The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think

The time barrel was first mentioned in an article I wrote about background listening a while back. I needed a metaphor to explain how it was possible to listen to Chinese a lot without actually spending that much extra time. Most people have jobs, some study other things and only a few of us study Chinese full-time. Now, it’s only natural that someone who studies full time can learn more, but it’s very likely that you have more room for Chinese than you think.

The basic formula is very simple:

  1. Examine your daily activities and see what kind of time you have available
  2. Find ways of studying which fit the time you have available

Important: Time management is about doing what you want to do with your time,  it’s not only about getting rid of things that aren’t “useful” and which don’t take you towards your goal of learning Chinese. Managing your time is useful whatever your goal is. If you lead a busy life and want to learn Chinese too, that’s fine. If you have all the free time in the world, but want to play computer games as much as possible, time management is still useful. In other words, in the following discussion, I don’t really care about what the tasks are, as long as they are tasks you want to complete, for whatever reason.

The time barrel

To show how I think about time management and studying, allow me to introduce the time barrel. It doesn’t look like much right now, it’s just a container. However, before we talk about what we can fill the container with, we need to talk about the container itself.

The barrel represents all 24 hours in one day

The barrel represents all time you could theoretically use, i.e. all 24 hours in one day. Naturally, you can’t use all this time for studying, but I want to make it clear that the barrel still represents all 24 hours, including the time you usually sleep, work, eat and so on. Regardless of how much you try, you can never change the length of one day and neither can you change the size of the barrel. We can change what we put in it though.

The rocks represent major tasks that can’t be interfered with

Most of us have things in life which we either must do to survive or that we consider so important that we have to do them. The first and most important one is sleeping, because no matter what we do, we need to sleep. If you’re close to the average of 8 hours sleep per day, your barrel will be contain one big rock representing those eight hours. If you have weird sleeping patterns, like sleeping less during the night and making up the deficit with power naps, you’ll have smaller rocks that are more flexible.

Apart from sleeping, there might be other things we have to do, like working, eating and maintaining contact with friends and family. Rather than regarding these as big lumps of rock, I think most of them can be considered to be pebbles (see below), so instead of regarding eating as a block two hours long, we can regard it as many smaller pebbles. Depending on what kind of job you have, the same will be true there. A teacher has lessons and meetings he has to attend to, but that hardly fills up eight hours per day. The total work time might still exceed eight hours, but it’s not one big lump for teachers.

Going to class is of course also represented by rocks, regardless of what you’re studying (Chinese or something else). I have simplified the situation a bit and just drawn a few rocks, but as we can see, the barrel is already getting full!

We still have room for pebbles

Now, this is where most people stop and say “I sleep for eight hours, I work for eight hours, it takes two hours to cook and eat, I have to maintain contact with friends and exercise, so there is no time left for language learning!” This is obviously not the case, there is still room for pebbles.

If rocks represented big, bulky tasks, pebbles represent smaller tasks we can move about more freely. Of course, there’s no fixed definition of what  a pebble is and what a rock is, but let’s say a rock is something which takes several hours to complete whereas a pebble only takes ten minutes. Now, even though our day looked full, we can see that it’s still possible to fill it with a whole lot of pebbles. Here are some tasks that can be considered to be pebbles:

  • Reading a Chinese book before going to bed
  • Looking up a few characters that’s been troubling you recently
  • Finding new audio to listen to
  • Moving audio to your mobile phone
  • Posting a question on a language forum
  • Writing a few sentences on Lang-8

Now it’s really starting to look full…

…and yet there is still room for sand that trickles down between the pebbles and fills the spaces you didn’t know where there. This is the kind of studying you only do for a few seconds up to several minutes each time, but that accumulates over time to become a significant factor. There aren’t many tasks that are suitably represented by sand, but there are a few that are possible because of modern technology:

  • Reviewing vocabulary using spaced repetition software on your smart phone
  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Review tricky characters you have written on your hands
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese

The barrel is full!

Or is it? If you have a barrel full of rocks, pebbles and sand, it certainly looks very full. Not a single grain of sand can be added, let alone pebbles or rocks. Still, it’s possible to add several litres of water to such a barrel without it overflowing. Water fills the spaced we didn’t know existed, it superimposes itself over the other things in the barrel. This means that there are very few things indeed that can be represented by that water, but here are a few examples:

No metaphor is perfect

This is just one way of looking at time management and because it is a metaphor, it is also flawed. It will highlight some things I find important (the fact that we have more time than we think and that we need to find ways to study that fit in our time barrels), but it will also miss some things. For instance, this metaphor isn’t good to explain the fact that you can do many things at the same time. Listening to Chinese while doing the laundry would have to be water superimposed on rock, which isn’t neat at all. Still, I hope I have been able to show that you don’t need one three-hour block of free time per day to study three hours.

Be dynamic and flexible in your endeavour to learn Chinese, be on the lookout for ways to fit Chinese into your day that doesn’t interfere too much with the other important things you do in your life!

Diversified learning is smart learning

For most people, the majority of studying time is spent on things that require large chunks of time, such as going to class, reading books or talking with friends. These are usually not activities you perform for five minutes and then switch to something else. However, it’s possible to spend a significant amount of time on studying without actually letting it encroach on any other things you’re currently doing.

In a way, this is a way in which you can magically expand the time available, possibly by a great deal depending on how efficient you were before. Diversified learning is useful for everybody, but especially for those of you who aren’t studying full time (if you do, you tend to get enough of studying as it is). Currently living in Sweden and studying English, I personally find that diversified learning is essential if I want to continue improving my Chinese.

Diversified learning means that you learn more without spending more time

So what is diversified learning? It’s simply spreading out whatever can be spread out, chopping it up into so small chunks that they can be easily handled in between (or even at the same time as) other tasks. The old trick of writing things on your hands is a good example. It means that you might see a difficult character a hundred times over a few days, learning it without any focused effort being invested. This is just one example, and if you add up all the various strategies of diversified studying, it’s possible to learn significantly more. The rest of this post will be dedicated to explaining various ways of doing this, please contribute by commenting and adding your own tricks!

If you want to read about diversified learning from another angle, I suggest that you also read this article: The time barrel: You have more time than you think

Listen to recorded material – This is perhaps the most powerful method available. I listen to around ten hours of Chinese every week without even trying very hard. I listen when I walk to school, I listen when I cook food, when I wash the dishes, when I tidy my apartment and so on. Of course, I don’t listen very attentively all the time, but that’s not the point. I listen to anything: radio, news, textbooks, audio books. I have written a whole series of articles about improving listening ability, check the articles about background, passive and active listening.

Use spaced repetition software – I’m probably going to stress this point until people get bored, but using some kind of spaced repetition software is essential but there are other choices as well. I usually have Anki running in the background on my computer, so when I’m waiting for a few files to copy or a website to load, I can review a few flashcards without interrupting anything else.

Write difficult characters on your hands – We all have characters that just refuse to stick in our memories. Rather than spending precious time studying them at home or in class, write them on your hands! Using a normal pen, they’re usually gone within a few days and by then you should know them. You can also write Pinyin and English if you want to. This is one of many methods to kill leeches.

Tape/write difficult characters where you can see them – This is very similar to the above method, but a bit more versatile. Let’s say that you think it’s tricky to remember characters containing 莫 (like 模, 摸, 寞, 幕, 慕, 墓, 暮), well then, make a comparison of these characters using what you know about mnemonics (see the post about learning words and the article about individual characters). Put this comparison close to some place where you tend to have extra time, the obvious places being next to your bed, in the bathroom and in the kitchen, just above the sink.

Use a smart phone and appropriate software – There are of course many ways to use smart phones to study Chinese, so it’s rather a platform than a method in itself. Most importantly, it allows you to listen to more Chinese (see above) and it also allows you to study flashcards while waiting for the bus (Anki has a version for smart phones). This means that you can spend the time at home by your computer doing something else.

Changing languages – This trick is probably as old as they get, but changing the software language on your phone or computer is a nice way to become exposed to more Chinese. A warning is in place, however. Even though you will be able to use your phone in Chinese, you will need to be quite good at Chinese in order to learn how new functions work or to troubleshoot your computer. Make sure you can switch to English if you want to. I’m currently running my phone, computer (including Gmail, Facebook and so on) in Chinese.

Taking notes – To practice writing, try taking notes in Chinese. This is obviously not a good idea when you’re in a hurry, but let’s say your going grocery shopping. Why not write the list in Chinese? If you don’t know all the words, skip some or look them up. Even writing words you think are really easy will improve your overall writing ability.

Diversified learning is smart learning

These are just some examples of diversified learning, there should be innumerable ways to integrate Chinese into your life and make learning more efficient. This goal of this article was to get you thinking in this general direction rather than to point out every single possible variety. If you come up with something brilliant, why don’t share it in the comments?

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]