1. Willpower or motivation is not a good thing to rely on because it comes and goes. You know the feeling: you wake up in the morning ready to start your new healthy eating, you’re going to achieve all your goals and no junk food today! About 11am you're feeling fine and eating healthily. Then Lunch Time, nice healthy salad, and crossing things off your To Do list. Then the afternoon gets a bit sleepy, and you are starting to get a bit lazy, just one cup of coffee to get going again, maybe a bit of chocolate…. You might find a bit more motivation just before the end of your working day, but by bedtime your reserves of willpower are used up and it’s back to Netflix and ice cream on the sofa. The same with language learning. On Monday you switch on English music radio, you get out all your textbooks, but by Friday they're all back on the shelf and you're back to wishing you could try harder. Don't rely on only your motivation to stick to your language learning or your diet!
2. Discipline on the other hand is reliable. If you create a rule or get into a habit it’s really hard to break out of that. Think of something that you do everyday, without fail. Brushing your teeth is a very good habit, that most of us do at least once a day, without really thinking about it. It’s just part of your routine in the morning or evening. We are disciplined about doing it. If you tie your language learning to a habit you already have you can stick with it a lot more easily. For example, when you brush your teeth you conjugate verbs, infinitive, past simple, past participle. Understand, understood, understood. Get it? Got it? Got it! When you use social media you follow English-language accounts and comment in English. When you drive or take the bus you listen to English-language music.
3. Make a rule for yourself. If you’re dieting:”I do not eat cakes,” is much stronger than saying “I do not eat cakes until the weekend.” Smokers use this technique to picture themselves as non-smokers. When you start saying “I’m a non-smoker”, suddenly you are. When you say “I’m an English language speaker" you are. When you make the rule yourself it becomes true. If you make a habit of learning the language and doing a little towards that aim every day, you will be a successful language learner.
4. Make it easy and obvious. James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits, talks about learning the guitar. If the guitar is stuck in the back of the cupboard and it's difficult to get it out, dust it off and then tune it and use it... that's a lot of effort before you even start playing. How about your English? Are your books at the back of the cupboard? Are you learning apps in some folder hidden away on your phone? Do you even know the passwords? When you start with a new habit put the thing you need right in the place where you'll see it and use it.
5. Make it short. You don't have to spend 2 hours every day studying English or even 1 hour. Research shows that little and often is better for language learning. Especially if you're trying to get into the habit yourself, without lessons or teachers to guide you, you can be gentle. Even 5 minutes is worth it. When you are starting your habit just focus on 5 minutes. When you are doing 5 minutes sessions regularly by yourself then think about upgrading to 10 minutes or 15. But don't worry that 5 minutes is too short. 5 minutes is much better than zero!
6. Make it painful. Set a deadline and a consequence for yourself. This could be something big or small, important or minor - like you have to do a presentation in English by 1st March. Or finish the library book by the due date. Or reply to a friend in English by the end of the day. Or do your English homework before the lesson! By painful I mean it will be embarrassing or cost you money if you don't do it. So if you don't finish your library book by the due date you'll have to pay a fine. If you don't do your homework you'll be embarrassed in front of your teacher. These kind of risks can be motivating in the short-term but use with caution. You might become immune to embarrassment the fifth time you forget your homework.
7. One bonus tip - celebrate! When you've finished your lesson/ your study session/ your app time celebrate it. Congratulate yourself for taking action. Say well done to yourself for moving forward. When you do this it creates a tiny dopamine hit - the hormone that makes you happy. So you'll feel happy about taking action, and you'll want to do it again, and again!
So dieting and learning a language have something in common. It doesn’t take willpower to succeed, it takes discipline.
Are you disciplined? What rule will you make for your English learning success? Let me know below!
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I'm Abbie and I'm an English teacher and English event organiser. I've been teaching English for over 15 years. I'm British and I live in Japan with my husband two daughters and a lot of crafting supplies.