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)

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