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30 days: How to improve self-discipline

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emk
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 Message 1 of 39
15 November 2009 at 6:03pm | IP Logged 
This isn't a regular language-learning technique, such as shadowing, L-R or using an SRS deck, but more a "meta-technique": A technique that helps you use other techniques more consistently. If you already have adequate self-discipline, this story probably won't interest you. But if you tend to get half-way through a project and then move on to something else, you might find these tricks useful.

I was inspired by two stories:
  1. Steve Pavlina's 30 days to success
  2. The Seinfeld calendar
I studied several foreign languages in school, with predictably poor results, and tried to learn Italian on my own. When I studied Italian, I made it about 2 weeks into the course, and wound up with a nice accent and a ~100-word vocabulary. This was useful when traveling, but a bit limiting. My study skills, in other words, were well-suited to the length of a school term, but I never really had the sheer endurance required to learn a second language.

One day, however, my wife asked me to learn French. It's her native tongue, and we had already decided to raise our children to be bilingual. I was not an ideal candidate for success: I was already past the age of 30, and I had never actually learned a foreign language.

But I did have some real motivation, and I had recently read the two articles mentioned above. So I decided to give it a shot. I marked out 30 days on my calendar, and I promised to myself that I would study an Assimil lesson every day. I listened to each lesson about 10 times (until it clicked), and I did the exercises. This took about 20 minutes.

The first 30 days were hard: I wanted to skip a day, here and there. But I knew that if I skipped a day, I could skip two, and that if I could skip two days, I could skip a week. (And after that, the project would be doomed.) It wasn't easy to study French every day: Once or twice I procrastinated until 2am before buckling down and doing the lesson. But in the end, I told myself, "Anybody can make it through 30 days, right? And if I decide that this is too much work, I can quit after my 30 days are up. But I'm not allowed to quit now."

At the end of 30 days, I had made some gains. French pronunciation and spelling, which had always been miserably opaque to me, were starting to make sense. I was understanding increasingly complex Assimil lessons. And if I wanted to talk with my wife, I could produce a few simple sentences here and there. I was ecstatic, and I decided to sign up for another 30 days.

When I started the active wave on day 50, my study time went up to 40 minutes a day. This was pretty grueling, but at day 60, I decided to continue through the end of the course (call it ~160 days). Once I ran out of Assimil lessons, I started listening to podcasts and talking with my wife in French.

As of today, it's been a bit more than 2 years, and I've studied French every single day since I started. I can read popular non-fiction in French, and—if I pick the right book—I typically miss about 0–6 words per page. I can talk with my wife for an entire day in French, and I'm just starting to be able to understand the news on RFI. All told, I had probably put in less than 350 hours of study as of a few months ago. This has lately increased, because I now learn 20 SRS cards every day, and I'm spending more time with native materials.

So enough of the biography. :-) Here are some tips based on my experience:

  1. Start with a simple but well-defined goal. It should be big enough to be significant, but small enough that you can actually follow through. Listening to a single Assimil lesson 8–12 times is great. "Study some French" is not a concrete enough goal, at least at first, and "learn 100 words new words in an SRS deck" is too much to keep up for long.

  2. You may find it more pleasant to "get it out of the way" first thing every morning, after you wake up, or to set aside a fixed time every day.

  3. If you have a miserable, depressing winter and you're starting to burn out, you can set goals like "Study some French every day". You'll keep a small amount of momentum, and you'll probably prevent the decay of your skills. But you'll do less and less as time passes, and eventually you'll need to recommit to a bigger and more concrete goal.

  4. If you commit to an overly large goal, you'll make enormous gains, but you'll drive yourself nuts, and possibly run screaming into the woods. Save this kind of crazy experimentation until later in the process.

There's a real power to doing something every single day, because you can't postpone it, you can't let the rest of your life interfere with it, and you have to find the time every single day. And having a concrete rule makes it easier, because you don't have to waste any time thinking up excuses.

If, like me, you're motivated to learn a foreign language—but fear that you'll get bored and give up—then you might want to read the two blog posts I linked to above, and consider a 30-day trial. :-)


Edited by emk on 15 November 2009 at 7:09pm

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zenmonkey
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 Message 2 of 39
15 November 2009 at 7:07pm | IP Logged 
Excellent post.
In other words, do it now. Not later, not tomorrow.
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numerodix
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 Message 3 of 39
15 November 2009 at 7:14pm | IP Logged 
I think this is oversimplified, at least from my point of view. I started with Italian about 3 months ago and against all odds I've been able to keep it up on a daily basis. This coming from someone who never does anything systematically. I think your observation might be good to get someone started, but I would say that keeping yourself motivated and active basically requires a certain social engineering onto yourself. However many times we think we've found "the one thing that works" is probably a delusion. And that shouldn't be a surprise, after all mental life is complex.

Broadly speaking I would say the whole business comes down to managing your expectations well, but here's one specific example. I do about two hours of work out of a textbook everyday. I do this by hand, I write all the theory and the exercises. It very much feels like "doing real work". Now, on a good day I can go longer than 2 hours, but I don't. Because I've learned that it undermines the foundation upon which this routine works. If I do more today then tomorrow I'm going to think "hey yesterday I did more than 2h, why shouldn't I be able to do more every day"? And now, I suddenly expect to do 3 hours everyday, just because I did it once. Once you score higher you just get greedy and want to keep going up. This is corrosive. So instead I'll do some extra work on something else, like read a book or watch something in Italian. Those things I don't do on a daily schedule, and therefore there is no expectation of something "supposed to be done". I can do more or less of them and never feel guilty for it.
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emk
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 Message 4 of 39
15 November 2009 at 8:15pm | IP Logged 
I think this is oversimplified, at least from my point of view.

Oh, I readily admit that there are many other ways to maintain the motivation needed to learn a foreign language. Presumably everyone who has successfully learned a second language has some good techniques. And you've clearly discovered something that works for you (and you've put in well over 3 or 4 weeks, so you've almost certainly built the habit).

And you're definitely right about not allowing your daily commitment to creep up just because you have one good day. We all have good days and bad, and if you're going to do something crazy like use your best days as the new benchmark, you're in for a world of pain. But I have no problem with overindulging in French for one day, because I treat that as something different from my daily commitment.

I would say that keeping yourself motivated and active basically requires a certain social engineering onto yourself.

One of the advantages of a rock-solid commitment is that it actually reduces the amount of "social engineering" you need to do on yourself. The first month or two is rough, because you need to adjust your life around the commitment. But after that, you don't have to waste quite so much time psyching yourself up, because eventually it becomes psychologically harder to stop than to keep going. :-) And because you don't allow yourself days off, you never get any practice at making excuses, which I'm already far too good at!

All this is just my personal experience, however. There's no one right way to learn a language, and many people are better at staying motivated than I am. So please take anything that's helpful, and forget the rest.
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NB
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 Message 5 of 39
15 November 2009 at 10:02pm | IP Logged 
Great post. For me, it really comes down to defining a clear goal and fixing it in my
mind throughout the day, everyday. I've started a similar project for myself in Japanese.
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Volte
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 Message 6 of 39
16 November 2009 at 4:05pm | IP Logged 
I tried this for studying 6 languages at once - most via Assimil - a couple of years ago; it lasted about two months before I decided I really didn't like studying that way.

It's a useful technique, though.

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emk
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 Message 7 of 39
16 November 2009 at 6:31pm | IP Logged 
Volte wrote:
I tried this for studying 6 languages at once - most via Assimil - a couple of years ago;


Impressive! But 6 languages every day is an enormously difficult goal, and it will completely eat your life. That might be perfectly OK for some folks, or during a Total Annihilation Challenge. But I've never been able to usefully keep 6 daily tasks going at a time; I always end up whittling one or two of them down to a token commitment just to stay sane.

For example, I've been doing this for more than two years, and I'm currently experimenting with a fairly heavy load. Right now, I have two different commitments for French (general study and SRS), one for exercise, one for keeping a GTD task list up to date, and one for a programming project. The first three are doing great, but I can't devote enough time to the other two. So later this week, I'll probably drop the programming project, and set a higher minimum bar for the GTD task list.

But when I started out, I couldn't have done all this. I could only handle a single task, and that was a huge stretch. If you've never tried to make a daily commitment before, make one, and keep it to 20–40 minutes. After you've done that for a month or two, you can consider adding a second commitment.
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meramarina
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 Message 8 of 39
16 November 2009 at 9:27pm | IP Logged 
Quote:
If you commit to an overly large goal, you'll make enormous gains, but you'll drive yourself nuts, and possibly run screaming into the woods. Save this kind of crazy experimentation until later in the process.


but . . . but . . . isn't it OK to do this if you run screaming into the woods in your target language?

Just kidding! I understand what you mean. I find myself alternating somewhat between short-term, well-clarified goals and also periods of less goal-directed but still useful wandering around within a language. It keeps me interested, busy and out of the woods--usually.

I try to do language study twice a day, in the morning and evening, but of course this changes day by day, according to what I have to do. But you are right about working regularly and every day; actually, it's become part of my daily routine now, and I don't feel quite right without it!

There are good days and bad days, of course, but it has not been boring!


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