Ice skating and dissertation writing: time on task, feedback, and flowPosted: Sat 02.11.2012
“Arms out at chest height. Shift your weight onto one foot. Lift your opposite leg from the hip. Cross one foot over the other. Shift your weight onto that foot. Glide.” No, I wasn’t re-learning how to walk. It was my weekly skating lesson and doing crossovers was a lot more complicated than it looked. Persistence, however, comes in handy for a whole host of activities, from ice skating to dissertation writing. And time on task counts. In his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly references the “10,000-Hour Rule,” his hypothesis that success or mastery of a skill is there for anyone willing to practice for the aforementioned number of hours. I don’t aspire to mastery, nor do I have that kind of time at this stage of my life to devote to ice skating; however, about 3 hours of instruction and close to 30 hours of practice have yielded graceful, tick-tock gliding, one step crossovers, and backward swizzles – none of which I was able to do six weeks ago. Of course, part of my progress has been due to “just in time” feedback from one very experienced coach. The kind of on the spot, timely feedback Doug Reeves recommends that teachers give students in classrooms and that instructional leaders look for from teachers as they visit classrooms. As for the 30 hours of practice? Well, for that I have to thank Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian born psychologist who first defined flow, the state of being totally absorbed in a voluntary activity that challenges the mind and/or body. Concentrating on remaining upright while listening to directions and attempting to twist all parts of my body into the positions my skating teacher has just so effortlessly demonstrated, is both absorbing and challenging for me. Time dissolves. There’s no room in my brain for anything else. Just this movement. Just this challenge. Just this moment. It’s self re-enforcing, almost addictive.
Fortunately for me, I feel the same way about my dissertation as I do about ice skating. Certainly, time on task matters. Without counting up the hours spent on the dissertation so far (way more than thirty) I realize that tasks such as locating a reference, saving it where it can be quickly found, properly citing it, efficiently extracting key information from it, and integrating it into the literature review take far less time than they did when I started this process over a year ago. And feedback matters, too. My understanding and construction of the big picture of the field far outpaces my ability to synthesize it and put it onto paper cogently. Enter my advisor, shepherd of countless dissertations, wielder of the red pen. His “Get to the point!” comments and frank feedback has challenged my thinking as well as improved the writing. Best of all, the topic is still so interesting, so nuanced and challenging, that even a year later, it absorbs me.