My entire experience with language learning has led me to one, important conclusion about the big question of setting goals and making progress.
What matters is not what we study, it's how we study.
I use one very simple but powerful approach to making progress and getting s*** done, which I want to share with you in this article.
My hope is that it will change the way you study for good.
Everyone worries about things like remembering a difficult grammar point, learning enough vocabulary, or memorising the 1,981 kanji supposedly in daily use in Japan.
But in the rush to get stuff learnt, what gets forgotten is how we are actually going about doing it.
The fact is, if you get your time and routine under control, the language learning will ultimately take care of itself.
Or to look at it from another angle: by studying in an unproductive way (i.e. flitting from thing to thing, taking days off at a time, not having a plan-of-attack), it really doesn't matter what you're trying to learn – your study habits will stop it from happening.
So what I think you need to remember is this: learn to control your time and routine, and then start worrying about the language.
Why Setting Goals Doesn't Work
Traditional goal-setting in language learning would have you focus on the product.
- I will reach B1 level by November
- I will memorise 1,981 Japanese kanji over the next 3 months
- I will learn 30 words a day
That's all very well, and I love the ambition there, but… and be honest now… if you set a goal like this, can you really see yourself reaching it?
Look, the harsh reality is that most of us get incredibly excited about the goals that we set, but are woefully inadequate at following through.
Says Anna Salamon, on Sebastian Marshall's blog:
“[We] mostly just do things. We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal. We do any number of things. But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.”
Add to this the fact that the intangibility of a language makes it very difficult to break down into discrete parts, and you're faced with a rather unfortunate picture…
Traditional goal-setting in language learning simply isn't gong to work for 99% of people.
Hell, it doesn't even work for me, who's been through the language learning process many times, and should know what to expect.
It just doesn't. I'm not built for it.
Accepting this can be liberating, though.
I found an alternative approach.
A New Basis For Action
If traditional goal setting focuses you on the product, my approach focuses on the process.
Let me explain.
- I know that if I set lofty language-learning goals, achieving them will probably be complex.
- I know that if achieving them is complex, I probably won't stick to any routine designed to get me there.
- I know that if I won't stick to the routine, there's no point in starting in the first place.
So, really have to adjust course.
Here's what I know:
- I still need to do a lot of work if I'm to improve at my language.
- I believe that “done is better than perfect.“
- Therefore, it's more productive for me to devote my all my energy to one things that I enjoy and know I can do, than ten well-crafted steps to a lofty goal that I “should” be doing…but won't.
From this reasoning were born “Sprints”.
Sprints – A Solution To Goal-Setting
I originally wrote about Sprints in this post on fi3m.com, but it's time to set out the stall on IWTYAL too.
A “Sprint” is when you devote a set period of time to doing one thing, and one thing only, to completion. The idea is to put everything else aside and get this one thing done.
Picture a small software company racing to launch a new piece of software. The entire team comes together and works flat out for 2 months on that one product until it's ready to show to the world.
Other projects might suffer for a while, but – and here's the key thing – the job gets done.
This (with minor tweaks) is my approach to getting s*** done in language learning.
I choose one substantial activity that I enjoy and that I know is beneficial to me.
I then focus all my available time on that activity, and little else, for a set period (usually around 3 weeks). I go as deep as I can, learn as much as possible from it, and exploit it for all it's worth.
I've found 3 weeks to be an ideal time for me. Much longer and I get bored. Much shorter and the full benefits of the intense work may fail to materialise.
I don't have to worry about how to study each day, I don't jump from book to book, I don' go searching on blogs for the best method (!)… I have this one, simple focus, and I go all out.
What Can I Do In A Sprint?
Everyday, commit to…
- Studying 2 pages of your textbook
- Listening to a new dialogue for 15 minutes, and following along with the text at the same time
- Watching one episode of your favourite TV drama
- Having a 15-minute Skype conversation with a tutor
- Writing a diary entry in your target language before bed and have it corrected on lang-8.com.
How Long Should My Sprints Be Everyday?
The biggest danger, like with traditional goal-setting, is that you don't actually do what you're supposed to. Therefore, and there is support for this across the extensive literature on motivation, start so infinitesimally small that you can't possibly fail.
I'm talking 5-minute goals.
5-minute goals work because you're never so tired that you can't do a quick 5-minutes to achieve your goal for the day. But they also have the key effect of getting you started, and you'll usually do far more than the 5-minutes. Starting the habit, which may take 1-2 weeks to take hold, is the hard part, so make it easy to do.
What If I Choose The Wrong Thing To Do On My Sprint?
Who cares? You will benefit from it, by virtue of the fact that you're doing it intensively. If it turns out not to be all that good, you've learnt something about how you learn. (If it truly is an awful thing to be doing, you'll probably stop anyway.)
Won't I Be Neglecting Other Parts Of My Learning During That Time?
Look, the alternative, as I said earlier, is not doing anything at all because you tried to bite off more than you can chew.
Done is better than perfect.
There's a huge benefit to doing ONE THING intensively, instead of many things half-heartedly.
Can I Mix Other Things In With My Sprint?
Well, yes. But not at the start. The whole reason you're doing the sprint in the first place is to actually get s*** done (rather than just fizzle out), so why don't you just try out one thing first, get it working, and then add something else in when you're comfortable.
A Note On Process Over Product
Remember that the underlying concept to Sprints is focusing on process. So, don't fall into the trap of setting product-based goals by mistake.
For example, rather than saying:
- I will learn 10 new words today (product)
- I will spend 10 minutes memorising vocabulary with my spaced-repetition software (process)
Rather than saying:
- I will understand everything in this chapter by the end of the week
- I will read this chapter through twice each night, checking key words in the dictionary
You can control process, but you can't control product.
It's small, but it's key.
With process you can't fail, but with product you can always fail to meet your goals.
Go Out And Make It Happen
This discussion is really about what you should be doing everyday to make progress in your learning.
I think it's crucial to do things that are achievable, and to do things that you will actually enjoy.
Changing my mindset and discovering this method that works for me has helped me in all kinds of ways. I make more consistent progress and I'm happier doing it.
What more could you wish for? 🙂
It's a long road, and I want you to enjoy the process.
Break a leg!