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Pain au Chocolat, Jerry Seinfeld, and Forming Good Habits Posted by on May 4, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Le Éxerçïse

When you uproot and move somewhere else, there’s always upheaval in your daily life. Your routines are shattered by change, your habits are broken or turned upside-down, and you may even find yourself falling into bad habits. Creatures of habit are we, and that is the key to success in any endeavor—but especially language learning. Forming good habits is our only defense against the forces of change.

In 2011 I left everything in the USA behind and moved to France, where I took the upheaval and change as an opportunity to start fresh and create brand-new habits. Gone were the dry, smoggy skies of Los Angeles, replaced by temperate weather and predictable seasons which gave fruit to fresh food and clean air, so I began jogging, which in LA always felt like an act of almost poetic futility. True, as the comic above points out, I almost always jogged straight to the pâtisserie for some fresh pain au chocolat, but the point is that I did it every morning. Eventually, as with all habits, good and bad, it just became a way of life.

Forming good habits in language learning is essential, because the truth of the matter is, it takes work. There are plenty of bad habits, and they’re easy to form—sloppy grammar, poor pronunciation, reluctance to speak. Yes, there is certainly room for procrastination, but everything in moderation! You know which habits are good, whether you personally adhere to them or not—routine vocabulary drills, scheduled time with tandem partners, constantly reaching out to find new conversation partners. Easy enough. But if the bad habits are so easy to form, how do you form the good ones?

My favorite habit trick (life hack? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?) comes from Jerry Seinfeld, of all people. When he was first starting out as a stand up comedian, he knew the only way he was going to get any good at writing jokes was if he wrote thousands of them. So he gave himself the goal of writing a hundred or so jokes per day, and every day on which he accomplished this goal, he’d take a big, fat red marker and strike through the day on a wall calendar with a big, fat red X. The objective then is simple: don’t break the chain. After a few weeks you’ve got a pretty long chain, and suddenly you really don’t want to skip a day. I did this for my own writing and now I don’t even need the calendar anymore—the habit has burrowed itself into my skull like a helpful termite. Any day I don’t fulfill my routine, I get nervous and cranky. I get productivity withdrawal.

The Seinfeld technique can apply to anything. Think about what areas of your language learning you need to work on, but just can’t find the time to do it. Well, surely you can find 15 minutes, can’t you? Now put up your calendar, prepare your fat red marker, and do your 15 minutes. Try that for a week and I promise you, you’ll see results. You’ll be motivated, and you’ll accomplish more than you ever would by sitting around wishing you were more productive.

What about you? What kinds of language habit techniques do you have to share with the rest of us?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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