Practice makes perfect
March 27, 2008 11:26 PM   Subscribe

What are some activities that are like 'going to the gym' for your profession?

Earlier this week I was pointing out that playing scales on the guitar is like 'going to the gym' for your playing ability. Playing the scales can be boring, but it helps you build up dexterity and takes the thought and effort out of it when you're trying to pick up new songs.

This led me to wonder what other exercises professionals use to keep up their chops. I'm interested in learning what it takes to be a better system administrator/programmer, but I'm curious about all professions: What do you do in order to incrementally build your skills in your line of work?
posted by mullingitover to Work & Money (90 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
I know this concept as "woodshedding." Programmers can take part in coding contests or personal projects or reading up on new languages or techniques. Sysadmins can set up virtual networks in VMWare, Xen, or the like. Painters may go out and sketch. People of all persuasions and hobbies can participate in forums or IRC to help out those with problems in their field to keep solutions fresh in mind.
posted by rhizome at 11:36 PM on March 27, 2008

This is an interesting question. I'm a part-time waitress/cook/Jill-of-all-trades at a small-town diner, so I guess cooking at home is like "going to the gym" for that job. I also homeschool my son who has Asperger's (and who had very stressful public school experiences before homeschool). My "training" for being a homeschool teacher is to read as much as I can get my hands on, constantly re-fueling my love of learning, and staying on top of current events, so that my son can be an intelligent, in-the-know citizen of the world. (He also helps me at the diner, which is great for his social skills, so that's his version is "going to the gym").
posted by amyms at 11:40 PM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Writing open source software.
posted by polyglot at 11:48 PM on March 27, 2008

I read current cases in my field. Seeing what other lawyers have argued, and what judges have accepted helps a little bit, but mostly it is being aware of what cases are there to argue with if a similar issue arises in one of my trials. It can be boring to read decisions on issues that don't currently apply to any of my files, but it definitely helps keep me current. At least they can sometimes be entertaining. (Mr. Turton is also known as Mr. Kroeger - i.e. the lead singer of Nickelback).
posted by birdsquared at 11:48 PM on March 27, 2008

I work in graphic design. For me, it would be drawing. Often nothing in particular, just doodling. One of the greatest challenges is to keep creativity flowing, and by drawing whatever goes from your mind to your pen is a good way to keep the ideas running. Sometimes it even leads to something you can actually use.
posted by azpenguin at 12:23 AM on March 28, 2008

As a doc, I'm required to do a little continuing medical education (CME) to keep my license. Hospital lunchtime conferences, sponsored dinner speakers, Academy/Society meetings, and some academic coursework all counts; and there's also stuff like CDs that come in the mail and questionnaires at the end of selected NEJM articles that can also be used for self-study CME.

It's kind of nice to have it codified in law that I (and others) have to keep up on advances in our fields. I enjoy it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:23 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a translator living in Germany. Sometimes I find myself thinking about something in German, just because, after living here for 6 years, there are certain topics I've only dealt with in German. If I catch myself at this sometimes I force myself to think it through all over again in English.
posted by creasy boy at 12:23 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a mathematician. Well, I'm working on it, anyway. For me, the equivalent of going to the gym is to take walks. I try to work things out in my head, at least at the conceptual level. I also try to do calculations in my head, but that's harder. It's good for training my real-time memory to hold a lot of concepts at once.
posted by number9dream at 12:34 AM on March 28, 2008

My best friend is a professional dancer, going to the gym, especially the more stretching classes, and then a hard core work out are like 'going to the gym' for her.
posted by Neonshock at 12:49 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Great question.

As a working musician, not merely scales but intervals are key. Tune your ear and your muscles. Muscle memory is the crux. Let's back from that and address your question.

I practice listening. I can hear an unfamiliar orchestral piece and usually identify the composer. However, tht's not so much woodshedding as long term exposure.

I kind of practice looking at woods. Seriously. dealing with violins, guitars, and woodwinds you need to not only know the wood, but also know something about it's quality and curing. Pick up a bow. Over time you learn bad ones from better ones--without even playing them.

Same with metals. There are given alloys, but within that it helps to guess the ratios of the alloy components. I usually take a good stab with a vintage brass instrument and figure out the copper to zinc ratio by looking at it, tapping it, and *yes* "chomping" it--a la underdog. A mid 50's Olds will be nearing 40% copper while a Bach TR-300 is around 20%.

As a gigging musician, I spent much time on the job working out of Bb and Eb fakebooks, transposing for hours on end on-the-fly. That will sharpen your head.

As far as incremental improvement goes--whatever your field--review your failures. There is where there is the most to be learnt. That's the time honored geek approach.
posted by sourwookie at 12:55 AM on March 28, 2008

That would be Askme for me. I work in a reference library and I get all sorts of questions (including relationship ones!) Researching Askme questions keeps me on top of my skills, and keeps me on top of the zeitgeist. It is kinda funny how many times I have had a question IRL that mirrored an Askme. Reading the "reference interview" online (answerers probing the askie) lets me see questions in a different light. This allows me to justify surfing metafilter all day at work ... it's research dammit!
posted by saucysault at 1:40 AM on March 28, 2008 [9 favorites]

Well, on the operator side, we do a lot of drills. Fire/flooding/scram, etc. In addition to that, there are a few procedures we can practice that work out most of the "building block" core skills that are involved in the more complicated drills. Something like shutting down and starting back up a side of the engine room at a relatively leisurely pace (compared to during a catastrophe) using all the procedures makes it second nature when the catastrophe does happen.

On the chemical side, I have to actually perform all the analyses I'm responsible for as a graded examination periodically. Even though I don't routinely do the analyses as a supervisor, I have to be able to do them. I have no chance of passing those exams if I don't practice fairly frequently, and make sure I do them letter-perfect so as not to develop bad habits.

I also like to read incident reports from other boats. It's amazing how you can think to yourself "what a bunch of maroons," when you read it, and then find your own programs could stand the same sort of improvement (hopefully on a smaller scale) when you look around specifically for that.
posted by ctmf at 1:44 AM on March 28, 2008

A really good software developer needs to be able to take thorough notes (including diagrams) during a live meeting situation while still being able to pay attention to and participate in the discussion. This is the kind of fundamental real-time skill that gets stronger with regular use/practice. I don't know how many people actively cultivate it the way musicians play scales, but I can certainly remember times when I wish I had.
posted by tomcooke at 2:44 AM on March 28, 2008

I just finished a 3.5 year stint at a knitting/yarn store. For me, "going to the gym" meant attending knitting groups around town, reading the prominent websites and overseas magazines so I knew what trends were happening, and of course, knitting loads of stuff. (I just won my first fair ribbon!)
posted by web-goddess at 3:35 AM on March 28, 2008

As a scientist, reading papers and textbooks gives me extra weapons in my arsenal for dealing with new problems and interpreting existing data.

As a programmer, building up levels of abstraction in my programming allows me to work on harder problems without getting bogged down in the details.
posted by grouse at 3:55 AM on March 28, 2008

Biochemistry here - reading scientific papers and attending talks and conferences are probably the biggest way to "practice" science.
posted by ubersturm at 4:33 AM on March 28, 2008

Surgical pathologists have to look at a lot of cases that they haven't seen before or are really rare. So we do unknowns. I also read the 3 major surg path journals. Plus CME (like ikkyu2 mentioned upthread for all docs).
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:53 AM on March 28, 2008

An ecologist here - as others have pointed out, reading papers and attending conferences fit the bill, but in all the labs I've been in we've had a weekly or two-weekly "Journal Club" where we all come together to tear a paper apart and discuss it in depth. This is a bit like "going to the gym" - quickly learning new concepts, debating others on ideas, challenging your assumptions, getting up to date on the latest research. I'd recommend this to anyone who doesn't already do something similar.
posted by Jimbob at 5:09 AM on March 28, 2008

Copy editing. I'm a technical writer, and copy editing is a great way to get intimately familiar with standards (is a command on or in a menu? Does the dialog box appear or display?). It also hones your attention to detail.
posted by korres at 5:14 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

With me, it was the process of researching a story for air. Now, and before in the midst of my radio work, it has been building lists for fund raising. That's where I'm a viking.
posted by parmanparman at 5:22 AM on March 28, 2008

Where I work as a software engineer we're heavily encouraged to give occasional lunchtime presentations to our peers about, well, whatever we choose that's relevant - techniques, new releases of commonly used tools, new technological developments, hints and tips, etc. It's not a bad system. Nothing like having to present, even informally, to a friendly but smart and questioning audience some of who might know as much, if not not more than, yourself to find out how much you really understand about a topic.
posted by normy at 5:24 AM on March 28, 2008

saucysault said what I would be saying. Answering questions like the ones here (well not this one) keep me delving into reference materials that I might not otherwise see. Working in a smalltown public library doesn't get you a wide range of questions the way AskMe does. Other things that are important to a librarian

- reading. I know it seems like a sort of obvious answer but a lot of people want to know that you've read or at least know about the latest books, so reading them or having familiarity with them [reading NYT book review and etc] is pretty important
- going to other libraries. again sort of obvious but it's really easy to say that you never want to be in another library again when you go home from yours, but seeing how other libraries do what they do is one of the ways to get idea churcn to see what might work better in yours
- talking to other librarians. same as above except that you can't often talk to other librarians when you're at work or at their work so you keep up on mailing lists, newsgroup things and various social software sites where they congregate.

Note: I don't work in a public library now, but those were all things helpful then. For my day job at MetaFilter a lot of what's important is again figuring out how other people do things. When BoingBoing published their moderation guidelines, I read them with interest because we do things differently here and it was interesting to see what choices they made and think "huh I wonder if that would work here...?" Whenever I'm on another "community" site I always look for their terms of service, help pages, faq and guidelines to see if there's something great that we missed or some angle they use in explaining things to the community that might be transferable over here. I also just read usability stuff all the time. I think MeFi is pretty decent in terms of bring usable but there's always room for improvement.
posted by jessamyn at 5:42 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I take seminars (fundraising and development). They are expensive, boring, repetitive and full of attractive and eager youngsters who look way better than you do (*damn* That does sound like the gym). And yet, I always learn something I didn't know or hadn't thought about in a while.
posted by nax at 5:43 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a book editor, so I read to tune up. Seriously. Right now, it's travel non-fiction as I'm brushing up on that kind of stuff. What makes that specific type of story good, the different narrative arcs in which it can be written, what sells well and what doesn't and deducing through my reading why that is.
posted by meerkatty at 5:45 AM on March 28, 2008

Electrical engineer, HV power, working on a large and old transmission system in the US Southwest.

Regular engineer stuff includes reading related magazines, attending local and wider area professional society meetings, professional society volunteering, attending conferences and workshops, and working on standards.

For my particular job, the 'treadmill' is digging through all the various libraries scattered around the building and studying old documents... construction specifications for projects already completed, old system maps, old papers and studies, and equipment manuals. This gives me a better large-scale understanding of our transmission system, so when I have to work on some specific part of it I [a] already know about it's history and current configuration, and [b] have an idea of where to look to bone up on more specifics.

It helps that I have a huge interest in both this region's history and engineering history in general.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 5:57 AM on March 28, 2008

This is a little off-topic, but I always compare volunteering to going to the gym. Both tasks seem kind of time-consuming and unpleasant, but I always feel so much better about myself and the world after doing either.
posted by jrichards at 6:12 AM on March 28, 2008

As a manager, I think one of the most important things that I can do I to actually "do the work" every once in a while. I don't have a choice right now, as we are understaffed, but even if we weren't, I would want to be a the front desk and answering phones for at least a few hours a week. It keeps you in sync with what is going on in the business, and keeps you in touch with your employees. I can't stand seeing people get promoted and then never again get their hands dirty in the real work of their department/business.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Advertising copywriter. I "tune up" by writing (and reading) comics (both Web and print) as a side gig; it allows me to look at word/image relationships from a fresh perspective and really flexes my creative muscles. The key to good comics writing and good copywriting is brevity, so honing dialogue for comics really helps when I have to create a three-word slogan that covers a six-paragraph sentiment.

I think part of "going to the gym" is also what you're NOT doing -- I try my utmost to avoid advertising at all costs when I'm not at work. I watch TV shows on DVD, use adblockers on the Internet, buy content-only magazines, and listen to streamed music, CDs and the CBC instead of the radio.
posted by Shepherd at 6:21 AM on March 28, 2008

I work in online advertising, so reading blogs directly related to that world is my gym-going - it involves wading through a lot of incorrect speculation and assumption, but it's necessary for me to know what they influential players think. Related, but more fun for me, is reading general internet and technical blogs and stuff like Wired news to see how advertising fits into the greater glory of the internet.

In my free time, I like to write, and there's a _lot_ of gym-going in that. I try to write something every single day, and quite often I find that what I produce is not what I wish I was producing.
posted by StephenF at 6:23 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a writer so I write something every day, even if it's not a great work of art. I love exercises like writing prompts, or making up a 100-word sentence.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:24 AM on March 28, 2008

'Nother biochemist here. Yup, reading the literature and going to conferences when the company will spring for it.

Also wanted to second Rock Steady's comment about actually doing the work - as you move up in the hierarchy it's easy to lose touch with reality (at the bench, in my case) and forget how long everything takes, how failure-prone certain equipment is, etc. So "going to the gym" is necessary but not sufficient - you have to put those freshly honed chops to use.
posted by Quietgal at 6:28 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a technical editor, so I copyedit on Wikipedia as a way to keep up my proofreading chops (developmental editing is more my regular work than proofing). Like korres, I'm always looking for ways to train my eye to spot consistent language.
posted by catlet at 6:32 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a web developer and I have a small online social circle of other web developers in other parts of the world. Whenever one of us is stuck on a problem we'll page another one through online chat and pose it to them. It helps a friend out of a jam and keeps us sharp at the myriad skills we're responsible for.
posted by ardgedee at 6:37 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Writer here. One obvious answer is reading, but for me specifically, it's re-reading. There are some books I've read twenty-five times or more. I'm very aware of how what I read influences what I write -- I just returned a trashy paperback to the library unread because I am working on an important rewrite and was afraid it would pollute my language. For serious rewriting periods I like to re-read minimalists like Amy Hempel and James Ellroy.

I also read a huge amount of nonfiction about the area I write about (crime). There's specific research that I do for stories, but I also just read books about dirty deeds to keep my mind in the gutter (right now I'm reading a history of sexual blackmail).
posted by Bookhouse at 6:44 AM on March 28, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm a flash developer. I practice, or hone my skeels by blogging about it/ sharing my work with others.

I've got to be damn sure what I share is fully correct before hitting that publish button. It also helps to have other eyes looking at my code and pointing out how it could be done better.
posted by localhuman at 6:46 AM on March 28, 2008

As a mathematician/logician and a teacher, I keep my skills in shape by explaining things to people. Sometimes they don't actually care about what I'm talking about, and while I have to be careful not to annoy my friends and family too much, that's also good practice for teaching. Trying to do it over the phone helps improve the way I speak about things in class. Explanations via e-mail help improve my boardwork and my writing. Trying to answer the question what are you studying this semester? as asked by someone just trying to be polite builds the ability to give the big picture. Of course, these are all things I would do even if I wasn't a teacher; they're part of the reason I wanted to be one. The closest thing I can think of to a repetitive task performed solely for the sake of practice (other than homework, which is a combination of learning and practice, and will almost certainly fade when I'm done with my PhD) is using TeX when it would be faster to hand write something or more traditional to type it up in a word processor (besides, term papers compiled from TeX source are so much prettier than ones done in Word (ah...kerning, where have you been all my life?)).
posted by ErWenn at 7:07 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Teacher of technology subjects here:

Adding to normy's thought, I try to attend as many of my colleague's presentations as I can, even if the topic doesn't relate to anything I'm currently involved in. It helps me keep up my "learning" chops.

As a warm-up to the marathon of a semester, I will sometimes reread (re-skim?) our faculty handbook, to remind myself of my obligations and responsibilities as an instructor and to get me in the mood for teaching.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:13 AM on March 28, 2008

I work at an investment firm. Occasionally I'll practice by manually doing 'comps', which just means figuring out various valuation metrics for a relevant set of similar companies. There are a number of sources that automate this with decent accuracy, but I think it helps to dig into the SEC filings every once in a while.
posted by mullacc at 7:16 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a chemist but also do some field work and response.

Reading journals is very much the way to stay current with the science side. I think it's important to read journals outside of one's specific field though, that's a job requirement, but general science and even in the humanities too. When I go to a big meeting (like SETAC or the ACS), I'll try to sit in a session on a topic I know nothing about, if I have the time. It's hard to justify going to conferences that one isn't directly invoved with, but often an eye-opener if one has the oportunity. I've had a couple of really interesting collaborations come out of such meetings.

For the advisory work I do, Askme is good practice. I frequently have to distill a complex subject down to a paragraph or so for the public or for the press.

For the field work, hiking and canoing are some of the best practice activities. I use pretty much the same gear and get to see how it works in a low stress situation. When we're on in the field, things are so rushed and chaotic that it's really nice to know how your GPS works or how your pack is setup beforehand.

For the response work, there's really little practice I can do outside of work. I've been looking at doing some volunteer work with other NGO response agenices. Professionally, I'm usualy part of a restoration team that has very limited contact with those directly affected. I'm hoping the NGO work will help me put a human face on the incidents I respond to.
posted by bonehead at 7:19 AM on March 28, 2008

Social Studies Teacher: I go to professional development as often as I'm able. I watch documentaries and search the web for topics related to my curricula. I find myself constantly seeing potential lesson plans, and writing those lesson plans in my head (even if I never use them). Also, family and friends sometimes come to me with questions historical or civic, and I get a chance to practice my 1-on-1 pedagogy and lecture skills.
posted by absalom at 7:24 AM on March 28, 2008

Another scientist here. Journal clubs, conferences, works-in-progress meetings where your newest data is talked about and suggestions and criticisms are thrown around...

Also peer-reviewing other people's work for journals is an excellent way to hone your critical thinking skills. But you have to wait to be asked for that.
posted by gaspode at 7:29 AM on March 28, 2008

In addition to being a software engineer, I am a college radio DJ, and 'going to the gym' for us is:
- reading about new music
- reading about old music
- keeping up on new releases
- digging through crates
- picking out an artist and putting together a program on that one.
posted by mkb at 7:38 AM on March 28, 2008

Research officer at an NGO by day, and a singer and choir director by nights.

For my day job, reading is my "going to the gym". In fact, I have a stack of paper and electronic things in my "to read" file right now.

As for my singing, I do Irish traditional singing, so being asked on the spur of the moment to sing something is great practice. Gotta remember big long songs with little or no time to prepare! Also, keeping the "songs to learn" pile stocked and fresh!

For choir directing, "going to the gym" is partly going through the next rehearsal's material and making sure I have it cold before I stand in front of my choir. It's also partly reading - I'm always on the lookout for new material, new warm-up techniques, new conducting techniques, new ways of helping the choirsters learn how to use their voices, and make beautiful music.
posted by LN at 7:50 AM on March 28, 2008

As some of the other engineers have said, explaining things to people really helps you master your own understanding of the topic. Also, I just switched jobs and have noticed that some of my skills are definitely out of practice - so, I'm rereading some of my textbooks and I guess I could do some practice problems, also.

One thing that I find really helps keep my mind sharp is bullshitting a bunch of "what if" questions with friends and coworkers. Part of being an engineer is knowing how to make assumptions and approximations, so trying to figure out, say, how big of a helium balloon you would need to lift a car is good exercise. Or how to build a couch out of all the cardboard boxes we've got laying around. Stuff like that.

One of my avocations is flying, and the exercises there are more straightforward. Landings, emergency procedures, and instrument approaches. Do them over and over again in as many different weather conditions as you can find. It's actually required by the FAA to do x number of landings and approaches to keep your ratings current.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:52 AM on March 28, 2008

I work in a used record / movie store with a diverse clientele and we cover all genres. I patrol the chain stores a couple times a week checking out pricing and whatnot so that our used items are in line with real world pricing and that we know what to pay for obscure items when they come into the store. Pricing can vary from store to store even though they can be across the street from each other or a block away. On some titles, pricing can vary by as much as $30 or $40. For instance, HMV might sell OZ (the tv show) for $50 and Future Shop or Best Buy may sell the exact same season for $15. If every store sold it for $50, we'd sell it for $35 or so, which means we'd buy it from a customer for $20. However, without making the rounds of the stores, we'd inadvertently pay $5 more than it can be had for new at Best Buy. This means we're gonna eat our markup or be stuck with it a good long while. (Note that there are actually people who buy these titles (the ones on cut-throat sale at big box stores) in bulk, specifically to sell them to unaware used store sand customers on eBay and CL, etc.; I have multiple customers who augment their incomes this way.)

More importantly, I go out of my way to try to listen to everything and anything.

One of the things this allows me to do is... once I understand a particular customer's taste (based on what they bought in the past), I'm able, while they're browsing, to play records on the in-store stereo that I think they are unfamiliar with but will like. I don't announce this (that is, I don't say, "Hey, Ron, check this out!"), but just play it as if it's what I would normally play. Often it's music that I would never ever play for myself. Often this works and they buy the record. I sell about 20 albums a week this way--often stuff that would languish due to a lack of familiarity from most customers. The biggest benefit of this is that even if they don't buy the record, I'm usually on the nose with whether or not it'll be up their alley. This means the customer thinks that this is the kind of music I like and that they'll hear while browsing there. This leads to two things: they'll ask me for advice on what to buy and I can recommend multiple titles, and they'll shop there more often because the experience is pleasant.

In my private time, I'm also an unproduced screenwriter. I read lots of scripts and see tons of movies. To learn from them, I pay attention to not only what happens but how and when. This gives me a sense of technique (how to communicate things visually) and pacing. I also read a lot of plays, how to books, books about the business of hollywood/screenwriting. I also meet with other people who write scripts and discuss these topics.
posted by dobbs at 8:02 AM on March 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

Motion Graphics/Illustrator/3D here. I like to visit iSketch, which is like an online version of Pictionary, which gives me random things to draw and get the brain moving. I'm also starting to do 3D challenges at
posted by Scoo at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a computational linguist and I do pretty much the same things as other scientists: go to conferences and read lots of papers. I also go to lots of meetings where people talk about business proposals. Usually, I'll be able to figure out one or two things that would improve the technology that at least one business is based off of, just by talking to the CEO or any of the technical staff. It gives me a chance to use some of my problem analysis skills and keeps me in contact with the rest of the local technology community. Plus, there is usually free food.

I also did a lot of work with different writing systems in graduate school so sometimes I'll scratch out one of the ones learned on a scrap piece of paper when I have a few minutes of down time. It keeps it fresh in my memory and kills a few minutes during boring meetings.
posted by Alison at 8:14 AM on March 28, 2008

As an aspiring photographer, I do several things.

I flip through every catalog I come across, just looking at photos. If I find one that's particularly interesting, I'll try to dissect what makes it interesting.
What lens did they use? What type of lighting? What type of mood did that create?
I'll often shoot something similar, just to get some practice with it, then see what I can do with it to change it around.
I read blogs, and listen to podcasts.
I frame random scenes, mentally. Sometimes I'll shoot them.
I shoot film for practice. It keeps me on my toes at knowing how to get the shot I want with limited resources.
I scout locations. I get lost on purpose.

It's all part of immersing yourself in your chosen field.
My dad was a chemistry professor for 39 years. He always had some periodical, study, or other research book around.

Whatever you do, do it with passion.
posted by fnord at 8:17 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a singer/songwriter/pianist (mostly for fun, but sometimes for money).

I try to attend jam sessions around town as much as possible, so I can practice playing a variety of styles with a variety of different musicians. When I'm by myself, one thing I do for fun is to pull a random song out of my head and try to play it by ear/memory. It definitely stretches my musical muscles.

As a vocalist, if the opportunity arises to sing anytime throughout the day, I take it. In the car, in the shower, watching TV, anywhere. Also, I love karaoke! It's a great, fun, stress-free way to work on performance skills.
posted by chara at 8:33 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am a supervisor in a technical department; because I don't deal with the customers directly much anymore, I find that my knowledge tends to atrophy if I don't find something that is broken and fix it myself.

I could just as easily send an employee to do it, but I always hated working for people who didn't understand what it was that I did for them, and therefore couldn't appreciate it when I did something that was next to impossible. I don't want my employees to have to suffer that experience, so I make sure I can do everything that they can do.

So I guess that my 'going to the gym' is finding equipment that isn't working, and getting it back online.
posted by quin at 8:36 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a garden designer. I look at gardens, parks, empty lots, things growing in cracks in the sidewalk, and how people use various public spaces. I think about how these spaces are designed (or not), and how the plants behave in those spaces. I have to say that it's not really like going to the gym, it's just second nature for me.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:39 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I sit somewhere between usability specialist and web developer. Beyond the obvious book reading, to cultivate my usability brain, I look at things and think, "How could this be made easier to use?" Ponder what works, what doesn't and how it can be improved helps automate this mental process. It's often the case where I can't even turn it off anymore, much to my chagrin at times. I also try and observe other people interacting with things, observing how they use it and how closely it matches what the "intended" use seems to be.

For the programming side, I don't have time to commit to large open source projects, but I've found that programming challenges like the Python Challenge help me think about solutions in new and different ways.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:59 AM on March 28, 2008

I am a [grad student eventually moving into the real world] documentary filmmaker and graphic artist. I think the designers have mentioned their methods. With moving pictures, the "woodshedding" comes in by doing small scale versions of full projects. Trying different angles, setting, etc while you have the time to compose them so that they come naturally when you are running around in production (and the same goes for learning your camera inside and out so you can tweak on the fly). In editing, you just cut together a bunch of little shorts (that may never see the light of day) that let you explore telling stories in different ways. I don't know that practice makes perfect in the editing, but at least you can keep more of an open mind about what might work.

Essentially, becoming so familiar with your equipment/instrument/brain that it becomes an extension of yourself and you don't have to think about it so much. It's funny how often one's one brain gets in the way.
posted by stefnet at 9:05 AM on March 28, 2008

As an academic-in-training (grad student) my workouts are 1) teaching labs, 2) marking assignments, and 3) reading journal articles. My labs help me get comfortable and fluent with teaching; my marking requires me to learn and re-learn all the basic knowledge, as well as practice giving objective grades and helpful feedback; my reading makes sure that I am plugged into the developments in my field. These are the baby steps to someday being a professor, and grad school is boot camp.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:09 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a technical writer. Not only do I read technical manuals (in more detail than you probably do; or rather, meta-reading. Or something) and web documentation (yes, there are Firefox geeks who review the documentation just like the ones who review the code), but I also like to take walks. Maybe because I was once an aspiring mathematician, I play with concepts in my head in what I imagine is much the same fashion. I try to break things down to their simplest parts and think of how to explain them. I read a lot of non-fiction (generally math/physics), literary critique, and essays on communication. Whenever I have "down time" (on the train, riding my motorcycle/bicycle, while hiking) I come up with metaphors for scientific and mathematical concepts I've been reading about and try to explain them. Basically, I love words and communication, and I play with them. Sometimes this takes the form of word-play humor (like here on MeFi). I spend an inordinate (for someone without a linguistics degree; though I did study psycholinguistics a bit in college) amount of time researching etymologies, translations, and doing basic exercises on grammar (for example, I have the equivalent of a 'workbook' from a turn-of-the-20th-Century grammar school that emphasizes a lot of concepts which have sort of fallen by the wayside). In school, I often did exercises where I tried to communicate things in the longest or shortest possible sentence(s). Fun stuff.

What's really fun is that my comments on MeFi tend to be the most unreadable rambling you could imagine. I avoid nested parentheticals, professionally.
posted by Eideteker at 9:17 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work in architecture. We have continuing education courses available where topics such as Building Code compliance, hvac systems, or properties of a particular building component are discussed.

But, the most important part of my continual education is observing buildings. I am one of the few people who finds something to do in a waiting room other than read the old magazine or my book - I look at the space I'm in, and sometimes, if the wait is long, I go outside and look around. I look at how dissimilar materials are joined; observe things like window sills and jambs to see signs of water infiltration; look at ceiling grids and see if I think the layout could have been better; watch human interaction and how the building does/does not support it; see how the employees function; I note if the room is too hot or cold and try to figure out why; I ask maintenance folks what works or doesn't work if they don't look too busy; I think about if the parking and entry are convenient; oh, so many things of interest are always waiting for me to see if I take the time to think about them.

I love materials. I'm always looking at new materials that are developed and researching their potential for building use and longevity. Sometimes I'll take photos of things that interest me, or just quickly sketch a detail. Or, if I'm trying to figure out a detail, I draw up a bunch of options, put them away, then bring them out a couple of days later.

Heh, the built world is my gym if I choose to exercise!
posted by mightshould at 9:25 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm interested in learning what it takes to be a better system administrator/programmer

I do sysadmin and support and I like to work with systems that I dont use at work. The other night i was playing with X under cygwin even though we dont use that here. I also like seeing the competitors products to the stuff we use here, especialy open source or smaller software companies. This gives me an opportunity once in a blue-moon to sneak in some OSS software here.

I dont do much coding, but I do some scripting, so its always good to keep that stuff sharp. Right now I'm using the the free version of vs2008 at home to write an application I've been thinking of. Granted progress is slow and I'll never be a "real" programmer but its good to see what libraries and new methods I can pick up on. This wont translate directly to the scripting I do, but it does make me flexible if I can say "Well, if batch or vbs wont do this I can write a C# app that will."

In IT I think it becomes obvious who does this stuff in their off time and who doesnt. The people who dont often dont know anything outside of the method they were taught years ago and have loyalty to oddball practices and vendors. Then they become defensive when new ideas get talked about or younger people get hired and that often doesnt end well.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:25 AM on March 28, 2008

As a writer, I belong to an art collective and find writing press releases, flyers, invitations, and web copy for that pet project to be like "going to the gym" in keeping my creativity at work fresh.

I occasionally write poetry in weird places, too (drive-thru at Taco Bell on the back of a receipt is a common location, for example) but it's mostly just for me. I'd be embarrassed for others to read it, but it does trigger good phraseology and mnemonics for later.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:28 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a writer, and to practice I do critique at writing sites like Critique Circle. Not only does it keep my craft skills sharp, reinforcing grammar and what not, it also helps me hone my art skills- learning what to do, what not to do, what's cliche, what's novel...
posted by headspace at 9:35 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a historian. Going to the gym is reading (well, skimming usually) the latest articles in the history journals in my field--publications like The Western Historical Quarterly and The Public Historian. Keeping current with the field is considered a basic professional responsibility. A really snarky thing to say about a senior academic is that she or he "doesn't keep up with her reading."
posted by LarryC at 9:36 AM on March 28, 2008

Full-time stay-at-home mom to an infant, my first child.

The amount of reading I did during pregnancy and now do during motherhood has been intense, and I expect it will stay that way for some time. My "homework" has been everything from the "What to Expect" series (the entry-level textbooks) to the discussion forums (the grad-level coursework) to gleaning good advice from friends and relatives and doctors (the symposia), but cautiously figuring out what I can ignore. My "going to the gym" is reading books and web materials on child development -- neurological, social, educational. Learning how to read a small non-talking person's cues for hunger, diaper change, sleep, play, and more. Learning how to go without more than four consecutive hours of sleep at a time and still function semi-coherently later in the day -- I still get to practice that one nightly.

Breastfeeding alone has probably been one of the hardest-to-master skills that I've picked up in years -- and it's definitely an acquired, practiced skill set, not an instinct. My education for that involved two lactation consultants and several nurses, plus the website, plus lots of frustrating trial and error. And of course my best teacher -- my baby. He's been very patient with me.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:37 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a namer.

For generating good names, reading things out of my field, and out of marketing in general, helps me a lot, particularly the kind of random Wikipedia wandering where I end up knowing all about the history and making of tequila or discover the origin of animal magnetism and Otto Mesmer or Winsor McKay and early animation. It exposes me to words, concepts and metaphors that aren't normally in my stream of consciousness within the day-to-day of a brand consultancy. Reading trademark blogs and investigating trademark claims gives me fuel for my brain in the other direction.

For nomenclature (naming systems), analyzing other naming structures - within marketing, science and etc., gives me fresh perspectives and approaches. Looking at what's succeeded and fails in business mags, reactions on blogs that aren't about marketing or naming helps as well.

For brand voice strategies - tone, manner and structure that helps brands communicate cohesively - it's reading fiction, listening to speeches and putting a variety of stand-up comedy on my iPod on random and listening to it more than once so I can notice nuance of rhythm, word choice, tonality and structure that differentiates verbal styles.

And of course, like anyone in a creative field that has to often present in front of a large audience, it's assumed that improv comedy classes are the equivalent of the gym for us (and paid for as career development). But much like the actual gym, I don't go.
posted by Gucky at 9:37 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

For physicians and other healthcare workers, there are simulators available to practice procedures on (in addition to the CME mentioned above). Of course, pilots and others also have simulators; I think there was a MeFi or AskMe thread about simulators a few years ago.
posted by TedW at 9:45 AM on March 28, 2008

This post made me realize that I don't warm up and that I hate warming up. The activities I do most often -- the ones that are difficult -- are writing, programming, directing and acting. I don't do writing warmups; I just write. I fingers to keyboard and start in on whatever project I'm working on, and I work on it.

I suppose the first half-hour of writing IS a warm-up (I usually have to completely rewrite the beginning part), but it's a transparent one. It's not consciously a warmup. I pretty much always have a writing project, but if I didn't and I felt I needed to keep in practice, I'd invent a project rather than do some sort of free-writing exercise or whatever. I take the same approach with programming and directing. I just jump in and do it.

With programming, I know I'm supposed to plan it all out with UML diagrams and such, but I'm usually more comfortable just hacking stuff together. I do not believe that these hacks are acceptable, but I need to start with something tangible -- not notes. So I hack, then I react to the hack, see what's wrong with it, etc. THEN I make notes. I need to have something to take notes ABOUT. Then I usually rewrite from scratch. My finished code is clean and I tend to meet deadlines, so no one complains about my approach. Of course, when I'm working as part of a team, I sometimes have to adapt and work with team-generated diagrams.

With acting, it's a little different. Most actors suck if they just start a performance without warming up, and I'm the same. The problem is that there's a difference between the way you talk in real life and the way you talk on stage -- even in the most naturalistic play. Talking on stage is a little heightened. At the same time, it needs to feel natural to the actor. By the time the actor starts performing in front of an audience, it needs to feel as if heightened-speaking is just the way he naturally speaks. Otherwise, he'll seem phony or forced. And since most people don't naturally speak in this heightened way, they can't just start doing it on a dime.

Trained actors know all sorts of tricks to get into the zone. They do vocal and physical warmups, similar to those done by singers and athletes. (Of course, these do more than just get the actor ready for stage-style acting; they also tune the body and voice.) But I'm not a trained actor. I learned to act by trial-and-error -- and by watching the actors I work with as a director. I don't feel comfortable warming up by saying la-la-la-la-la over and over.

So, as always with me, I warm up by doing the project. I pick some big speech from the play and say it to myself, really quietly. I walk around the stage, mumbling it, barely audible. My body is pretty immobile, except for my shuffling feet. I do this over and over, and I gradually feel myself loosening up. Without trying, I find my acting getting bigger, more demonstrative. My hands begin to gesture, my eyes take in the whole room, my voice gets more sonorous.

I keep repeating and repeating. The monotony gets boring, and I find myself playing, improvising. I start going beyond the bounds of the play: playing the speech in all sorts of inappropriate ways. I do it in silly foreign accents; I declaim it like a preacher... I experiment with playing it all over the stage: standing, sitting, walking around where the audience sits... Finally, the speech feels like it's 100% mine, like it's putty that I can mold any way that I want. I can play it big, like Lear in the storm; I can go subtle with it, like a character in a Pinter play. Whatever. When it's mine to toy with, I know I'm warmed up.
posted by grumblebee at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Writer David Milch on warming up: "I don’t plan scenes. I don’t outline. I feel my way along because I have come to believe everything you believe about writing instead of writing is bullshit. It doesn’t apply. You can make an outline but an outline is not going to work because it doesn’t apply to what is actually written. I am content to work in uncertainty much more than I used to be – content to not know where I am going."

I have to say, though I'm simpatico with this method and tend to use it myself, it wouldn't have worked for me when I was younger. I would have read something like this and used it as an excuse for shoddy work. I would have said, "See, I don't have to plan or re-write. I can just let my brilliance pour onto the page and it will be perfect without any revisions." Which isn't what Milch is saying, but that's how I would have interpreted it.

I just need to have some raw material to edit before I can really get into the work. And notes/outlines aren't real raw material.
posted by grumblebee at 9:56 AM on March 28, 2008

Fun question! Let's see...

To reiterate some previously mentioned jobs, yes "woodshedding" is the term used in music and can be applied as "going to the gym" for all jobs. It refers to taking your horn (aka "ax") outside and going out back behind the woodshed to practice where no one will be bothered by hearing you play the same damn two bar figure for an hour at a time.

I still woodshed quite a bit every week. On transcribing, revoicing, playing different instruments, mixing, outboard gear, etc. However, I *don't* listen to recorded music much at all. I can't do it as a background event, since I tend to pick out the chord progression, voice leading, and even elements of the mix ("Ahah! A Kurzweil K2000 patch. A Prophet-5. A metal mouthpiece and hard reed on that tenor. A badly set compressor. An ill-advised BBE Sonic Maximizer. That's not how you use a sidechain to duck aspirated fricatives." et cetera)

For writing sellable fiction, it's as previously mentioned: Go back and read specific authors critically, even during the first pass through the book. I'm not stealing phrasing, vocabulary, or ideas (I hope!); I'm loading up on the mojo of the author. It helps with pacing and story telling. Sometimes you need to slow a scene to "bullet time" to get the action into or out of it. Sometimes it's almost told in passing. But you need to have a level of consistency or you'll baffle your reader.

...Which is also true of producing music, BTW. In music production while mixing the tracks, the engineer and producer often (or damn well better) A/B what they're doing versus a reference track of an artist/producer that strikes all the right chords (pun intended). I'm not going to make it sound just like the reference track, but when switching between my mix and the golden reference track, I want to get a similar ear feel.

And perhaps most importantly as I get older: To stay relevant, technically adept, and commercially viable, I play with things I don't necessarily think will be of immediate use. Let's see. Recently that'd include playing with the following software: Propellerhead's Reason (YOW! kicks ass!), Apple's Final Cut Pro (sucks), Second Life (really? I don't get it...), Gimp, Maya, POV-ray (YOWZER!!!), World of Warcraft (Second Life with swords, and much more fun), a host of current first person shooter games (uh, nice smoke and water routines, but where's the story???). And I read a metric assload of journals outside of my fields of knowledge.

Sorry about the length of this post. Guess the librium hasn't totally worn off yet...
posted by lothar at 9:58 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a peon in a molecular genetics lab.

My favorite way to keep up is going to national or regional meetings, my least favorite is reading journals because there is an amazing amount of atrocious work out there.

For each test, the lab participate in the "College of American Pathologists" proficiency testing, which keeps every lab in the USA on its respective toes in order not to loose the licence to operate.
posted by francesca too at 10:36 AM on March 28, 2008

I'm a manager at an NGO in D.C., responsible for a little bit of everything.
Going to seminars and conferences in the city is great for both keeping up with what's going on and for learning more about what works and what doesn't at events - which I use in planning our own events and conferences. I also spend a lot of my free time keeping up with new technologies and playing around with Web stuff, learning skills that I usually end up using at some point or another at work.

But the one thing I would consider my "going to the gym" for work would be that I spend a lot more time than I really want to helping family and friends (and their friends and family, their neighbors, etc.) by editing their resumes, cover letters, and other correspondence. I also help them troubleshoot computer problems. It's great practice for handling important but difficult clients, where you have to be nice no matter how annoying they are. It's also helping me deal better with IT issues at work, it has forced me to keep up with Human Resources trends, and it's helped keep my editing pretty sharp.
posted by gemmy at 10:42 AM on March 28, 2008

I teach English in a non-English speaking country.

Because I'm outside of the native environment of the language I'm teaching, I try to immerse myself in various language-y blogs (what up, languagehat!), the newspaper, the BBC, and anything else in English that might be worth noticing. You forget how much (native-language) culture you just absorb by being in a place where the language is spoken. This "keeping-up-with-the-zeitgeist" time is easily over 8 hours a week, and it definitely adds an edge to my lessons that the other teachers I work with, who don't have the time or the desire to invest in Finding Cool New Stuff or Looking Up Etymologies In The OED, miss out on. Things like using wikis in class, or having students use Flickr for photo projects, have come into my classes directly because of their appearance in my zeitgeist-o-vision, especially thanks to places like MeFi.

Another example: I splash out on things like National Geographic and The Economist, as well as the English-language weekly paper for the Baltic countries, even though I can't really afford to do this, because I constantly am looking for authentic, real-world stuff to bring into class and, to use a technical term, exploit. In the February 2008 issue of National Geographic, there was a great article with amazing photographs about people migrating across Mexico's southern border.

That combined with a cool activity about prioritizing budget items for a fictional developing country (inernational airport or fish factory? schools or maternity clinics?) and an article about the first black mayor of an Irish town from a few months ago made up an awesome lesson on migration issues - something which is deeply affecting my students (who, living in Latvia, each seem to know five or six people who've gone abroad to work or study now that Latvians can move anywhere in the EU) but which is totally absent from our textbooks.
posted by mdonley at 10:51 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I make my living as stage properties designer and sculptor, but my training and my ultimate career goal is to one day support myself primarily as a fine artist. In general, I try to view my paid projects as exercises for the latter work. When I've got a lot of paid production projects going and I'm using my hands a lot, I find I "woodshed" in my free time by reading as much art criticism and history as I can, and viewing lots of individual artist's works online. (It's often difficult to find time to see work in person more than once or twice a month).

During projects that are more research based with less craft work involved, I try and draw a bit every day and set aside a few hours each week to devote to free associative painting in order to get a better feel for my materials. I don't save the results, I usually just paint and repaint over the same canvas, since I view these sessions as strictly academic and exploratory while I wait for an upcoming block of time to devote to developing a specific body of work.

Not being precious about the final results allows me the freedom to make a lot of truly terrible pieces along with some great mid-process discoveries that I can hopefully learn from in the future. I usually don't have the luxury of creating ugly work or winging it when I'm getting paid, so these sessions are a lot more useful for me in the end than all of the work experience I've accumulated professionally.
posted by stagewhisper at 11:01 AM on March 28, 2008

An interesting question. As a composer useful exercises for me include critical listening to music, that is active listening, where I listen to music from an analytical perspective and whilst I don't necessarily write it down, I try to imagine how I would notate it. As I normally have to try to switch this off when I listen to music in really any capacity, it's quite nice to engage this from time to time. I also make sure to read scores, before listening to a recording, as it sharpens up my ear (listening to new music whilst following the score is a staple, but it's good to really have a good idea of how something quite alien will sound before hearing it.) Lastly, orchestrating or arranging other people's music is a great exercise too, and one that I haven't done for far too long.
posted by ob at 11:15 AM on March 28, 2008

This is a cool question. I work in political consulting, and sometimes I enjoy my "trip to the gym" more than I enjoy my actual job. This is because my "gym" is just reading political blogs, something I have done obsessively and out of fun/personal interest since before I started a career in politics.

It is important to have a breadth of knowledge to do my job well, but it is also important to LOOK like I have a breadth of knowledge (of course I try to do both) or otherwise no one will listen to me.

Also, a good chunk of my job is to provide daily advice and pep talks to candidates and campaign managers who both have very difficult jobs. My wife is currently completing a graduate program that can be stressful and daunting. I find that helping her to focus on the stuff that matters and to have confidence in her ability to complete her task helps me immensely when I am talking to clients. So I guess that telling my wife "everything will be cool, you are smart and deserve a good grade" is like going to the gym in terms of my ability to tell candidates "everything will be cool, you are well-qualified and deserve to win."

I also like to make up negative ads about my friends in my head.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:38 AM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a copy editor. I like to read some technical manuals (Garner's Modern American Usage, Chicago Manual of Style) and read common questions and answers about grammar and usage. Reading first editions is how I hone my skills lately; there are so many errors in books these days (and even on the front page of the New York Times) that I sometimes get frustrated reading for pleasure. Tough luck; at least it's giving my editor-mind a workout. Other than that, it's just reading, reading, reading. The more you see, the more you have to compare tricky things to.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I manage a supported living service for people with developmental/intellectual/learning disabilities, and for me it's spending time with the service users, so agreeing with the other managers who have said it's actually doing the work. Not just spending time with them as I do as part of my job anyway, which is usually when bad things happen (adult and child protection meetings, complaints, mediation between friends, lovers, families and flatmates, specialist behavioural support etc etc) but either working a support shift or just spending time socially. I get really energised by planning and attending our scheme meetings - all staff, all service users and senior management (I work for the govt) - and by things like discos and social events. I recently authorised the purchase of a football kit for our social football team and had 8 phone calls today thanking me and asking me to come to their next kick-around, and I'm attending a play next week written by and starring some our service users in a commercial theatre, for money; it's this stuff that makes me feel that I've worked out and the world is damn grand. Also attending conferences and national organisation meetings - sharing good work, discussing problems and getting new ideas.
posted by goo at 1:27 PM on March 28, 2008

Ministers are encouraged to have a quiet place where they can "drop out" - no telephones or other form of communications. This facilitates meditation and plenty of prayer. I go fishing.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:36 PM on March 28, 2008

I'm a floor nurse at a hospital.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of tasks for which there is no gym. Simulators, mentioned above, suck, and aren't very available. You practice starting IV lines and urinary catheters by making a mess of it on real people. Sorry folks. Thanks for your patience.

There's a lot of reading to be done outside of work to keep up on diseases, treatments, what have you. It's good to know that stuff as a nurse, but it's not really essential. It's like music theory.

I think the closest analogue to the gym in nursing is talking to people about their experiences with diseases. I'm expected to be a generalist, which means that anybody that's suffered through a disease is likely to know more than I do about that particular disease-- or at least, about how it affected them. I think it's really important to give patients an idea of what to expect-- I remember speaking to an 18 year old kid who was going to have to live with a colostomy bag for half a year or more, as an example-- and there's no way to learn about that stuff without just talking to a lot of people. It's not information that's in the journals.

So everytime somebody mentions a serious illness to me, I ask them about how they dealt with it, what their experiences with professionals were, how the medications affected them, how it could have been easier for them. (There was an awesome thread on epilepsy here on MF that was really useful to me, people in lots of different roles speaking about it, without the noise that typically permeates that kind of discussion.)
posted by nathan v at 1:49 PM on March 28, 2008

I'm a film maker. For directing, coaching my actor wife for auditions is great practice. I can get focused on a few scenes and one character, and help her figure out an approach to take for the audition. Sometimes we'll work on a scene for a couple of days, even.

Doing little Photoshop things is good for me to keep warmed up for doing motion graphics and special effects shots.

Plus, watching movies, even looking at them frame by frame, is great just to see how other people do it.

Shooting still pictures or home movies are also not a bad way to stay sharp as far as shooting/composition, etc. go.
posted by MythMaker at 3:13 PM on March 28, 2008

For teaching, I think the "going to the gym" routine is actually staying in your classroom. I find the less time you spend in it, the rustier you get in your practice. For me personally, no amount of professional development or junket improved my abilities in the classroom.

I've wanted to go back to uni for a while to do my masters in literature, so maybe that would be the best equivalent, knowledge-wise. Nice to discuss lit with people who know more than you for a change!
posted by chronic sublime at 4:09 PM on March 28, 2008

I'm an operations consultant for a large telecom company. My job basically involves identifying problems with our processes, systems, people, etc... then planning and implementing solutions to those problems.

I guess my "going to the gym" is experiencing the problems firsthand via ride-alongs with sales reps or customer visits. This helps me understand how various problems impact our sales and support personnel and helps me understand how they will react to various solutions.

And in all seriousness, going to the gym. My job requires drilling down to obscene levels of detail on problems to break them down and find out where they break. It's very mentally exhausting and a good workout always helps clear my mind for more.
posted by Octoparrot at 8:27 PM on March 28, 2008

First, I look at going to the gym or woodshedding different from practicing. Sort of the difference between when a baseball player goes to the gym to lift weights versus when he goes to the batting cage to practice his specific skill set. One is building up the muscles but not practicing your craft, the other is practicing technique as you intend to use it in your game.

Having said that, as a stock trader, the way to practice is to do back testing on trading theories or to use a simulator on live data that enters your "trade" and tracks a P&L. The problem with that is that you never get the same feeling in your stomach when you are losing as you do when your real money is on the line. You react differently (more emotionally) or your risk profile changes when it is play money versus the real thing.

As for actual woodshedding, I can only come up with my willingness (desire?) to negotiate anything with anybody any time. I actually like going to the car dealership. I have done so on several of my relatives behalf. I have been known to negotiate with my then 4 year old over nap time versus cartoon time which my wife pointed out is "non-negotiable" "The boy must sleep. Tell him. NOW."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:01 PM on March 28, 2008

EFL/ESL instructor here. I go to workshops at conferences, frequently "talk shop" with other teachers, and read new research. The most useful of all, though, is to be constantly studying a foreign language myself.

I find that teachers who don't get out of the classroom or don't get out of their own heads periodically tend to burn out, or start to go downhill and fail to notice it.
posted by wintersweet at 10:30 PM on March 28, 2008

Another EFL teacher in a foreign country. My "going to the gym" has two parts.

The first is reading Metafilter. It's very true that if you start to lose vocabulary and even fluency if you aren't stretching yourself in the language regularly. Metafilter helps keep my English fluency at a good level. You guys make me break out the dictionary more than I care to admit.

The second is learning a second language myself. During my classes, I'm constantly reevaluating what works and what doesn't, what I find annoying, what really seems to engage or confuse the other students. Also, I have a good friend who is a Spanish as a second language teacher. We spend hours discussing the differences in grammar between our languages. But we do it in Spanish, which is great practice for me. I don't speak Spanish well at all, so making myself distill an explanation down into incredibly simple terms helps me communicate the nuances to my students.
posted by mosessis at 11:22 PM on March 28, 2008

Pataphysicist here.

My gym is MetaFilter. It gives me the best possible workout in the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:47 AM on March 29, 2008

I'm a lawyer.

We are required to take continuing legal education courses to keep our law licenses active.

There are also week-long seminars taught by big-name lawyers, for attorneys who have already been practicing for some time, that provide intensive trial practice -- mock trials. These programs allow you to try new things and learn new skills without experimenting on real live clients. For example, there's one that focuses exclusively on honing your storytelling skills for juries.
posted by jayder at 10:16 AM on March 29, 2008

I'm an old-school web generalist -- a combination web designer, web developer, web producer, web strategist. In other words, my organization can't afford four people, so they have me.

I read. Lots. Mostly blogs (praise Jeebus for RSS), but also the latest web books.

My Twitter account is loaded down with other geeks I can throw ideas off of.

For design and development, I go out looking for inspiration. If there's some idea in a website I like, I'll try to reverse-engineer the code or use Firebug to pick through the CSS.

And the odd freelance project also keeps me in practice. I just did one where the client just dropped cash on a new web design but the designer didn't think to check it in IE6. That was a good exercise in remembering all those bugs.

I've learned you just have to keep absorbing web information and never stop at it; in a way, it's a bit like being a lawyer or a reference librarian -- you're filing facts away so you can rapidly recall precedent or where a fact might be located. This week someone said in a meeting, "The director wishes the website had an interactive map with pushpins showing where we're doing work, but all I have is this Excel spreadsheet...." And immediately my brain went "Google Maps + JSON." And then I Googled the blog post where I'd seen a POC months ago. That's what being a web generalist is about -- knowing how to impress people in meetings with facts you've filed away.
posted by dw at 11:43 AM on March 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a geologist. When I'm out on a bushwalk I look at outcrops and try to make a quick mental description of them- what rock, how it was formed, if it's been uplifted or deformed or faulted at all. Then I try to put it in the bigger picture of Australia, and try to think whether it would have been deposited during Gonwana forming, or rifting, or during a particular orogeny.

Also, when someone has a granite kitchen top, I try to name the minerals, and see what their shape/arrangement tells me about the magma chamber they formed in.
posted by twirlypen at 5:34 PM on March 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I teach writing and SAT prep, and I read a lot and take many, many practice SATs every year.

I'm also an improvising musician, and I play improvised music very frequently.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:48 PM on March 29, 2008

I'm a sysadmin. My wife asks me "why do you work all day at the office, then come home and do the same thing at home?"

I try to explain, "When I'm at work, it's work. When I'm doing it at home, it's playing around, you might say practicing, but if I break something at home I don't have to stay up all night fixing it with people screaming at me on the phone. It's not work, it's play" - but yet it could be considered "going to the gym" in a sense. Before I even think about putting something into a test environment at work, I'm likely to play with it on my systems at home first to see if it's worth spending "real job" time on.
posted by mrbill at 2:19 AM on March 30, 2008

I'm a quality systems auditor and we get together regularly to discuss decisions we have made and what evidence we used to make that determination, mainly to foster consistency in our decisions. We also moderate "edge case" decisions by bringing material back to the office to moderate with other auditors.

Outside the office (which I think is what you were really asking). I am on the board of an industry/community organisation involved in my industry and a member of another. I attend meetings, read newsletters etc. I live a very boring life.
posted by dg at 6:15 AM on March 30, 2008

Chefs and cooks 'woodshed' in a couple of predictable ways:

-eating at other restaurants/traveling
-cooking new things/trying out new techniques at home (or if you're high enough on the food chain, at work, but not during service)

and a couple of ways that might not be obvious:
-talking to other cooks/chefs. After a while, a good cook is able to conceptualize dishes in their mind, which can be discussed with accuracy and nuance that is sometimes really really uncanny.

-prep shifts/mis en place. Most line cooks have some sort of ritual they do while prepping their station that warms them up for the night of service. Prep jobs are the most rudimentary operations in a kitchen, not unlike practicing your scales. Nothing reminds you of your knife skills better than turning 25 lbs of shallots into brunoise or deboning a few hundred chickens.
posted by markovitch at 8:55 AM on April 1, 2008

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