How to get s*** done!

language setting goalsMy entire experience with language learning has led me to one, important conclusion about the big question of setting goals and making progress.

What matters is not what we study, it’s how we study.

I use one very simple but powerful approach to making progress and getting s*** done, which I want to share with you in this article.

My hope is that it will change the way you study for good.

Self-sabotage

Everyone worries about things like remembering a difficult grammar point, learning enough vocabulary, or memorising the 1,981 kanji supposedly in daily use in Japan.

But in the rush to get stuff learnt, what gets forgotten is how we are actually going about doing it.

The fact is, if you get your time and routine under control, the language learning will ultimately take care of itself.

Or to look at it from another angle: by studying in an unproductive way (i.e. flitting from thing to thing, taking days off at a time, not having a plan-of-attack), it really doesn’t matter what you’re trying to learn – your study habits will stop it from happening.

So what I think you need to remember is this: learn to control your time and routine, and then start worrying about the language.

Why setting goals doesn’t work

Traditional goal-setting in language learning would have you focus on the product.

For example:

  • I will reach B1 level by November
  • I will memorise 1,981 Japanese kanji over the next 3 months
  • I will learn 30 words a day

That’s all very well, and I love the ambition there, but… and be honest now… if you set a goal like this, can you really see yourself reaching it?

Honestly, now.

Look, the harsh reality is that most of us get incredibly excited about the goals that we set, but are woefully inadequate at following through.

Says Anna Salamon, on Sebastian Marshall’s blog:

“[We] mostly just do things. We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal. We do any number of things. But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.”

Add to this the fact that the intangibility of a language makes it very difficult to break down into discrete parts, and you’re faced with a rather unfortunate picture…

Traditional goal-setting in language learning simply isn’t gong to work for 99% of people.

Hell, it doesn’t even work for me, who’s been through the language learning process many times, and should know what to expect.

It just doesn’t. I’m not built for it.

Accepting this can be liberating, though.

I found an alternative approach.

A new basis for action

If traditional goal setting focuses you on the product, my approach focuses on the process.

Let me explain.

  • I know that if I set lofty language-learning goals, achieving them will probably be complex.
  • I know that if achieving them is complex, I probably won’t stick to any routine designed to get me there.
  • I know that if I won’t stick to the routine, there’s no point in starting in the first place.

So, really have to adjust course.

Here’s what I know:

  • I still need to do a lot of work if I’m to improve at my language.
  • I believe that “done is better than perfect.
  • Therefore, it’s more productive for me to devote my all my energy to one things that I enjoy and know I can do, than ten well-crafted steps to a lofty goal that I “should” be doing…but won’t.

From this reasoning were born “Sprints”.
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Sprints – a solution to goal setting

I originally wrote about Sprints in this post on fi3m.com, but it’s time to set out the stall on IWTYAL too.

A “Sprint” is when you devote a set period of time to doing one thing, and one thing only, to completion. The idea is to put everything else aside and get this one thing done.

Picture a small software company racing to launch a new piece of software. The entire team comes together and works flat out for 2 months on that one product until it’s ready to show to the world.

Other projects might suffer for a while, but – and here’s the key thing – the job gets done.

This (with minor tweaks) is my approach to getting s*** done in language learning.

I choose one substantial activity that I enjoy and that I know is benefitial to me.

I then focus all my available time on that activity, and little else, for a set period (usually around 3 weeks). I go as deep as I can, learn as much as possible from it, and exploit it for all it’s worth.

I’ve found 3 weeks to be an ideal time for me. Much longer and I get bored. Much shorter and the full benefits of the intense work may fail to materialise.

I don’t have to worry about how to study each day, I don’t jump from book to book, I don’ go searching on blogs for the best method (!)… I have this one, simple focus, and I go all out.

Questions, please.

What can I do in a sprint?

Everyday, commit to…

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How long should my sprints be everyday?

The biggest danger, like with traditional goal-setting, is that you don’t actually do what you’re supposed to. Therefore, and there is support for this across the extensive literature on motivation, start so infinitesimally small that you can’t possibly fail.

I’m talking 5-minute goals.

5-minute goals work because you’re never so tired that you can’t do a quick 5-minutes to achieve your goal for the day. But they also have the key effect of getting you started, and you’ll usually do far more than the 5-minutes. Starting the habit, which may take 1-2 weeks to take hold, is the hard part, so make it easy to do.

What if I choose the wrong thing to do on my sprint?

Who cares? You will benefit from it, by virtue of the fact that you’re doing it intensively. If it turns out not to be all that good, you’ve learnt something about how you learn. (If it truly is an awful thing to be doing, you’ll probably stop anyway.)

Won’t I be neglecting other parts of my learning during that time?

Look, the alternative, as I said earlier, is not doing anything at all because you tried to bite off more than you can chew.

Done is better than perfect.

There’s a huge benefit to doing ONE THING intensively, instead of many things half-heartedly.

Can I mix other things in with my Sprint?

Well, yes. But not at the start. The whole reason you’re doing the sprint in the first place is to actually get s*** done (rather than just fizzle out), so why don’t you just try out one thing first, get it working, and then add something else in when you’re comfortable.

A note on process over product

Remember that the underlying concept to Sprints is focusing on process. So, don’t fall into the trap of setting product-based goals by mistake.

For example, rather than saying:

  • I will learn 10 new words today (product)

Say instead:

  • I will spend 10 minutes memorising vocabulary with my spaced-repetition software (process)

Rather than saying:

  • I will understand everything in this chapter by the end of the week

Say instead:

  • I will read this chapter through twice each night, checking key words in the dictionary

You can control process, but you can’t control product.

It’s small, but it’s key.

With process you can’t fail, but with product you can always fail to meet your goals.

Go out and make it happen

This discussion is really about what you should be doing everyday to make progress in your learning.

I think it’s crucial to do things that are achievable, and to do things that you will actually enjoy.

Changing my mindset and discovering this method that works for me has helped me in all kinds of ways. I make more consistent progress and I’m happier doing it.

What more could you wish for? 🙂

It’s a long road, and I want you to enjoy the process.

Break a leg!

Olly

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  • Brad Stokes

    Nice. The more I learn the more I realise that consistency is the key to long term gain. Review is also important and can provide you a specific focus for the periods of the sprints. A review of my spanish a couple of days ago with a teacher showed that my writing is letting me down. So my sprint is 1 good paragraph a day submitted to italki boards. I’ll keep doing my other habits, but that will be a focus in my online lessons. Thanks Ollie, good piece of advice.

    • Hey, Brad. That sounds like a really good idea. 1 paragraph a day will get your brain working nicely! Don’t forget to factor in the time to review all the corrections you’ll get back… and what you’ll do with them once you’ve got them!

      • Brad Stokes

        That is the question of the moment.

        Well last night I went and reviewed the corrections. For the most part they were silly mistakes on my behalf that I would make in English (I dropped the odd word when when writing). A couple of errors with the accent placements were good catches, that I didn’t even realize.

        So do I add copying out the corrected revision by hand into a physical book to cement the changes to memory or do I just focus on the words and phrases that I got genuinely wrong?

        I’m not sure atm. I’m kind of leaning towards the longform writing so I have a book of nicely edited thoughts at the end of the sprint. Maybe with a log of number of errors made and date beside it so I can track progress and see if the complexity/completeness of my structure deepens.

        Any suggestions welcome.

        Thanks

        • I would focus on whatever makes you feel like you’re doing justice to yourself and your own learning – making sure that it’s achievable and not too much to be able to do every day.

          Done is better than perfect!

  • Marília

    Hi Olly. This is Marília from Brazil, living in Munich 🙂
    I love your concept and I’m excited to try it out, but I have one question. You mention one possibility would be reading a chapter of a book over and over again. Does that mean that we have to keep repeating whatever we choose to do in those three weeks? Or can I use 15 minutes of my day to read a book in no rush, but not repeating the reading?
    Deu pra entender?

    • Deu… perfeitamente! Two choices, I think:

      1) if you’re just reading for pleasure, and the book’s not too hard, then just read the book normally, like you would in your own language

      2) if you’re reading something that’s quite far above your level, then you won’t benefit much from normal reading, because there’s too much you don’t understand. In that case, it’s better to choose one chapter and read it over and over, maybe looking up a few new words each time.

      You might find that 2) gets a bit boring, though. If possible, find a book that’s not too hard, that you can enjoy reading. Then read one chapter a day, or 15 minutes, or whatever, and just read for pleasure!

      • Marília

        Great, Olly. I read a little of a book I bought some days ago and it doesn’t look to be too difficult, just difficult enough so I can learn something. I’m going to set a goal to read for at least 10 minutes each night, and I’ll be back in three weeks to let you know the results.
        Thanks a lot for your answer!

        • That sounds perfect! I’ll be waiting for your update! 🙂

  • Cindy Bellota

    Hi Olly. I think that your method is very interesting and I’ll try it out. I have that problem now, I set an schedule and I can’t follow it 🙁 . I feel that time is running and I don’t advance… but I feel that your method will work for me. Thanks for your advices.

    • Hi Cindy, thanks for the comment. Give it a try! I’m really bad at sticking to routines, too, and I’ve learnt that the more complex it is, the less likely I will success.

      The solution…simplify! 🙂

  • Yadda Rivera

    Hola!! Once again. I like reading Speak Up Magazine. I think is a good way to improve my reading skill. Speak Up has a variety of interesting topics that you can choose according to your own level and they are easy to understanding. Mostly each section consists of two or three pages. My question is can I read more than one topic in three weeks and focusing on them. Considering that each of them only have two or three pages. thanks for ur advices in advance. 🙂 🙂

    • Hi Yadda, thanks for leaving your question! I think the magazine is perfect, because it’s something you enjoy. Many people spend time on textbooks, which is fine too, but using something you enjoy is the fastest way to improve in a language.

      In your case, I wouldn’t worry about topics at all. I’d just commit to reading 2-3 pages a day, everyday. Have fun!

  • Vagando Un Ingeniero X

    Hello! What you said is really true. I found this in my learning process. I rather see movies instead of doing a lot of boring grammar drills. My skills are enhanced when I use this way. Better done than perfect 🙂

  • F A

    Haha I have a mug with these exact words (http://www.startupvitamins.com/products/startup-mug-aaron-levie-get-shit-done) – I wanted to get the poster for my office but HR had some “concerns”. Party poopers.

    Anyway, great advice – especially about the sprints. I’ve struggled with Arabic for years mostly of my own doing. I only managed to see improvement when I started to make consistent daily effort, however small.

    What I’m really struggling with is accountability towards myself and my own goals. I’m going to give that Lift app you mentioned a bash. Thanks for all the tips! I like that you write in such a concise and clear way.

    • Thanks F A, I really appreciate it! I’m starting to learn Arabic this week, and I’ll be writing a lot about basic progress, accountability, all these things. So hope you derive some benefit from it!

  • Peter Bayes

    Heh,

    “Break a leg!” (product)

    Kick this metal grating for 5 minutes! (process)

  • Rana

    Thanks very much Olly.that’s a great advice

  • Luke smith

    This is really quite helpful. My routine right now I get 6 lessons from cantoneseclass101.com and cover them over a 2 week period. Going over them twice each week. THen after 2 weeks I move on to another 6 lessons. I have skype with my tutor twice a week and stole your idea for monthly flashcards decks so combined a month has 12 lessons of vocab that I choose plus some from my tutor. I think focusing on studying time over progress is a really good tip because it alleviates the stress and lets you get on with things and learn naturally. Thanks for the blog olly!

    • Great to hear that it’s been helpful. It also relieves the pressure of thinking to yourself “I need to know this inside out before I move on”, which lowers stress levels significantly! Good luck with the Canto!

  • Brilliant! I’m seeing results, which is amazing. I’ve been at it for a year and learned more in these past few days than I did all year.