Little and often: automating my study strategy

In a previous post, I talked about how I keep learning languages through the power of habit, often even when severely depressed or anxious. “Little and often,” I said, and today I want to talk about how I get those bits and pieces of language study into my day.

I admire people who can do study routines like the one in this post (I certainly don’t get that long of a lunch break!). However, as noted in there, most people won’t be able to do that and certainly not every day.

I can’t, probably not even on a really good day. On a really bad day, I need the power of habits and automation (and my smartphone) to really get anything done at all.

This doesn’t make me a bad person or a weak person or a person not committed to languages. It makes me someone struggling under various conditions and constraints and responding to them as I’m able. I refuse to feel guilty.

So what does my routine look like? Starting off my day, I use Duolingo while eating breakfast. I don’t often have time to do very much, just a few minutes, but it’s there: part of my morning is learning French and German.

When I walk to the tube, I listen to podcasts: usually Coffee Break German, Slow German, or Coffee Break French (I can recommend all of these, and I’d love if you told me what you’re listening to yourself). It’s only about 15 minutes, but it serves me well. Listening to the same episodes repeatedly helps me absorb vocabulary and grammar too — I may not process it well the first time (if I’m crossing a street or smiling at someone’s dog at a particular moment, my focus may waver!), and reinforcement is a good thing anyway.

During my train ride, I take out my ereader — I’m currently reading Harry Potter in French (I’m on book 3!). Sometimes I just read a few pages, especially if I don’t get a seat. I might then review my Anki flashcards, or if I’m having a bad morning, I might just close my eyes and work on collecting myself instead.

I get several news emails daily, both morning and afternoon, in French and German (currently, from Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération, Le Monde, and Le Libre).

This means I don’t have to think about whether or not to go to, say, Ouest-France’s website to read an article (something I’d often intended to do, but couldn’t do consistently): the news just shows up in my inbox. If I don’t have a lot of time or energy (usually when I’m at work!), I can at least skim the headlines & read the two or three summary sentences under each one. When I can, I click on the ones that interest me to take a look at the whole article. Some days, some articles, I try to read the whole thing. Sometimes I only look at the first few paragraphs. Some days, I skim fleetingly only. I prefer to read on the bigger screen of a monitor, but I can also read on my phone, which helps (as does wifi on the tube!).

Why don’t I save the emails for later? Because I’m making French and German part of my life: if I don’t read these now, something else will come along later that I might have time or focus to read. I don’t want to pile up a huge archive of outdated news that, chances are, I’ll never read and will only feel increasingly bad about. As someone dealing with mental illness, I’m already prone to guilt and feeling overwhelmed: why sap my language-learning energy further?

When I do have time, I don’t read every article anyway. Why? Because not all of them interest me. And I do more languages when I can have fun with them.

I also keep up with a lot of blogs, including ones in my target languages, via RSS feeds — I use Feedly. Again, I don’t read every word of every blog post. I read what I can: what I have time and energy for, what catches my eye, what feels interesting or useful or relevant.

I’d definitely recommend finding blogs on your topics of interest in the languages you’re studying, if you haven’t already. Though a caveat to those struggling with mental illness: you might want to stick to blogs with subjects that aren’t likely to pull your mood down. For example, I read lots of vegan blogs in German, mainly cooking blogs or ones that review restaurants, cookbooks, etc. The shorter, more condensed text of a recipe is easier to parse — especially if I’m reading clandestinely at work — and beautiful food photography lifts my spirits! I know there are more theoretical vegan blogs out there that talk about animal exploitation, sometimes in graphic terms. But I also know that, in addition to this probably being too challenging for my German at this point, sometimes my state of mind is too fragile for that. I do read those kinds of things occasionally, but I’m less likely to put them automatically in front of me via subscribing to those blogs.

I’ve also finally dipped my toe into Instagram. Several friends have recommended casual photography, and the moments of mindfulness that requires, as a tool in my mental health arsenal. That’s proving true for me so far! But I’ve also followed lots of German vegan food bloggers. Not only do they post delicious-looking photos, they often leave short comments underneath in German: more small moments for me to practice my reading comprehension! (If anyone reading this knows of any German yoga Instagrammers that would be similarly useful, please do let me know!)

There are lots of other things I do — conversation exchange, classes, tutoring sessions, watching a TV series or listening to the radio — but the items above form the bones of my daily language study habits. I recognize that, for some, this may seem a pathetic effort, but it works for me.

When I’m feeling really ill (either physically or mentally), this all has to be scaled down. In a future post, I’ll talk about what my daily language learning routine looks like when I’m in a downswing, and how I can keep studying sometimes even when I can’t do anything but hide on the couch under a blanket for the whole weekend.

In the meantime, tell me about your study routines! How do you build opportunities for languages into your day?



  1. I enjoyed this article lots and can’t BELIEVE you’d call such a dedicated routine pathetic. It’s clear you’re really committed to learning languages and so interesting to see what you get up to.

    I love how you are getting into a topic you love in your foreign language. That’s a super important thing to be doing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Kerstin — that’s really good to hear! Eventually I’ll get around to posting about what I do when I’m in a terrible state, haha — it’s not nearly as impressive (though I guess the main thing is that there still *is* a routine, even when I feel awful).


  2. Like Kerstin I think your routine is awesome. It’s the kind of routine I can aspire to (unlike Olly’s which is amazing but I’m never really going to reach that). Thank you for sharing it and I look forward to hearing what you do on the days where you struggle. I find I go for quick wins for the sense of achievement, like learning vocab through a video lesson.


    1. Aw, thank you so much! I find this so reassuring to hear — I feel like most people who post their language-learning regimes are *so intense*; it’s easy for me to wonder if I’m just not doing enough or doing something wrong. Your point about quick wins is a really good one! Motivation is so important and sometimes we just need that little quick sense of accomplishment.


  3. i liked the article and it will help me in my language studies (japanese) when i incorporate some of your routines myself. thanks.


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