How to Maintain Consistency and Build Strong Daily Habits

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I’m a huge fan of learning languages through immersion. With the internet these days, you can emulate whatever country you want, all in your own home, or even as you walk or commute. You can watch TV episodes through YouTube, find and listen to target language music in a variety of places, and, as I’ve mentioned many a time, you can listen to target language radio and podcasts to your heart’s content. It’s never been easier to locate and read novels in your target language without having to step foot on the continent where the language is spoken.

For some, all out immersion works great. By this, I mean immersion 24/7, like from the blog All Japanese All The Time. You keep your headphones in whenever you can, you eschew L1 (your native language) media from your life, and you create that target language bubble that breeds fluency and confidence.

All of this is well and good. But why can’t learners stick with it?

Some learners can’t do all out immersion. Maybe your schedule is too unpredictable or crazy. Maybe you don’t like having headphones in all of the time. Maybe L1 media is important to you, like literature or movies. Maybe you’re like me and have a handful of languages to balance, and total immersion means neglecting three other languages!

I propose that total immersion isn’t what’s important here. Rather, it’s consistency.

You need to come into contact with your target language on a regular basis. If you’re immersing all of the time, that’s super. That means you have all of your bases covered. However, if you’re not keeping track of your work when you don’t immerse all of the time, that means you can lose track of your studies and your consistency begins to falter.

For me, total immersion can result in burnout, which can mean a pretty big stumbling block in language learning. Near-total immersion worked great for me with French, but when I tried it with Japanese a couple years ago, I slipped up about two weeks in and went months without any Japanese exposure at all. That’s not great for anyone’s language skills.

What people need to think about first is what’s sustainable. Start with smaller sessions that you do on a daily basis (or a few days a week), and work your way up. Build a schedule that fits you.

As I mentioned, I balance several languages right now, and I have a system that’s been working pretty well for me.

So, here are some tips for building consistency and habit!

  • Find a way to give yourself instant gratification for your daily goals. Yes, I do mean reward yourself. It doesn’t have to be big or lavish. For me, I use Forest, an iOS (and I think Android) app. It’s a simple timer that blocks all other applications while you’re using it. But, its fun twist is that it plants a bush or tree for every span of time you complete. It might seem silly, but it’s very satisfying to see my little garden at the end of the day. I also make old-fashioned to do lists and get a huge amount of satisfaction ticking items off as the day goes by. What we’re doing here is timeboxing— a method of cutting up a big task into smaller, doable bits. Lists and timers makes you feel like you’ve accomplished a goal, something that’s hard to do when you have a big, amorphous project like learning a language.
  • Along the same lines, set your daily target timeboxes to short periods. If you’re going to take advantage of a timer of some sort, I wouldn’t recommend studying more than 30 minutes at a time. I’ve been setting goals for 10-20 minutes or so, and it’s working great. These are things like reading or studying textbooks. At the 10 minute mark, the goal is small enough that I don’t procrastinate. 25-ish minutes is the upper limit of that effect. And, if I want to keep going, I can always set another timer, and I get another plant in my Forest garden!
  • Time limits, rather than achievements, are your friends. Last summer, my Spanish goals revolved around reading two chapters of Harry Potter a day. Sounds easy, right? Well, in the early books, the chapters are short– I think it would take me 20-30 minutes to read two of them. But in the later books, the chapters are long. I sometimes read more than an hour trying to reach my goal. While noble, this didn’t get me anywhere. It tired me out and just made me more prone to putting off my reading until later in the day. A lot of times, I skipped altogether because the task was too daunting. Time limits are bright lines that you can always hit. When I sit down to read 25 minutes of Spanish, I stop when the timer’s up, unless I’m feeling really good. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the middle of a page or chapter. I accomplished what I set out to do in a span of time that wasn’t painful! Don’t underestimate the danger of pushing yourself too hard. You risk getting frustrated, and then you might toss the whole project. Keep things small, and keep your daily goals separate from your actual language skills. Your skills will follow, believe me.
  • Take days off. Again, this is all about sustainability for a long-term project. When I started using extensive to do lists and timers, my daily language goals became a lot more feasible. However, by doing so much more in a day, I felt like I’d worked pretty hard! This isn’t a bad feeling by any means; it’s that tired, accomplished sort of feeling. Still, I found that if I continued through the weekends like I had on the weekdays, I’d be feeling a little stretched thin by Monday. Now, I take weekends off. Not completely– I still listen to radio, watch videos, and read if I feel like it, but I don’t track, and I don’t write lists on weekends. When I figured this out, I was maintaining my daily goals for months rather than a couple days at a time. My language learning can be slapdash and sporadic (which is not bad! Goals and habits should be flexible and change as you change) but building consistency is helping me move ahead quicker. Don’t underestimate the wonders of taking a break!

And finally, here are what my Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese daily goals look like right now:

Spanish

Read 25 minutes of La ciudad de las bestias

Watch 1 YouTube video (about 5-6 minutes)

Dutch (you can tell I’m concentrating on this one :))

3 Duolingo lessons (10 minutes)

Watch Avondjournaal on Jeugdjournaal (10 minutes)

Listen to a podcast for 30 minutes (I do this on my walk)

Read for 20 minutes

Japanese

Study textbook for 20 minutes

Read for 10 minutes

***

As you can see, each task is pretty small, but they add up to a lot of daily time spent on the language. I break my own rules with the Duolingo goal being based on lessons and not time limits, but Duolingo lessons are pretty standardized and they always take about the same length of time. Similarly, any videos I watch always take the same length of time. I might not hit all of these every day, but having them written out really helps and keeps me on track.

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12 thoughts on “How to Maintain Consistency and Build Strong Daily Habits

  1. Consistency really is king. I don’t know about you, but I find that I gather a lot of momentum when I am able to hit a daily goal several days in a row and it eventually becomes self-reinforcing. With that being said, the early days are tough when you are trying to introduce new habits and routines!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, the early days are definitely tougher! I tend to have a few days of overzealousness at the beginning, and then I drop off, so that’s the stage where I try to be mindful of what I’m going after. Once the habit is built, though, I notice improvements so much faster than when I go after something in a more slapdash manner (all reading one day, all listening the next, a couple days off, that sort of thing) 😀

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  2. You recommend “cutting up a big task into smaller, doable bits” but, can we make the path less tiresome just by dividing it into 1000 pieces?. I think people who set long term goals and is flexible enough to adapt their daily life in order to achieve them is better prepared to go from A to B. You give some common sense advices that I am sure many people will find useful (those without common sense will find them terrific) but, reading between the lines, your post makes me feel it has in mind readers who think that it is a great idea to learn such and such language and so, making an effort is worthwhile but… they don’t really want to learn it.

    I agree with Nick, consistency is the king but love is the emperor and it rules above it. You can try to treat yourself like a Pavlov’s dog or you can divide the effort into tiny bits but at the end of the day, dogs don’t learn languages and the path will still require the same 100 thousands steps. People who really love languages feel many times during their life that their love for words vanishes and so, apparently, reaching the goal must wait but they know or should know the verse of Kavafis “As you set out for Ithaka hope the voyage is a long one”. Rupert Snell is an Indian culture scholar who wrote a Hindi dictionary for learners of this language. He expressed the same idea with his own words in the preface of that book “People ask me, how long did it take you to learn Hindi? When I get there I will tell you”.

    When learning a language is valuable by itself, imposing daily routines is meaningless and guilty feelings for not having enough discipline are disposable.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Of course it’s important to really want a large goal, but I do think setting tiny goals that can be completed makes it easier to stay on track. For instance, one can love writing, but writing a novel is a huge task that can take months or years. That’s pretty intimidating to think about for a lot of people. However, writing a couple pages or 1000 words every day is achievable. And if you write 1000 words a day for three months, you have 90,000 words and a novel-length manuscript that you can begin to edit. Many people (including myself) become blinded by the larger goal that they’re too intimidated to try something smaller that they can do every day. I don’t think these people love their chosen goals any less– they just are focused on the forest without seeing the trees. We want to be able to see the larger goal AND the smaller ones at the same time, ideally.

      I love languages and I love learning languages, but I’m trying to balance several of them, and without tracking how I’m doing, I can let some of my goals slide. Obviously, I have other work to do and other hobbies, so I try to find ways to keep at my language goals even when I don’t have infinite time to spend on them.

      As for your last point, I don’t think there is a “finish line” when it comes to languages. We’re always learning and always improving. That being said, I do have reasonable goals for where I want to be with Dutch and Spanish (what I want to be able to do with them) within a certain timeline, and those things are achievable through practice and consistency. That’s what I’m trying to explain in my post. Instead of wanting to read more in Spanish, I read every day for 25 minutes. Instead of vaguely wanting to reach a B2 level in Dutch, I came up with specific tasks I can do to get me there. So, it’s not really splitting up a task into 1000 steps, but rather building an everyday habit that, over time, will result in an increase in skill.

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      1. Yes, you are right, it is self-evident that big tasks can only be achieved when we break them down into pieces but I think that there is a difference in the emotional weaponry and the plans needed for those who are not afraid or blinded by long-term goals and those who need to do things one step at a time. The first ones are much better prepared for the task though, in the end, there are many different ways to handle this issue, each one measures first his own forces and then chooses the most convenient. You have already explained what’s the best one for you and obviously nobody can say anything against it, I just wish you good luck with it.

        Your interest in learning languages is obvious and I never tried to question it, let alone to ask you to put more passion in this activity. I just expressed an approach to learn languages that requires some discipline if you don’t want to disperse your efforts but that, at the same time, doesn’t need to embed any routine into your daily life because languages are the daily life itself. For the true language lover, this is the ultimate goal and the greatest luxury.

        (another interesting link about Japanese culture is this one http://www.japanlink.co.jp/ka/home.html It is a great collection of bilingual texts – sometimes lame but sometimes it explains interesting concepts – and it is very easy to change languages. With the add-on rikaichan for firefox you can use it as a reading challenge)

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  3. By the way, an interesting trick for Japanese language learners is explained here http://goo.gl/XBdAQX by a person who passed the level 1 of the kanken test. He says “Some people swear by flash cards or spaced repetition apps, but I could never get into it. I need tactile methods, so the most important thing for me is writing practice. I went through over 50 notebooks…” I have only used so far 3 or 4 notebooks for Japanese but I certainly agree with him. Words on the screen and words on paper written by me are two very different things (and if you like Manga and Spanish you may find interesting this article http://goo.gl/oCMjSY from the same web. You can read it in Japanese, English or Spanish. Finally, a lovely set of videos I didn’t mention before which will help you to improve the listening skills can be found here https://www.youtube.com/user/japonin/videos )

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    1. Thanks for these! Back when I was studying Japanese around 2013 I did find that writing out characters and sentences really helped my memory, so your first link is very interesting.

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  4. Fantastic advice! 😄👍🏻 I’ve started using a timer for both piano practice and language learning and it has made all the difference! 5, 10, or 20 minutes is such an achievable goal – I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to finally realize it. Just downloaded Forest, can’t wait to try it out! Wonderful site!👏🏻

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