Jesse Smith on Twitter asked me recently about how to get back into language-learning after a break. We talked a bit about shame and how it can make restarting a habit even more difficult. He suggested I might write a post about this topic (thank you! People, I love getting suggestions for posts: I might not write all of them, and it might not be for a long time even when I do, but I do like it!).
I am much, much better at keeping habits going than starting them again when they falter. For example, I used to have nearly a two-year streak on 750 Words. Then (I think I’ve talked about this here before) I had a bad weekend where my cat had just died and I had a cold and fell asleep on the couch and woke up having missed a day. It was years before I could get back into writing on the site regularly again.
When this sort of thing happens, I need to forgive myself for being human (even though the chorus in my head may be screaming about how weak or stupid I am, and how predictable it is that I screwed up again). The most important thing about stopping a habit is starting it up again — and believing that you can do so. Again and again and again.
That’s all well and good to say, but then it can be paralyzing to think about what I should do to get started once more. I try to remember that it’s better to do something good enough rather than agonize about what the “best” thing to do is.
And then I try to start small. Very small. Leo Babauta, James Clear, and many others have said to make a habit so small you can’t fail. I remember this from the self-help author SARK (whom I used to love as a teenager, but now I mostly find really twee). She had a concept of micromovements (PDF). Break things down to the smallest step and start with that. Just that.
Are you cringing thinking about how behind you are with Anki? Maybe your goal could be to open up Anki on your computer one day. Later on, you might feel like poking at the cards on there. But if not, hey, you’ve met your goal! Maybe tomorrow your goal could be to do one flashcard. Just one. You can do just one, right? And maybe then, having done that, you’ll feel like doing more. Maybe you won’t feel like it. But you’ll have done one card. Which is something. And infinitely better than nothing. One thing can lead to another; one flashcard can lead to another and to another and to another.
Or maybe put a video on in your target language. Don’t make yourself any promises about watching it. Just put it on. Maybe you’ll spend most of the time in the kitchen making a cup of tea, with the video just barely audible from there. Maybe you’ll come in and watch the whole thing. Maybe you’ll just watch two minutes. As long as you put a video on, though, you’ve met your goal. Hooray!
After a habit break, we need to warm up our muscles, so to speak. We also need to learn to trust ourselves again, to believe that we can do things, that it’s okay to not do things and then go back to doing them again. Starting with a tiny habit, and then gradually increasing from there, is one way to do this.
What do you do when you’ve not studied for weeks? How do you step back into the swing of things (give us your best tips!)? How does it feel for you? Do you struggle most with shame, or fear, or doubt? What’s the tiniest step you could take today in order to get back into a language project you’ve let lie for a while? How do you give yourself permission to try things again?