“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
We’ve all heard about the importance of good habits, right? We sort of know it’s something we should be developing, working on, perhaps thinking about here and then… But we somehow forget about it, or we promise ourselves to start working on it… tomorrow. The only problem is that, well, tomorrow never comes, does it?
Why do I need to develop good habits?
Very simply speaking, developing habits is a great way of achieving a long-term goal.
Short bursts of extreme motivation and productivity can drain your batteries, after which you’ll have to take a break and relax. We’re all super excited when we start learning a new language. We buy every book we can get our hands on and dream about traveling the country that speaks the target language. Most of us have this initial motivation boost. The problem is that when this flow of motivation comes to a stop, and the tide reverses, we’re in for some disappointment.
How do we stave off this disappointment? Develop good, sustainable habits.
How can I develop good habits to fuel my language studies?
- Form goals: Knowing what you want to achieve is crucial to developing successful, good habits. A common practice in business development is to set “S.M.A.R.T.” goals. A SMART goal is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Achieving “fluency” is vague and hardly measurable. Instead, a better goal would be “Study basic greetings and vocabulary every morning, at 10am, for 30 minutes, until I can have an everyday conversation with native speakers.” Once you have such a specific goal, developing habits and getting into a routine will be much easier and might even come naturally.
- Physically assign a place for studying: It may help you to associate a certain room or place with your language. Benny Lewis, from Fluent In 3 Months, keeps a room in his home as an Arabic-only room, saying “It’s a small step, but very helpful to physically assign a place to help us compartmentalize the language mentally.” Don’t limit yourself to a room (not all of us might have the luxury of having an extra room only for study purposes). It can be the subway/bus, the library, the park, or when going to a café (my personal favorite). However, make sure to choose a place that will allow you to focus and avoid major distractions.
- Pace yourself: Once you have a place to study, you need to decide how much time to put into studying. Go slowly, especially in the early stages of learning a language. I’d suggest studying no more than 30 minutes a day to avoid burning yourself out. Figure out what pace works for you, and stick with it. Soon studying in 30 minute chunks will become second nature.
- Make use of dead time: There may be days when you just don’t have 30 minutes to study. To continue your habit, look for periods of “dead time” in your day and take advantage of them. Last year, while living in Korea, I spent about 25 minutes commuting to and from work. Instead of staring into the air, I got into the habit of listening to Korean podcasts. Throughout my time in Korea, there were periods of a few weeks or months when I just did not feel like studying. Fortunately, by that time my habit of listening to podcasts on the subway was ingrained and required no effort, so I still managed to engage with the language daily, which helped me retain and improve my language skills.
- Take on a 30-day challenge: Commit to building a small positive habit when learning a language and do it every day for 30 days. After, either stick with it or change to another habit. Examples could include simple changes like reading the news in your target language instead of your native language or listening to podcasts while commuting/walking/shopping. Needsome motivation? Watch Matt Cutts’ short and funny TED Talk about his 30-day challenges.
- Improve your self-control: You can train yourself to have better self-control and stop procrastinating. Hedy Kober, a psychologist and cognitive-neuroscientist at Yale University, uses the metaphor of self-control as a mental muscle that can be trained and reinforced with exercises. Remind yourself of all the negative consequences that your loss of self-control might incur. If you start procrastinating on your studies of a foreign language and you deviate from your habits, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of all the beautiful opportunities you will miss by not speaking the language fluently in X amount of time. Write down a list so you have a physical reminder that you can refer to every time you falter.
- Know yourself: We all learn differently. Get to know your learning style by trying different approaches to language learning. Books, grammar, online programs, movies, music, language exchange partners, the list is endless. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. You wouldn’t want to build a routine around something that’s not meant for you, right? Get into the habit of trying different approaches, especially at different stages of your learning journey, and you’ll most likely save yourself a lot of frustration and avoid getting stuck in a rut.
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