Finding motivation in little things

The end is near!

The end of the year, that is. We’ve just finished the 47th week of the year, leaving us 5 weeks left. The end of the year is pretty much a completely arbitrary date choice that happened some time long ago, but I want to emphasize that we can create meaning out of this meaninglessness.

Learning a language can be a long process. There’s a lot you need to experience as you get more and more used to hearing it and understanding it. Sometimes the weight of the whole task can be a bit intimidating. Motivation is an essential key to staying on track and achieving your goals, language-related or otherwise. When we see an opportunity to make a little mental game, we should take it.

This is what the end of the year can offer us. I made a plan earlier this year to study 3 languages this year: German, Swedish, and Esperanto. At various times I worked more or less on each one, according to my needs and desires at the time. Now I feel the urge to have something “done” by the end of the year.

I don’t pretend to believe that I’ll ever be “done” with any of these languages. Languages are beautiful that way: there will always be more to learn. I am motivated, however, to try to make a “final push” to work hard for the rest of the year so as to increase my accomplishments. This is a little game that I can play with myself, to try and squeeze in a bit more work each day.

So, what I’ve done may not work for everyone, but it seems to help me. Here’s what I did. I want a way to reward myself for doing at least a little bit of work each day in my chosen subjects. I have 4 subjects: the 3 languages I mentioned, plus studying the deeply interesting strategy game called “Go” or “Weiqi”. The idea with my system is that the hardest part of studying is starting. I find many different ways to procrastinate, but if I manage to just start, then I rediscover my enjoyment of it and end up continuing for a longer period than I originally thought.

Therefore, with the key goal of starting each topic once per day, I make a set of boxes in a spreadsheet. Each box represents the work I’ve done on that topic in a certain time period (could be a day or a week, as you see fit). If I do any work at all on that topic in that time period, then I get to colour it in with a nice shade of blue. If I really succeed at doing a lot of work there, then I’ll elevate it up to green. No work gets me a “bad” colour like yellow or red…something noticeable.

The goal of the spreadsheet is to colour everything at least blue. In some ways, this is similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s method of “don’t break the chain”, wherein he tries to do a little bit of writing every single day and then he marks that day with a red X on the calendar, and tries to string together the longest chain of Xs possible.

Technically, I could “succeed” by these standards by just doing 2 minutes of each of my 4 subjects every day…a total of 8 minutes. But in practice, this never happens. I really like studying each of them, and I tend to get absorbed in it once I actually start, so it ends up being quite a significant amount of time.

The other thing that keeps me going is to come up with some numerical goals. This time around, I’ve picked both hours of work and (estimated) number of words read in books. I pick some number as my weekly goal, and try to make all my amounts from all topics add up to that number. For reading, I’ve decided that I want to try to read 100,000 words each week, and I want to get 40 hours of work done each week. This is because I’ve drastically lowered my paid work hours lately, so that I can devote more time to learning. I’m basically considering learning to be my new full-time job, so I picked 40 hours per week.

Other people in different situations might choose a different number, but the number itself doesn’t matter. It’s just another game to play. This gives me a concrete number to try and reach in order to colour some boxes in green. It’s like bonus points. Success is just measured by whether I got each box to at least blue, but I get bonus points for green🙂

So, back on the end-of-year topic, this gives me some numbers for that game. I’m hoping to have 600,000 words read in this 6-week period (5 weeks of which are left), and 240 hours of time spent on these projects. This is actually a very substantial amount of work. In comparison with last year, when I was intensively working on German while working full time, I was lucky to get 250,000 words read in a month, so 400,000 in a month is a more accelerated pace.

Having a somewhat lofty (although still doable) goal like this is another way that I motivate myself. I’m really eager to have succeeded at doing all that, so that I’ll be better at my various skills. Although I’m eager for the results, I also have a short-term “next step” to follow at any particular time: Just do any amount of work, no matter how tiny, and then I’m allowed to colour a box blue. The amount of words I read and the hours that I spend are continuously added up in the spreadsheet, giving me a number that goes higher and higher (like experience points, for those who play D&D).

All of those incremental steps are what’s going to add up to my spectacular gains. One step at a time is all it takes.

One Response to Finding motivation in little things

  1. Andrew says:

    Yup, consistence and persistence wins out every single time. Doing just a little bit every day, whether it’s working on a language or writing at least just a little bit for a blog post, is what really leads to long term success.

    Now…you mentioned your spreadsheets, and a couple of months ago I actually wrote up a post on how to schedule your study time and I used the examples on HTLAL (hope you don’t mind? I gave you credit and linked to your site) if you’re interested: how long should I study and how to schedule it. I just thought that was an absolutely brilliant method and really didn’t think I could come up with anything better, so I used your system as an example.


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