Tiny steps and trusting ourselves after a habit break

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?

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5 comments

  1. I have a three months break in between my university years and I just find it hard to keep a structured routine. So I decided that a little bit every day is better than nothing. This also helps with the guilt, learning to forgive yourself and keep moving is really vital as we are human, there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, I’ve done Japanese for so long that it has stuck and it’s easier to pick up again with self study. Chinese on the other hand, I’m in my second year and because all five hours for that class are on one day (I really don’t like it, it’s very tiring by the end). I’ve had to do a little every day to keep in the swing of things, breaking things down into smaller chunks is nicer (five, five more?). So the little things I think would be good would be to do something from each of the four components of language learning, for example: write out one character five times (five more?), practice the tones for one sound (what about the different characters for each sound?), have a Chinese song in my playlist, read one line from this weeks text (another line?). Giving myself permission has been hard, feeling that I’m selfish etc., but the thing is, I love this – learning languages, it’s not hurting anyone (but myself if I make that so) so the only thing standing in the way is myself.
    Pardon for the long comment! I might do a response post actually, this has gotten me thinking 🙂

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    1. Hi Hannah, no apologies necessary, this was a great comment! I know what you mean about tiny steps & just doing a bit & then saying, oh, how about a bit more? Writing papers for uni, sometimes I would tell myself, okay, just keep working for 5 more songs on iTunes (& then hope 5 really long songs weren’t coming up…). & I agree, it’s so so important to be able to forgive ourselves & be patient & kind with ourselves… easier said than done sometimes!

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  2. This is a really topical post for me right now because we go away hiking quite a bit as the weather gets warmer and that’s when my online routines for learning Italian break down. I deliberately avoid taking too much IT away with me because I know once I switch it on I’m sucked in.

    I think one of the problems with online language learning sites is that they encourage you to get a bit obsessive to keep on meeting targets and building streaks – the motivation’s good but there will always be something in life that gets in the way sooner or later. I think the trick is to make the process of learning your master and not your slave. One thing I might do is take some Italian poetry away on iPod and follow along with text as best I can for a few minutes here and there, just letting it sink in and keeping my mind attuned to the rhythm of the language.

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    1. Ooh, I know what you mean about life inevitably getting in the way of streaks. I almost want to build in days where I break my streaks early, before I get too attached to them! & then I can get more practice in starting over when they do get broken.

      I love getting used to the rhythm & flows of a new language, so your idea of taking Italian poetry on holiday with you sounds absolutely lovely!

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