Language Learning & Coffee: How To Use “Productivity Anchors” To Upgrade Your Language Study

productivity anchors language learning

It’s been some time since we’ve had a really good look at productivity on the blog, so today I’m delighted to feature this guest post from Quincy Smith. 

  • What is a “Productivity Anchor”? 
  • How can this help you become a better language learning?
  • And what on Earth does coffee have to do with it? (Hint: It’s not what you think)

This is a really interesting take on solving the productivity problem, so I hope you enjoy the post!

Here’s Quincy…


When I moved to China nearly 3 years ago I had a goal of learning at least conversational Mandarin.

The idea was that even if everything else went wrong, at least I could look back at my time here and say “Well, at least I learned a bit of Chinese” and chalk it up as a win.

There was just one problem – it quickly became apparent that I had no motivation to learn after a long day of work and I found myself blowing off lessons and generally being unproductive in the evenings.

Luckily, there was also some good news – I knew that I was the most productive in the mornings and that if I could carve out some time to study I would not only learn more, but also feel a sense of accomplishment no matter how the rest of my day went.

To be honest, the idea of ‘creating time’ is a tough decision to make – it almost always involves waking up early and requires some discipline to do consistently (if you want to learn more on what you can accomplish by waking up early I highly recommend reading The 5am Challenge by Noah Kagan). Luckily, I’ve always been a morning person so waking up 30min-1hr earlier wasn’t too difficult.

Where I struggled was turning this new time into a period of productivity as generally my morning revolve around reading the news, catching up on emails, and generally biding my time until work. To combat this, I started relying on a tactic called a “Productivity Anchor” where I essentially trained my mind and body to be more productive with the help of a trigger.

The Psychology Behind Productivity

Understanding how psychology impacts productivity is beyond the scope of this article, but there is one trick that I believe is worth mentioning: avoid measuring your progress with tasks. What I mean by this is that instead of trying to study 10 pages or recite 50 sentences, focus on more open-ended goals like reviewing the vocab from last chapter or improving the translation from the day before.

Classic to-do lists have already been proven ineffective for a lot of people due to the fact that a lot of tasks simply don’t get completed. While you might not be able to avoid this during the rest of your day, I found focusing on progress instead of tasks made me more motivated to study in the morning and less likely to procrastinate.

productivity anchors

Enter Productivity Anchors

I first learned about productivity anchors in the context of freelancers and how they served as a good way to ‘snap’ into work mode when your hours fell outside of the traditional 9-5. The basic concept of an anchor is that it’s something you try and use regularly before starting work so that you train your body to expect productivity after that action or trigger is done.

My anchor is coffee and here’s how it worked when I was waking up early to study: I’d roll out of bed and boil some water, go through the process of pouring, steeping, and pressing my joe, and then get to work immediately after taking my first sips.

That last part is crucial because you are training your body to expect work after your anchor, if I were to go to the gym instead of study then it would negate the entire process and work against me (unless my goal was to workout more). My goal was to make it where coffee served as a switch for my brain and I could get in the ‘productivity zone’ without much effort.

They say it takes 21 days to form a habit but I started to notice the effects of using a productivity anchor much more quickly (maybe because I already drank coffee in the morning). It wasn’t long (maybe a week) before coffee and studying became my morning routine and because I wasn’t measuring progress with tasks, I never felt pressured to finish that last page or question. Simply having studied was enough for me to consider that morning a success and I loved the sense of accomplishment that came with it.

Finding and Using Your Anchor

Anchors are as unique as the people that use them…and while I swear by coffee myself, there is no right or wrong solution. If you’re interested in finding an anchor that works for you I’d suggest starting with the following:

  • Identify things you already do regularly like going to the gym or cooking a meal and seeing if you can use them. Because these are already familiar it might be easier to work around them than trying to introduce something new.
  • Try small anchors first – Tony Robbins is a big proponent of priming, or using a basic morning routine to get focused. Small things like 10 pushups or a breathing exercise might be easier for you to fit into your schedule while still delivering favorable results.

Once you find an anchor that appeals to you then you’ll obviously need to test it out. The trick here is not to cut bait too quickly and make sure you’re really committing yourself to the process. I recommend testing an anchor for at least 3-4 weeks before deciding if it’s worth it or not, keeping in mind that you need to start studying or working immediately afterwards to truly train your body.

productivity language learning

Time Management and Productivity Anchors

Fast forward 3 years and I am still using coffee to aid in my productivity – the only difference is that I now use it for more than just my morning study sessions. I’ve found that once you body becomes more in tune with the overall process, the more you can use it to reliably switch into productivity mode and make more out of your time, regardless of your desired goal.

For example, if I have a chaotic morning that takes me too far outside of my routine, I can use my anchor to bring me back and hit reset so that it’s like I never left. Similarly, if my afternoon has me in a longer than usual lunch or appointment, I can use the anchor to refocus myself when it’s time to get back to work.

Some of you are probably saying ‘of course coffee does that, caffeine always yields increased focus,’ but the fact is that I have friends who don’t drink coffee and do the same thing with anchors like meditation, reading, and jumping rope. I also know people who drink coffee and don’t get the added benefit of productivity, making it less about the anchor and more about the training that surrounds it.

In Closing

I still live in China and while I study less Chinese now than in the past, I still use my productivity anchor almost daily. One thing I’ve noticed is that an anchor is not a silver bullet – it will not convince your brain to want to do something, instead it makes it easier to do the things you’re already interested in. With this in mind, if there is a task you want to attack with consistent regularity and focus, then my first piece of advice would be to give this process a shot.


Quincy Smith is a former teacher and founder of ESL Authority, a site dedicated to bringing first-hand advice and guides to those looking to get involved in ESL teaching. Currently located in China, he will work for strong coffee and IPAs.

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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