Forget New Year’s Resolutions

In Sri Lanka

This is the time of year when every man and his dog is talking about New Year’s resolutions. I’m not trying to ruin the party or anything, but I don’t do New Year’s resolutions for language learning, and neither should you. Why not? Keep reading to find out.

A time for reflection

New Year is symbolic and important for lots of reasons, and I think there are ways that we can take advantage of this time. It’s good to take the opportunity to look back at the year and reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t.

This doesn’t have to be a grandiose exercise, but if there’s something in your life that you’re trying to achieve (such as learning a language), it makes a lot of sense to take the time to examine what you’ve done, and to see how that’s been working for you.

Only if you know what’s worked for you in the past can you make better plans in the future.

And what better time to do this than the end of the year when we’ve got a bit of time to kick back?

New Year’s resolutions

Whether or not we look back, we all look forward. I think New Year acts as a bit of a pressure cooker. We think “Oh s***, the year’s over already and I haven’t done what I wanted to do – I gotta do something better next year!”

We get a bit emotional, remember we have big dreams, and in one courageous act of determination, scream from the rooftop: “I’m absolutely, definitely, 100% going to learn Spanish this year!”

You know how the rest of the story unfolds.

Let’s face it, New Year’s resolutions don’t work. And here’s why.

Empty promises

Wikipedia defines  a New Year’s resolution as:  a secular tradition, most common in the West but found around the world, in which a person makes a promise to do an act of self-improvement starting on New Year’s Day.

The problem is glaringly obvious.

“A promise to do an act of self-improvement” – what is that???

New Year’s resolutions fail because we promise ourselves that we will improve ourselves in one big way without having in place the foundation of the habits that will bring about that change.

It doesn’t matter how important your goal, or how determined you are to achieve it. There’s nothing special about New Year that is going to make you suddenly able to perform miracles.


But here’s the thing. The bigger they are the harder they fall. Having a huge goal and then not achieving it is hard on you at the best of times.  It leads to feelings like “maybe I’m just not cut out for this”, or “I’m just not capable”. And dealing with those emotions, picking yourself up and trying again can all take its toll.

Again, the fact it’s a New Year’s resolution doesn’t make you more able to achieve it, so the only likely outcome is you get more psyched up than usual about it, and when it doesn’t work out, you come crashing down to Earth harder than you need to.

This is dangerous stuff.

The rules haven’t changed

The way to achieve big goals is the same as it’s always been.

My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits. – John Adams

Language learning, like music, is 10% inspiration and 90% hard work. Can you learn Spanish this year? Yes, you can. But you’re not going to get there unless your lofty goals are matched by some not-particularly-glamorous habits.

So, articulate your grand New Year’s resolution, if you must. Write down: “I’m absolutely, definitely, 100% going to learn Spanish this year!” on a piece of paper. But then file it away somewhere and get on with the serious business of deciding the steps you can take that will actually get you there.

What are you going to do everyday that will result in you actually learning Spanish?

“I’ll learn Spanish” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

“I’ll improve my Spanish vocabulary by reading 2 pages of my textbook and learning 10 new words per day. I’ll do this for 2 weeks, then stop, look at how I’ve done, and decide what I’ll do for the next 2 weeks,” is going to get you results.

The rules haven’t changed.

You will make real progress towards your language goals by showing up every day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with studying for only 15 minutes. But do it everyday, without fail, and you’re on the right track.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. – Chuck Close

Action points

  • What is your language goal for 2014?
  • Break it down into shorter goals.
  • Start small
  • Start today (forget about January 1st)
  • Actually do it
  • Concentrate on one thing at a time, do it for a while, see how it works, then revise.
  • If you don’t know what to do, read this post, ask someone, or leave me a comment.

I’d love to know what your goals are and how you’re going to get there. Leave me a comment below to share your action points for the new year.

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Certainly, most people forget that lofty goals next to be broken down into action steps. If you don’t know how you’re going to go about it, you’ll never get started!

    Don’t you also agree that the aim should be more specific? “Learn Spanish” is a very vague idea, but setting a task (like being able to hold a 10 minute conversation with a native speaker) or certain level you want to achieve will be more conducive.

    • Hi Ruth, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree. I’ve written about this before (here), but the interesting thing is many people still say they find it difficult to articulate language learning goals. Maybe this is because it’s difficult to look “forward” if you’re going through the learning process for the first time. I’ve been experimenting with this process (rather than product) approach of “What am I doing for the next two weeks?” to see if that’s easier for people to take on board. I also think that for new learners it’s difficult to break down goals into actionable steps. Your example is great – a 10-minute conversation with a native speaker – but for a beginner it’s still difficult to know steps to take to be able to have that conversation more successfully. That may be better as a motivational tool, rather than a goal. What do you think?

      • I see what you mean. Personally like to follow courses – even more so at a low level – because instead of trying to decide what to learn, you’re following a plan. All you have to do is sit down and do it, which can be enough of a challenge as it is!

        • That’s it… just showing up is half the battle!

  • Kieran Maynard

    The quotes in this post remind me of an interview with Sakai Masato.


    “Rather than thinking about ‘What is an actor?’ or ‘What kind of actor do I want to become,’ you’d better to just memorize your lines and show up on time. Isn’t that a lot more helpful for the people [you work with]?”

    I like how you give specifics in every post, like “2 weeks.” I will try that for new techniques if I can’t decide immediately whether they will “work” or not.

    • Thanks for that link – Sakai Masato is great. I’ve just been watching Legal High (without subtitles – that guy talks like a machine gun!)

      What an amazing quote. That is exactly the point! And imagine what would happen if you swapped a couple of words in that quote:

      “Rather than thinking about ‘What is linguist?’ or ‘What kind of language learner do I want to become,’ you’d better just memorize a load of words and go out onto the street. Isn’t that a lot more helpful for the people you talk to?”

      Cheers for that!!