Why language-learning habits (mostly) work when I’m depressed

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?



  1. I think I read something, maybe in “The Power of Habit,” about how habits are easier to make if you can fit them into a defined space in your life — like one of the reasons it’s so hard to quit smoking or drinking, aside from the physical addiction, is that you get that automatic feeling of “I just got home from work, time to have a drink” or “I just got up in the morning, time to smoke.”

    For me, if I’m on the bus it’s time to read (either English or another language — I’m trying to read in Chinese for at least one bus ride a day), but that can get derailed if what I’m reading is heavy and bulky, or if I can’t find a seat on the bus, or even if what I’m reading is fussy enough that I have to read it with dictionary in hand.

    I think the other thing that’s worked for me, habit-wise, is having a very simple study plan. It’s easy to freeze up and do nothing when you’re faced with a lot of options and when I’m in a low mood period it helps to feel like I don’t have to think, I just have to pick up the book I’m reading and keep reading it, watch the next episode of the drama I’m watching, do whatever flashcards Skritter throws at me. And then I can use periods when I have more energy to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my plans.

    Getting back on the wagon is the hardest thing! I’ve gone through some really long fallow periods with language study, and I think the thing that helped to bring me back was finding something in the language that delighted or challenged or inspired me… Jin Yong is a martial arts novelist whose novels are way, way, way above my head, but one day I sat down and said to myself “Let’s see how much of this book I can plow my way through with a dictionary” and I read half a page and then I started getting serious about Chinese again. Sometimes it takes something to break you out of the daily grind of language learning and give you something great to aim for.


    1. Ooh yes, I know what you mean about making things automatic — & yeah, I get so annoyed when the tube is crowded enough that I don’t get a seat, because it gets too crowded to read Harry Potter in French on my Kindle…

      Also I definitely hear you on simple study plans. Sometimes I get frozen thinking about all the different study materials/techniques/native materials I could be imbibing. I need to set up more stuff when I’m feeling okay so that when I’m not, it’s automatic. It’s just… finding the focus/energy/time when one actually feels okay…

      Go you for starting Chinese again, especially by starting a novel! (To me that feels like a really intimidating way to dive back in — I think saying “Oh I guess I’ll log into Duolingo” is more my speed, haha.)


  2. Great first post, congrats! I’m also a Lift user and it’s keeping me on track when my attention wonders, when I get overwhelm and when I lose the positivity. One of my weekly check-ins is “Note last week’s biggest achievement”, with a typed note. The library that’s building up is making me a bit happy right now.

    There is something I wanted to share with you by the way…I have a blog at kersylearns.wordpress.com which is a lot more vulnerable than Fluent, and might be a place to find more familiar thoughts and a view to how non-successful I feel all the time.


    1. Thanks for this comment! I agree, Lift can be really great to focus with. Your habit about noting the week’s biggest achievement sounds like a great one — my gratitude list is a good habit, but it’s often things that are external, as opposed to something I’ve done myself… & feeling useless/hopeless/inept is definitely a big feature of my depression/anxiety.

      I will check out your other blog & stick it in my RSS feed reader — thank you for the link, & for talking about this stuff! Sometimes it really feels… well, suffocating, how much people *don’t* talk about it (in general, but also when looking around the language-learning blogosphere).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s