Make Time for Learning with Deliberate Practice
As software development professionals, we need to work continuously to improve our skills. But two common challenges are how to best work to improve, and how to find the time to learn and practice when we’re busy doing work.
In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool provides some insights into both these questions.
The authors explain that while time is essential for developing a skill, the difference between highly skilled people and those who simply have a lot of experience is not the amount of time they have put into practice, but how they use their practice time.
There is more to success than practicing for 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Someone who’s done something for years may have acquired knowledge that informs their actions, but they may not actually be better than other practitioners. While a lot of practice is necessary, the amount of time isn’t magic. The path to a successful improvement is deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is practice with a clear goal and defined measures for success that causes you to go outside your comfort zone. Successful deliberate practice also implies engagement in the activity; if you aren’t focused on your goal, you are less likely to improve. It’s clear that these principles make sense in fields like athletics or musical performance, but those of us involved in building software systems can also apply them to our work if we address two things: how to measure improvements, and how to find the time to practice during our busy workdays.
One way to measure our performance is to request candid, supportive feedback from peers who do similar work and whom you consider to be experts at their jobs. And to make time, you can integrate practice into your day-to-day-work. Ericsson and Pool give an example of a company using a routine internal presentation as an opportunity for a presenter to focus on engaging storytelling and for audience members to practice giving feedback. This works best when everyone is aware of the practice and feedback process, but a presenter could also choose to do their presentation slightly differently and then ask for feedback about its effectiveness.
You can also apply this technique to improve coding skills by, for example, giving yourself a goal of using a new (to you) programming technique and paying close attention to code review, or even other metrics that are tied to delivery. Ericsson and Pool explain that a benefit of “learning while work gets done” is that it “gets people into the habit of practicing and thinking about practicing,” which in turn helps you to identify even more opportunities to practice.
Improving takes more than effort. It takes engagement, clear goals, and a measurement of progress. Even if you have all these things, making time to practice can still be a challenge. But it is possible to reframe your daily work as an opportunity to practice. It takes having goals, a willingness to stretch yourself, and an opportunity to gather feedback. Everything you do can be an opportunity to practice and improve.