embracing it cold-turkey, which is a recipe for burn out.

Here are the six traits of Deliberate Practice, as I discussed in my previous post.
1. It's designed to improve performance.
2. It's repeated a lot.
3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
4. It's highly demanding mentally.
5. It's hard.
6. It requires (good) goals.

Deliberate Practice for a Software Engineer

Working within the bounds set by the above six guidelines, a DP framework to expand my software expertise looks like this:
- Incorporate in your schedule large amounts of Creation (writing code) and an even larger amounts of Consumption (reading code and relevant literature).
- Keep a watchful eye on diminishing returns. You need to make sure your activities aren't turning out into mindless and passive drivels.
- Be able to provide a convincing explanation for the fundamental concepts in your domain. Do not build on top of a weak foundation.
- Be able to write simple, small, functional pieces of code that exercise a particular conceptual feature. The skill of writing dummy prototype code is valuable.
- Build a text document over time that you can use as a readily available reference booklet for quick lookups instead of resorting to searching through the Internet or Industry Standard Specifications.
- Try to recreate complex pieces of code. If available, read the documentation for a particular modular code snippet and then try implementing it yourself. Then compare with the actual snippet to get feedback on where you fell short.

A Deliberate Routine

1. Tapping into the Calm of the Morning
A software engineer's daily work routine is typically filled with distractions. There are meetings to run to, emails that constantly keep interrupting your focus, people that you need to interact with and similar such randomness spans a big part of your day. With these activities filling your workday, carving time for DP at workplace is very hard. That leaves us early mornings and late evenings. After a tiring day at work, you just wouldn't have the energy for cognitively demanding activities that require stretching your thinking. Besides, it is important to indulge in rest, recreation and have some fun too on your evenings to recharge for the next day.

Malcolm Gladwell advocates that to become world class in any field, you would need to invest 10,000 hours honing your craft. That is close to 20 hours a week for 10 years, which translates to about 4 hours a day Monday through Friday. This is in agreement with what Stephen King recommends in "On Writing" for aspiring writers - 4 to 6 hours of mindful effort everyday.

With evenings out of the equation for DP, we are left with mornings. With my work schedule, the best I can do is to schedule my DP 5 AM to 8 AM before the daily drivel begins. Having been a late riser, waking up at 5 AM will be a challenge, but a challenge that I am willing to take up.

2. Recharge with Easy Evenings
Scheduling cognitively demanding tasks for evenings after work will be punishing. I would like to reserve my evenings for other activities like Guitar, Running, reading non-work related books and many other fun things that help me rest and recharge, and have a life. However, it shouldn't be very hard to squeeze in one hour and maybe an additional half on top of it to do some study of literature related to my field. This will not be as mentally draining as my morning regimen. Again, this routine resembles what noted writers do - Scheduling your mornings for creation (writing) and reserving your evenings for consumption (reading) and relaxation.

3. Complement with Passive Tasks on Weekends
Toiling away under a rigorous routine in isolation, while undoubtedly rewarding in its own way, is not wholesome. It is important to get involved and become a part of a thriving community that is related to and engaged in your field of work. Adding a social element to your ventures will broaden your perspectives, establish relations and bring in opportunities that you wouldn't even have conceived of. If nothing else, putting your work out there for the world to see, whether anyone cares or not, is motivating and makes you more accountable.

Here are some ideas on throwing in some social spice into your cold and hard regimen.
- Explore online forums (like stackoverflow), ask questions, answer questions if you can, sign up for mailing lists, etc.
- Do a survey of open source projects in your field, read their documentation and see if you can get involved in any way.
- Find out about conferences, if any, that are held in fields relevant to you.
- You will surely know of people at work that are highly skilled and experienced. Leverage their expertise by regularly seeking them out with questions.
- Read books on loosely connected areas that interest you. For instance, although I'm a BIOS engineer, I enjoy reading up on the Linux kernel.
- Put your work out there. Update your blog with how you are doing with your DP endeavour.

It is important to realize that these social activities are only supplementary. It is very easy to trick yourself into believing that these arenas are where the maximum benefits lie. Most people get sucked into this rabbit hole where most of their valuable time is spent fooling around mail lists, forums and networking. This is akin to students forming study circles, where most of their supposed study sessions transform into mindless chatter.

I plan on spending not more than 2 hours or so on a weekend working on the social side of things.

Closing Notes

While the whole conception seems extraordinarily overwhelming when looked at as a whole, it will be more humanely manageable when I start incorporating little chunks of it into my daily life. For instance, I can begin with waking up at 6 AM instead of 5 for a month or even two, and then gradually build up the nerve to push the clock back to 5 AM. I could put aside only 40 minutes during my evenings for study during my first 3 months instead of 1.5 hours everyday.

From past experiences, I have now been convinced that building habits at a slow and easy pace always beats a sudden burst of adrenaline fuelled inspiration that dies out or burns out in a few days. This is the reason a person running a couple blocks for 10 minutes a day regularly will get ahead of someone who makes a new year resolution of running 5 miles everyday, and then gives up after a week. I will apply the same principles for my Deliberate Practice routine. It is inevitable that I will face days where I just won't have the motivation to do absolutely anything and just laze away, or days where I simply won't care about waking up at 5 AM. But as long as I keep chipping away at this beast one little blow a day and build the habit muscles over time, I should be able to fare decently well.

In my next post, I will break down my routine into a finer level of detail where I will lay out my plan on what exactly I would be doing on a given day.

(Photo by Hartwig HKD)

Dec 12, 2015

First Few Steps in the Wilderness

I recently took an introductory class for wilderness Backpacking. The outdoor adventure company REI offers an array of outdoors classes, and this was their weekend class that introduces one to the fundamental skills involved in going on backpacking trips.

Backpacking is a form of wilderness travel where you head out into the wild carrying everything you would need for the trip in your backpack. This is in contrast to car-camping, where you load your stuff into a car and drive to a campsite and pitch your tent, with your car being accessible all the while. As you can imagine, backpacking would require a lot more thought, planning and experience compared to car-camping, because if you are 50 miles away from civilization and you cannot light your fire to cook food, or if you are not well stocked up on drinking water with no water source around, then you are in trouble.

We were a group of 8 and our instructor was Jeremy, an experienced backwoods expert with years of wilderness travel behind him. We started off with a brief introduction to backpacking right outside REI in the parking lot where Jeremy talked in detail about clothing, the Ten Essentials, food management and efficient packing of a backpack. REI had provided us with basic equipment such as backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, food and snacks.

We all packed our backpacks, got into a van and drove off out from the city into a nearby wilderness area called Portola Redwoods State Park. This is a beautiful, damp and ancient forest with giant Redwood trees just an hour away from my city. This state park is part of an interconnected state park system that runs west from the San Francisco Bay area all the way to the Pacific ocean coastline.

We got to our destination, unloaded our heavy cargo, had a quick lunch of sandwiches and strapped on our backpacks. And then we began our 4 mile journey toward our campsite. Jeremy continued imparting us his pearls of wisdom throughout the journey. We had frequent pit-stops to drop the backpacks down to the ground, catch a breath and rest our thighs, and of course, to pause and take in the lush-green, damp and mossy Redwood forests around us.

It takes bodily strength to carry a heavy backpack (10-15 kg for a weekend trip) and walk for miles under changing elevation. A dedicated backpacker needs to stay very fit for the physical challenges of backpacking. It is important to regularly keep going on practice hikes to nearby hills and mountains with a deliberately-made-heavy backpack.

After about 2 hours of hiking at a relaxed pace, we got to our campsite. It was just a small clearing with a picnic table nearby. Jeremy got started with showing us how to pitch our tents. It sure is amusing when you get to see how small a one-person tent is. You cannot do more than duck down and crawl into the tent and just call it a day. If you sit up, you would push against the fabric of the tent roof so there's no head room. There's not enough width that you can so much as even stretch your hands.

Jeremy explains setting up tent.

This is my fully assembled one-person tent.

Dusk was falling upon us by the time we got done setting our tents up. We then walked to a nearby stream to replenish our water supplies. Here we were shown how to use different hydration systems such as manual pump water filters and gravity assisted water filtering. After about close to an hour near the stream, we then walked back to our camp in the dark, with our headlamps lighting up our trail.

We wrapped up for the day by gathering near the picnic table (seen in the picture) where Jeremy walked us through the nuances of cooking stoves and camp cooking. There was a nice overhead tarp set up by our instructor to shield us from the rain that was beginning to fall. We all had our freeze-dried meal and retired for the day into our tents. I had quite a warm and comfortable night's rest in my little tent despite it being cold and raining all night.

We started our day early, had a quick breakfast, broke up our tents and hiked back out of the forest. On our hike back, Jeremy addressed an important topic - how to poop while out in the wild with minimal environmental impact! That was funny to listen to but definitely isn't fun to have to deal with, although there's no escaping this.

As we approached our trailhead, we were given some closing advice and tips on how to train physically to stay fit. We then got into the van and drove back to civilization. I was really glad I finally took this class and got the basics of backpacking under my belt. I now look forward to building on this foundation and start taking little trips by myself.

An excellent book to learn about backpacking that I'm reading right now:
Allen and Mikes Really Cool Backpackin' Book