Good Study Habits…For Lazy People

good study habitsI’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read about good study habits, willpower, and getting things done.

And yet I still find it so hard to develop a solid routine. (Although my crazy 5am routine has changed things recently!)

Are there people in this world who just can’t stick to routines? Were some people simply born without the willpower gene?

Well, are there?

In fact, I don’t think so. We just haven’t got it figured out yet.

Being truly productive

From time to time I have glimpses of what it means to be truly productive.

Earlier this year, for example, I completed my master’s thesis in 3 months, whilst working a full-time job, writing substantial articles for this blog each week, applying for a new job, going through a bereavement and learning Cantonese.

By all accounts that’s productive.

But I don’t feel like I’m productive at heart. That stuff got done because I had to do it.

I had no choice. For example…

  • My master’s – I’d been at it for 2 years already, and I just really wanted to get it finished. I told my supervisor that I’d be submitting in April, and that was that.
  • On the blog, I have readers who expect something every week. If I don’t publish, I may as well give up, and that’s not an option!
  • The bereavement… nothing I could do about that!
  • The job application was for a really unique opportunity, so it had to be done.
  • Learning Cantonese was something I probably should have taken a break from, but partly what kept me going was that I felt like it would be hypocritical for me to write about language learning but not actually do it!

But I don’t think of this level of productive activity as being “me”, in the sense that many of those activities are not things I would voluntarily do in my free time.

I like language learning. I like spending my time on foreign languages, people, culture. That’s me.

So why is it, in periods that aren’t as manic as this, that when I get home after work, sticking to a simple routine of “study for 30 minutes a day” is so hard for me?

That really bugs me.

Is it hard to do 30 minutes of language study a day? No, of course it isn’t. But for all kinds of reasons it just doesn’t happen.

The cold, hard truth is this:

If we go for a day, or a week without studying our target language, or even if we give it up completely… the world keeps on spinning regardless.

Sticking to a language learning routine

There’s no-one forcing us to learn another language.

In a world with all kinds of other things to do, such as looking after the kids, doing your tax return, making dinner (all of which have very real consequences if they don’t get done!), setting aside regular time for language study simply isn’t mission-critical for us.

Now, some people are made of stronger stuff, and good study habits are automatic for them. They can just decide to do something and do it.

Maybe it’s a cop-out on my part, but I’m trying to boil it down here.

Some people really are made of stronger stuff.

I’m in awe of people like Sebastian Marshall and Ryan Holiday, who have been huge influences on me recently. They have an approach to life, and getting s*** done, which is inspiring but at the same time seems to be so far above what I’m capable of that I can’t help but feel inferior.

But then, I know that sometimes people look at me and feel the same thing about my languages. I know because of the emails I get: “How can you learn so many languages?” etc etc.

But it’s not like that. Really it isn’t.

I started learning French 13 years ago, and just kept going.

No special strategy, I just figured it out as I went along. 13 years is a long time to learn something if you care enough about it.

So, I don’t think I’m anything out-of-the-ordinary, and my current inability to sit down every day and get 30 minutes of language study done is testament to that.

Willpower? Whatever.

(Note, if you don’t believe me, watch this video about how I maintain multiple languages…)

I’ve read all the books.

I’ve done all the exercises.

I’ve applied all the theory.

I could go round and round looking for solutions or explanations, but let’s cut to the chase.

When I look back at my period of insane productivity between January and April this year, there is one very big elephant in the room, and it’s the fact that I was committed to all those things. 

Not doing them would either have meant letting someone down, or suffering a significant loss of some description.


I was committed to doing them. So I did them.

Now, the big question: How can I use this knowledge to generate insane productivity on demand?

Easy. Pre-commit.


Using pre-commitment to develop good study habits

Pre-commitment is a popular concept in contemporary psychology, and is leveraged by many people to get stuff done.

The concept is easy – you commit, in advance, to doing something, so you can’t weasel out of it when the time comes. 🙂

The difficulty in making this work for something like language learning is finding a way to actually enforce it. For example, you could set all kinds of consequences for yourself if you don’t study for 30 minutes every day… but who’s going to check up on you, hold you accountable and administer your punishment?

(Perhaps there is a way to do it – let me know if you have one!)

For me, the one thing that absolutely guarantees that I will do something, is when someone else is involved. I cannot abide someone else waiting for me, or the thought of letting someone down. I just can’t do it.

But what I can be accountable for is turning up to a pre-arranged lesson, Skype chat, or whatever.

And it’s really been working.

  1. I go onto iTalki (a great, and very affordable online service for language tutoring and conversation exchange) and schedule informal tutoring sessions, or else arrange to meet my Egyptian friends locally
  2. I schedule them up in advance for the coming week, at times that I know I’m free
  3. Then I’m committed

To get out of it, I’d have to take the step of formally cancelling, which I’m not going to do.  And cancelling anything on the day makes me feel rotten.

Committing in advance is key, because things tend to get scary when they’re upon you.

How would you feel about an impromptu conversation with a native speaker on Skype in 5 minutes?


Now, instead, what about if it was scheduled for 7 days from now?

Suddenly not so bad.

You’re more likely to commit to something the further away it is. 

Keep moving forward at all costs

This, so far, is that the single best way I have found to develop good study habits in my language learning and hold myself accountable, so that I will absolutely, definitely, 100% turn up and speak/practice/mangle my target language.

Luckily, speaking is the thing that I most need to do right now. And if you’re like most people, you probably need to do a bit more speaking too.

There’s much more to the language learning equation, obviously, but if you’re struggling to get started, maintain a routine, or otherwise motivate yourself, this could be a game-changer.

This is my secret weapon right now, and I intend to keep it close by and fully loaded.

Do you know someone who struggles with productivity? Let them know by sharing this post on Facebook or clicking here to send a Tweet!

Image: andymakkawaru

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  • Chris Broholm

    Extremely interesting (and timely) post Olly, I’m personally one of those people who seem to fail horribly at simple goals, and I feel really unproductive most of the time. It’s like I can set goals and commit to them for a week, maybe two weeks at most and then I start to drop off and converge onto my prefered state.

    A great example is sleeping, having always been a nightowl I recently experimented with waking up early, and the effect it had was truly awesome, but it didn’t last. A week later I started slipping and by two weeks I was back to my old routine of getting to bed well past midnight.

    The difference this time around is that I don’t sleep 10-12 hours anymore, but only around 6-7. This means I’m still better off now than before, even if I can’t seem tos tick to the new goal.

    And additionally I feel like it’s better to strive towards something and fail, if the process of failing is making us ever so slightly better than we were before we started. Little by little we should improve.

    I still consider myself lazy though. For the first 7 months of this year my language learning efforts were so tiny they were almost negligable. The last 2 months I’ve really commited, as you point out, and the progress is literally night and day compared to before.

    Conversations started to make sense, suddenly I could communicate my thoughts in a new language and watching or reading things just became so much clearer. These “wins” now fuel my commitment further, and I now aim to maintain my vocabulary on memrise as well as adding 200 new words a week.

    It’s not an insane requirement, so it’s perfectly manageable and doesn’t cause burnout.

    I think a big success factor is the art of doing small consistent efforts. In the sense of SRS for instance, by doing my flashcards more frequently I remember more words because they don’t accidently disappear from my long term memory before I can get to them again.

    This comment got a little longer than I expected, but I just wanted to thank you for the post and for putting more focus on productivty and time management. It’s a huge theme for me lately.

    Oh and, say hi to Jan for me 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Chris. I really like how you share your struggles both here and on your blog – it’s becoming a nice theme in your writing!

      The big theme of this post, for me, was this: there’s so much productivity advice out there, but much of it never works for me for the simple reason that it’s not the right solution **for me**. It’s like a doctor prescribing aspirin for stress… not quite right.

      Finding what works for us is always going to be the key. For me, pre-commitment has been huge. Other things that have helped are waking up and sleeping early, going to the gym regularly, writing 1000 words a day, no drinking, eating the same meals every day (rather than stressing over what to cook every time). But that’s just me – these same things wouldn’t work for everyone.

      Daily flashcards, for example, I can manage. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t do my 5 minutes (or more). For some reason, it just works for me. Other people, however, hate it and can never get it done.

      Keep experimenting, trying new things… eventually you’ll find a combination of things that will catapult your productivity into the stratosphere!

  • Conor Clyne

    Nice thought provoking post Olly! I

    • Hey Conor. Absolutely! Trying to change too many things at once is a recipe for disaster. For that same reason I can never effectively learn two languages at once, because I can’t muster enough power of concentration over long enough to make it work.

  • I think distractions and doubts are the two main elements that prevent us from being productive. I often notice that I am only productive if I know clearly what to do, and why I do it. If I do something, but I am not sure why I do it, or whether it’s the best solution or not, I tend to get distracted.

    • That’s a great observation, and very true. Speaking a lot is a big part of my language learning strategy, but I think the reason it works for me is because I know (from experience) that it works. People who try to speak from the beginning, but don’t have first-hand experience of it working for them, often quickly realise how hard it can be and give up or change tactics because doubt starts to creep in. If they just stuck to it, it would work, but it just become too easy to get distracted when there are other study options that appear easier.

  • Pingback: Good study habits | Portuguese Language Lessons()

  • Kemény Márk

    Ez a cikk nagyon jó, megint volt benne motiváló!
    (And it rhymes, too!)

  • That’s really true. One thing that absolutely guarantees that we will do something, is when someone else is involved. Especially when we learn a language. Making the link between language learning and those we love helps us give the best of ourselves. We focus on the benefits for our family and friends. We even think of pleasing them and organize a trip to a country where the language is spoken and be their guide!

    • Thanks for the comment Thomas. I think that’s why I like language exchanges so much… they compel me to turn up! 🙂

  • Lillian A. Rodriguez

    We all know that man is the servant of habit. So, from our childhood, we should build up a good study habit. First of all, we should be determined to do hard work. Secondly, we should not leave our work for tomorrow. We should complete our lesson regular. We shouldn’t depend on others. Many students get help from college essay writing service. I think it hampers the creativity and will power. Here you have shared an amazing way to make an effective study habit. Thank you for sharing.