Friday, February 15, 2008

Instead of Sticking to Plan, Make Plans that will Stick

Know thyself.
-The Oracle at Delphi

How often do you get to work or the grocery store and discover that you've failed to put on clothes? Hopefully never! Yet I doubt that you get up in the morning and tell yourself, Okay, before I leave the house, I need to get dressed. I am so going to remember this time!

Are you as good at remembering to study your language as you are at remembering to get dressed in the morning? Not if you're working at it! A few months back, I saw an exercise program. It promised flat abs if you'd schedule in a daily work out for Eight Minutes in the Morning. I rolled my eyes and wondered who has that kind of time! Still, I bought the book. It's gathering dust.

Eventually, I realized that to be healthy, I needed to lose a little weight. But I lacked the willpower to diet. Still do. So now I walk to the fast food restaurant where I eat lunch - and walk the long way back! I've gone from 192 lbs to 169 lbs. We'll see if it sticks, but so far the most successful weight loss program I've found requires no effort and no motivation. All it requires is putting one foot in front of another to go to places I was going anyway.

The other day, I noted Aristotle's assertion that excellence is a habit, not an act. I mentioned that this means you have to stick to your language learning if you want to get anywhere. But I missed a second, crucial point: how to stick to your language learning. Hint: It's not motivation, willpower or whatever. The true secret: to find a place where your studies will fit into your routine and make them part of your routine.

Following up on my Language Habit post, Josh the Language Geek offered a glimpse of how he's put his studies on autopilot:
I’ve been extremely busy with college classwork, and so my language learning time has been pretty slim. However, I’ve been able to squeeze in 10-15 minutes a day for both French and Russian; German, as my primary language target, usually gets half an hour to an hour. While I certainly won’t win any language learning races by studying an hour and a half a day, luckily, I’m not in a race; I just want to continue learning, which I’ve been doing successfully.
Of course, what Josh does won't be right for everyone. But it works for him. Hence my citation of the Delphic Oracle: Know thyself. Too often when we formulate our language learning plans, we are making them not for ourselves but for our idealized version of a dedicated language learner. Then we beat ourselves up for not being motivated enough to stick to it. In laying out your language learning plans, think about how you live your life and how you do things. Try to lay out some routines you can actually see yourself sticking to. If you surf the net a lot, get an online course. If you tend to plunk yourself in front of the television, get some DVDs in the language. Regardless of your program, use your peak motivation time to assemble your materials in a way that they'll be easy to use and where you'll have something to fall back on to rebuild momentum at rough spots. In short, don't try to design the perfect plan for the perfect person, and get mad at yourself for being imperfect. Set yourself up for success by designing a plan where learning a new language will fit into your life until doing what you need to do to move forward is second nature, not against your nature.


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