Sticking to routines. What I wish I knew 10 years ago.

Brian Kwong from DaGeniusLab surveyed his audience on what was holding them back in their language learning. The overwhelming response? Time and Routine.

Wow! Quite a finding.

So the major obstacle in language learning is not the complexity of the language, choosing the right method or finding good learning materials. It's finding the time to do it and deciding on a routine that works.

So all that time spent browsing YouTube polyglots for the latest tips and advice is not, in fact, what we need.

Instead, all we need to do is……….. get on with it!

Time management

Of course, there's always an excuse. Why else would Time and Routine have come top of the list?

I know a thing or two about excuses! I've come up with some storming ones in the past, and I've also experienced how you can start to believe your own excuses if you don't keep a check on them. But, I have got a lot better, and I've learnt a thing or two in the process.

What follows is a personal account of the key lessons I've learnt about time and routine. These are the things that have revolutionised my personal approach to language learning, and the strategy that has emerged out of it. It won't be relevant to everyone, but will hopefully be useful for people who think anything like I do.

Part One – Understanding why you make certain decisions

  1. Recognise how your brain works. You've decided to learn a language, and you're absolutely determined to do it. So, in a show of strength and determination, you want to give yourself a hardcore study schedule of 2-3 hours per day in order to become fluent as quickly as possible. You do this because you've got high standards and don't want to sell yourself short with a paltry 1 hour a day. You do this because you're scared of failure, and this is called pride.
  2. Recognise the implications of sticking successfully to your routine. If you get it right, and keep it up, the benefits are immense: pride, increased motivation, better self-control, and… improved learning.
  3. Recognise the consequences of not sticking to your routine. If, for whatever reason, your routine gets the better of you, the consequences can be serious: frustration, confusion, beating yourself up, corner cutting… and, ultimately, giving up.
  4. Getting your routine right is more important than what you're actually doing in it. Look again at points 2 and 3. One is massively empowering, the other devastating. It's clear what to aim for.
  5. It's easier to scale up than to scale down.If you start small, it's easy to scale up, and you'll feel good about it. If you start big, and it doesn't work, you'll find it hard to feel positive about cutting back (sounds like failure, right?).
  6. Not all time is equal. I know that certain times of day, or certain places, carry a high ‘distraction factor'. For example, I'm at high risk of distraction at around 5pm just after I've got home, because I'm tired and tempted by any number of things – food, Facebook, TV. By contrast, I can do almost anything early in the morning when there's no-one around. Recognising the ‘distraction factors' over the course of your day is vital.

So, to summarise, when putting together your study routine, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by aiming too high. Start modestly, and don't feel guilty about it. Get this right, and scale up. This way you'll be able to taste success.

It is true that some people can aim high and keep it up. It's not that you shouldn't aim high, just that you may not be reading this if you were one of those rare people for whom time and routine isn't a difficulty.

A routine that works

A routine that works

Part Two – A sensible routine

What I've described above is basically what I wish I knew ten years ago. Not about routine as such, but about myself – how I work and how I think.

Having figured all this out about myself, I've been able to develop a decent approach to taking on new projects (could be anything – doesn't have to be languages) which I can be confident works to my strengths.

Here's how I'd summarise my approach now:

Don't delay. Decide on a routine that's 100% achievable (however small), write it down somewhere and get started. Start with as little as 15 minutes per day, if necessary, and schedule it for a specific time.

In reality, you'll probably enjoy the process so much that you will do more than your scheduled 15 minutes, so 15 minutes becomes a way to trick your brain into getting started. After 3-4 weeks this will become a habit and you won't need to try so hard any more.

As you settle into your routine, it's time to begin to expand. Decide on the times that you'll study and what you'll do in each slot – make it achievable above all. Here's an example from my current Learn Cantonese project:

The key is to make your routine so clear that you do it without thinking (i.e. as soon as I get in the car, a podcast goes on), therefore it's vital to be clear and specific about your routines right from the start.

I'd say that this mindset alone accounts for well over 50% of my success with languages, if only for the fact that the consequences of getting it wrong are disastrous!

I wish I knew this 10 years ago, but then that would have deprived me of the satisfaction of finally figuring it out now! By all means give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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