For a lot of people, language study feels like this: going into a classroom for a few hours once a week, fumbling around to remember what you learned last week, & then going home and leaving that language alone until you realize class is tomorrow and you still haven’t done your homework. This attitude can be reinforced by peer pressure in school: after all, why would you want to do extra work for class that you didn’t have to do? That would make you a nerd, a loser, an asskisser, right?
It’s a shift to move from that clunky, slow, and not very effective method to integrating your new language into your life every day. It takes effort. But it can be very rewarding! And importantly, for me, making “little and often” a study strategy is more adaptable to fluctuating levels of energy, willpower, and focus brought on by long-term mental illness.
Habits can be really helpful for me — when anxiety clouds my thinking so much that decision-making seems impossible, auto-pilot gets me through the day. I know that eating poorly and irregularly makes me feel worse — and I know that it’s also something I’m very prone to letting slide when I don’t feel well. Fortunately, at this point I could probably put together a bowl of overnight oats in my sleep, which sorts out breakfast, at least (however, I do keep a box of muesli around for the days when even that seems unattainable).
Making language study as automatic as possible also means that I’m more likely to get at least a little done no matter how lousy I feel. Studying distracts me from the noise in my brain, and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards sometimes helps break the low mood cycle. Or at least gives it a kick.
How do you build a new habit? Productivity bloggers seem even more numerous than language-learning bloggers. Advice on starting new habits is anything but scarce. Sometimes it’s just a matter of trawling around until you find something that clicks with your brain. I want to be very clear that what works for me may not work for other people — nothing I talk about here is a panacea!
My number one tool for this right now is Lift, where you can set yourself habits (some of mine: daily gratitude list; doing yoga; learning French or German, of course!), check them off on the website or the iPhone/Android apps, and receive — and give! — support from other users via props or comments. It’s been pretty motivating for me to build up long streaks — nearly 300 days and counting for a few habits! — and the fact that I can get reminders sent to my inbox helps, as does the encouragement from others. (I do find some people there have super-strict attitudes towards productivity and a relentless “mind over matter” philosophy, but for the most part I’m lucky to have encountered more realistic, kind, and compassionate people.)
Here are a few other links I’ve found useful:
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits, from Leo Babauta at Zen Habits. I appreciate Leo talking about starting small, to make habits more sustainable, and that lots of bits of time will add up to big results. Learning a language isn’t like cleaning out your garage, where you can leave it for a week and pick up pretty much where you left off. You need repeated use in order to make things stick. Cramming for four hours before an exam didn’t work in high school, and it won’t work for language acquisition now.
And crucially, I also like what Leo says about dealing with disruptions to routine (see also Live Like a Hydra by Buster Benson). No matter how strong-minded you are & how disciplined, there will be days when the train is delayed and you get home too late to study or you have to suddenly stay very late at work or someone in your family might be ill, or you yourself. Life happens, you know?
For me, getting habits in place is comparatively easy — it’s when I break them that I stumble. I had nearly a 2-year streak on 750 Words, and then one weekend my cat had just died and I had a bad cold and I fell asleep on the couch and didn’t do my words before midnight. And though I made a few attempts, I was never able to get back into using the site from there. I definitely need to work on my resilience! If others have tips for getting back on the wagon especially, I’d love to hear them.
In my next post, I’ll give some specifics on how I use habits and a “little and often” philosophy to keep language-learning as part of my daily life, even through bad patches of mental health.
What study habits do you have? How have you incorporated them into your life? Are there habit strategies you find useful — or useless?