Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/timucin

If you want to get things done in life, there seems to be one general truth that is applicable in almost all situations, learning Chinese included. That principle is to break things down into manageable chunks.

There are numerous ways of describing this principle, but I think that the most useful one is this: without breaking a major goal like learning Chinese into several smaller parts, it will feel overwhelming, but if you break it down to bite-sized pieces, it suddenly doesn’t look all that scary. To use the analogy of a journey, it sounds hard to walk a thousand miles, but each step is actually quite easy, so focus on putting one foot in front of the other and you will get to your destination sooner or later.

Another reason for breaking things down is that you can’t really do something like “become fluent in Chinese”. You reach a goal by doing things, but you can’t do a goal. Therefore, specifying what it is you actually need to do to become fluent takes you much closer to real action. Do you know what your next step to learn Chinese is?

Two ways of breaking things down: time boxing and micro goals

So, if we want to accomplish something in the long term, we should break it down. But how? I think there are two major approaches to this, either you split a major goal into smaller parts (short-term goals, then micro goals) or you split the work you have to do into predefined time units (time boxing).

In my experience, both methods are very powerful, but they work quite differently for learning Chinese, so in this article I want to discuss some pros and cons with the different methods. As we shall see, they work well in different situations, so it’s not a matter of choosing one over the other.

Time boxing

Time boxing means that you set a timer and do something for a certain amount of time, 10-15 minutes is normal, but you can use longer or shorter times depending on what you’re doing. I have written a separate article about time boxing that you can read here. If you have never tried this, you’re likely to be surprised at how much you can get done in just 10 minutes if you have a clear deadline and a well-defined task.

The major advantage with time boxing is that the scope of each session is very well defined. This means that it’s easier to motivate oneself to get started, because you know when you start that it only takes ten minutes. Can you really persuade yourself to not spend just ten minutes learning characters today? Compare this with learning a fixed number of characters, which might take 10, 20 or 30 minutes, and is also of unknown difficulty (you might actually fail). Spending ten minutes on something is easy, it only requires you to do your best, not to actually succeed.

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/andreyutzu

Time boxing works best for tasks that are continuous, such as learning a large number of words or translate sentences to practise your Chinese on Lang-8. The journey is a good metaphor for this kind of studying and step number one is very similar to step number one thousand. It’s also a good when you find it hard to get going, because really, spending ten minutes doing something isn’t hard and you will at least achieve something in that time.

Micro goals

Micro goals are goals that can be accomplished in one study session (I have written an article about micro goals as well), and just like time boxing, the actual scope of such a session varies depending on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. The point is that the goal has to be well-defined and have a very high chance of success. Some people also talk about winnable games, meaning that you shouldn’t set up a situation where the chance of failure is high. Instead, break things down until each step is almost certain to be a victory.

Micro goals are more useful for tasks that are complex and can be separated into stages with clearly different characteristics. If you want to improve your pronunciation in Chinese, there are numerous steps that you need to take, such as identifying your problems, selecting a few priority areas and focusing on them one by one. If some of these steps are long and complicated in themselves, you can use time boxing, but in most cases, it makes more sense to specify something you need to achieve, such as “record one paragraph of x”, “compare my recording x with the native speaker model”, “discuss my pronunciation of x with a native speaker”, “design a plan for practising problem y” and so on.

The major advantage with micro goals over time boxing is that they are synonymous with progress. You can’t reach a micro goal without having made progress, but you can spend ten minutes trying to do something and not achieving anything. If you feel that it’s hard to concentrate on one thing, time boxing also invites procrastination in a way that micro goals don’t. Micro goals aren’t sensible to your spending time doing something else, this will just mean that it takes longer.

Use both methods

As I said at the outset, I think both methods are very useful and I use them both daily. I tend to use micro goals more, especially when I know what I’m doing and have a good grasp of how long something takes to achieve. However, when it comes to reviewing characters or doing anything that feels even slightly menial, time boxing is king. It is also the default solution when I can’t or don’t want to break something down further or when the process is unknown (time boxing works very well for brainstorming, for instance).

So, in short, try them both in different situations, see what works and what doesn’t. I know people who hate time boxing and others who say that it has revolutionised the way they do things. I also know people who say that micro goals are a big waste of time, as well as people who break things down to the point where it can’t really be broken down any more.

I do all these things on a need-to basis, I don’t time box just because I can, and I don’t create long lists of micro goals if it seems like I’m getting things done anyway. I do these things when I feel I need to. This guarantees gaining maximum benefits from the two methods without spending too much time on things other than achieving my goal.

Habit hacking for language learners

The longer I learn Chinese (and anything else, actually) the more convinced I become that the minimum study time matters much more than the maximum study time. In other words, I prefer to study a little bit all the time rather than go on a rampage once a week. I have already discussed this in another article, so now it’s time to talk about how to increase that minimum time. The key to success is fairly obvious and lies in forming language learning habits. This makes sure that we learn regularly and that it becomes a natural part of our lives.

Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schedule.jpg
Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schedule.jpg

Where to start

The obvious place to start when trying to form a habit is to explore and define the habit you want to form. Why do you want it? What benefits will it bring you? What exactly does successful habit formation look like (i.e. what’s your target behaviour)? This is good not only because it helps you understand your goal, but also because it increases motivation because you want to be that better version of yourself with those benefits you just listed.

Baby steps to success

The key to successful habit formation is to take baby steps. The reason why this is a good idea is similar to the thinking behind micro goals, i.e. that if you aim low, you can’t really fail and you have no real excuse for doing so. Then you can gradually increase the volume or the strictness of your new habit until it approaches the target level.

For example, if you want to learn many new Chinese characters, don’t start with trying to learn 20 a day, because the likelihood is that you will do that for a few days and then give up. Instead, start out slow and then gradually increase the load. Actually, this isn’t only a feel-good kind of advice for weaklings, it’s actually based on neuropsychology. The reason this is a good approach is that it seems that the regularity of the action is much more important when forming habits than the exact volume and duration of the task you perform. Thus, if you want to review characters daily, get used to doing that everyday and then slowly increase the number of repetitions. It’s more important that you do this everyday than that you manage a certain number of characters each week.

Three weeks to habit formation?

I think most people have heard about the 21-day rule, which simply states that if you keep on doing something daily for 21 days, a solid habit will form. Actually, 21 this is just a number and tells little apart from that we need time to form habits. From my personal experience, I think the first two weeks after starting to form a new habit are quite easy. The following two weeks are really hard, mostly because the motivation that drove me to try to try form the habit in the first place might have worn off along with the sense of novelty.

Rather than getting hung up on numbers, we should realise that the hardest part of habit formation isn’t the first week and probably not the second either. You can usually get through this just with good reminders (use your phone, calendar, post-it notes or whatever) and some determination. After that, you need a long term plan.

Long-term plans and back-up plans

To really form a habit, we need two more things. First, we need a long-term plan that tells us what will happen after we have formed the habit. The three-week limit above is, as I said, somewhat arbitrary, and you can’t just assume that the habit will stick after three weeks and that you will need no effort to keep going after that.

Therefore, you need to plan for possible problems before they appear. This can be quite easy, making yourself accountable or setting reminders both work fine. Either way, you need to stay conscious of your habit long after the three weeks or you will risk losing it.

Second, and perhaps most important of all, you need a back-up plan. This is where most people go wrong. They only plan for how to form the habit and what to do when they succeed. It’s all or nothing. If they fail, it’s over. This isn’t good at all, because you might very well fail. When you fail, you need a plan.

The easiest way to get around this is to make yourself accountable. For instance, you can promise someone to treat them to a nice dinner every time you forget to do whatever you have promised to do. This means that failing once will be bad for you, but failing twice will be twice as bad. After failing once, you have very strong incentives not to fail again. There’s no such thing as all or nothing.

Rewards and punishments

Even the most basic course in behaviour therapy will tell you that rewards and punishments are key to behaviour change in general. This isn’t something I have experimented a lot with myself, but I will share one insight about each before I round off this article. Rewards tend to be more useful than punishments, but you need to make the rewards immediate and linked to the behaviour in question. What works as a reward for you is entirely individual, of course.

Punishments can be very powerful as well, but be aware that they do tend to increase the stress level. For instance, I once had to finish a freelance writing project and gave my dad $1000 and said that he could keep it if I hadn’t finished the project in two weeks. After not having done anything for two months, I finished it all with time to spare. A bit forced, but it still worked. However, as this excellent animation shows, rewards and punishments don’t always work as we think they do.

Conclusion

Habit formation and behaviour change are of course extremely complex topics and there are lots of books written about the subject. In this article, I have tried to outline some of the basic concepts and some practical tips that I’ve found to work well for language learning. Try them out! If you have other suggestions or links, please share in the comments. People work differently, so even if this works for me, something else might work better for you.

Further reading

I also found these articles about habit formation for language learners:

 7 Ways to Develop Good Habits in Language Learning
How to Create a Habit: A Guide for Language Learner

What’s your next step to master Chinese?

Productivity is a slippery beast and catching it is not easy. When we have a tight schedule with clearly defined things we have to do, it’s relatively easy to get things done, but if we’re on our own with some time available and a wish to level up our Chinese, procrastination is a serious threat. Even if we have a well-defined tasks, such as writing a paper or reading a book, we still seem prone to postpone and delay, sometimes to the point of not finishing the task at all.

Image credit: John Leslie
Image credit: John Leslie

This article is for those of you who feel that you can and want to learn more, but you still don’t do it for some reason. It might be hard to pinpoint what that reason, is but I will do my best to help you solve the problem in this article.

The basic principles of getting things done

I think there are two approaches that we can use to understand how to get things done. The first is related to goals in general and the size of goals in particular. Having only very long-term goals offers no clue on how we’re supposed to achieve these goals. In other words, a goal isn’t really something you do right now, it’s something you accomplish later after you have done other things.

If we want to “master Chinese” or “write a thesis” (or anything else, I just choose two major tasks that I have faced and I know many of your are facing), it doesn’t really say anything about how we accomplish these things. If we’ve done these things a number of times before, we might have some experience to guide us, but the likelihood is that we don’t and that the task ahead looms terrifyingly. How do you approach such a big task?

However, the task looks huge simply because we haven’t broken it down, defined it and designed a way to deal with it. If you look at a big mountain, it will certainly look impossible to move yourself to the top, but actually doing it still mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, something everybody can do. Thus, the first thing we need to do is break down the task into manageable steps.

An personal example: It’s actually quite hard to keep Hacking Chinese up and running with one article a week and still keep up with my course work and do all the other things I want to do. This means that it’s very easy to just do the minimum amount of work required and postpone writing books and developing new projects.

However, I do still get lots of things done because I have broken these projects down and deal with one step at a time. I don’t have a task saying “write an e-book”, instead I know what the next step is (launch the funding project at Indiegogo, in this case), which I probably do next week. Rather than not doing anything, I keep placing one food it front of the other; I will reach that mountain top.

Taking one step after another is good, but in what direction should you walk?

The second thing we need to do in order to get things done is to arrange the steps in some kind of order. In a linear task like climbing a mountain or reading a book, this is fairly straightforward, but for non-linear tasks like “learning Chinese”, this isn’t easy at all. However, moving is always better than standing still!  The core of this article and my thesis is this:

Not knowing what the next step is makes progress impossible

Your next step is simply a small chunk of a larger goal that you can accomplish, preferably within the scope of one short timebox (let’s say 10-15 minutes). Do you know what your next action is for learning Chinese? If we’re talking about developing language ability, I tend to divide my activities in the same way as I have done on this website: listening, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary. That covers most of what I want to learn.

So, what’s your next step?

…to improve listening ability?
…to improve speaking ability?
…to improve reading ability?
…to improve writing ability?
…to expand vocabulary?

If you only have a vague idea of what the next step (the next action) is, it will be very hard to get started (impossible, in fact, since you have to know what you’re doing in order to start doing it, at least if we’re talking about active, voluntary studying). The next action needs to be very specific indeed, there should be no room whatsoever for interpretation or doubt.

This might sound silly, but I’m convinced that lots of people are held back simply because they try to achieve things that are too big, such as “improve my listening ability” or “correct my pronunciation errors”. You can’t achieve something like that  in any measurable way when you study, it’s something you achieve through doing other, smaller steps.

Some examples of what your next actions could look like

Enough abstraction, let’s look at a few examples of what the next action could be for the five areas mentioned above. Of course, these actions don’t exist in a vacuum, but appears to do so here because I haven’t attached them to a long term goal. I think that the long term goals are often obvious, so I haven’t included them.

Next action to improve listening ability

  • Find a suitable news article with transcripts
  • Transcribe one podcast dialogue
  • Look up new words in a dialogue you’ve already listened to
  • Transfer five new Chinese songs to your phone
  • Listen to a radio program for 15 minutes and take notes

Next action to improve speaking ability

Next action to improve reading ability

  • Make sure you have a book available in the bathroom and close to the bed
  • Read the first five pages in a book
  • Go through markings you’ve made when reading
  • Reread something you’ve read earlier
  • Benchmark your reading ability

Next action to improve writing ability

Next action to expand vocabulary

A few words about linear goals

I tend to have a number of projects going, such as “read book x”, “memorize y”, “learn z new characters” and so on. For each of these, I try to always have a next action, I try to always know what the next step will be. If I don’t know the next step, I simply don’t get anything done. If it’s simply doing something a large number of times (such as reading 1000 pages), I usually timebox.

For instance, I failed to write a series of articles on Hacking Chinese for a long time, not because I lacked ideas (I have more than enough), but because I didn’t know what the next step was. I just knew I wanted to produce a series and even if I knew what they should contain, the task of writing these articles still seemed too big and I didn’t know where to start. Only when I sat down and broke this goals into several parts and considered the next action for each did I start getting things done. This is also how I keep larger projects going even if I’m busy with other things.

Example: Improving listening ability

Another examples is listening ability. I think it’s not uncommon to have a vague notion of that we should listen more to Chinese, that we should immerse ourselves. But we don’t, because we don’t really know what the next action is.

Of course, if someone asks you what the next action is, then you might say something like “download suitable audio” or “transfer these podcasts to my phone”, which are obvious answers. The problem is that they only became obvious when you voiced them. Next actions need to be explicit, they need to be said aloud or written down.

Why a thousand mile journey is so hard to start

The reason is that it’s very easy to postpone starting the journey to better listening ability is that starting it tomorrow or next week is essentially the same as setting out today. However, if the next action is much smaller and more manageable, it becomes much harder to argue that you might as well postpone it until tomorrow. Immersing yourself in Chinese might sound like a very hard task, but downloading a podcast is very easy and there is simply no way you can fail that.

What I’m talking about here is essentially just another approach to micro goals, something I’ve written about before first in a separate article, and then again in the article about timeboxing. Khatz over at AJATT puts it well when he says that it’s about winnable games, it’s about breaking things down to such an extent that you cannot possibly fail. It’s easier to beat ten enemies one at a time than ten enemies at once.

However, breaking it down in this fashion isn’t enough, you also need to know which action is the next one. Only then can you actually complete in and move on to the next. It sure is a cliche, but a journey of a thousand miles really needs to start with the first step. If you don’t know how to take that step, your plans and dreams for the rest of the journey becomes meaningless.

Timeboxing Chinese

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/satty4u

I have often stressed the importance of knowing your long-term goals, of knowing in which direction you want to move in a very general sense. However, as everybody knows, setting the goals to speak Chinese fluently or be able to read a newspaper written in the language won’t help you very much in your day to day studying. In fact, focusing too much on a distant goal will probably hurt your chances of reaching that goal.

Sure, it’s true that every long journey has to start with the first step, but if you keep your gaze at the horizon, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re standing still. However, if you look down while you walk, things seem to fly by and you can clearly see that you are covering ground.

You can’t decide to reach a destination, you can only decide to walk towards it

If you have an hour this afternoon to spend studying Chinese, it’s impossible to sit down and reach any goal you have set for yourself. What you can do is sit down and get things done. Once you have done enough, the goal will be accomplished, but it’s work you’re doing, not accomplishing goals. Achieving a goal is a line you pass on your journey; to get there you have to walk.

Micro goals, time boxing and achievements

There are many ways of achieving what you want in the short run (and thus, in line with the above argument, what you want in the long run, too). Two of these methods are micro goals and timeboxing. Micro goals is a technique which simply involves setting very small goals that are easily accomplished within one study session. They should be clearly defined and can be ticked on a list to give a sense of completion. Since I have already written an article about micro gaols, I will not talk more about that here.

Instead, this article is about timeboxing, which is a somewhat different way of approaching the problem of getting things done. As the perceptive reader will notice, I’m going to contradict some things I’ve said about goals in general and micro goals in particular, but that’s okay, because after all what I’m doing on this website is opening doors to possible ways of learning Chinese more efficiently, rather than showing you the one and true path to enlightenment.

Timeboxing

So, what is timeboxing? The first part of the word is easy, but the second part isn’t that obvious. Are we about to engage in a fistfight with time? In a manner of speaking, perhaps, but actually the “boxing” part comes from the word “box” (i.e. something square in which you can put things). It is about dividing time into chunks and do something valuable with each piece. It is about focusing on the next bit of your journey without worrying too much about the final destination.

More time available means less efficiency

It has been found that the more time we have to complete a task, the less efficiently we work on it. This is quite obvious when you think about it and I’m sure most people have experienced this in their everyday lives. Didn’t you have homework assignments you didn’t complete until you really had to, because otherwise you’d fail the course? Having lots of time is not a guarantee for finishing anything, in fact, it’s usually an excuse to procrastinate more.

Realising this, timeboxing is about limiting the time you have available and creating for yourself a task you are 100% sure that you will be able to complete and that you will feel satisfied having completed. It means that rather saying that you’re going to review vocabulary using spaced repetition software until you’re done, you say that you’re going to work hard on reviewing characters for exactly ten minutes. Setting goals “until I’m done” works well if you actually can complete them, but the risk is that you will feel disappointed if you fail. Also, failure leads to an even bigger chance of failing next time, because you will have even more words to handle.

However, deciding that you’re going to spend ten minutes reviewing words is guaranteed to be a success. You almost can’t fail.When you’re done, pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath and decide what you want to do next. If you feel up to it, you can set another ten minutes to get through even more words, but be sure you’re still concentrated enough to be able to do it. I’d suggest doing something else, even if that might be study-related as well.

Becoming a timeboxing champion

Learning how to timebox properly is a matter of practise. I know what works for me, but I don’t know what works for you (and neither do you, if you haven’t tried it). In the above examples, I’ve chosen ten minutes as the default value, but that’s just a guess. I’ve found ten minutes to be a good time interval for most tasks, but you might find that you need shorter intervals to really stay focused. Likewise, you might find that some tasks need more time than that to be meaningful. Estimate, experiment, evaluate; learn how to timebox the specific activities you’re engaged in. Whatever time you choose, make sure to use a  timer that will alert you when the time is up. Using an actual timer will enable you to focus wholly on what you’re doing, rather than thinking about how much time you have left.

Time boxing is an extremely powerful weapon against procrastination and many people who try it are surprised at how effective it really is. It’s almost magic (but not really, because we know why it works). Rather than timeboxing Chinese, I suggest you start timeboxing everyday activities such as cleaning or washing dishes. You will find that if you postponed cleaning your apartment for days (or even weeks), setting a definite time limit and cleaning up only for that time tends to get things spick and span in no time.

An example

Let’s look at an example. I have 300 words due in Anki and I have some time to study today. It’s Saturday and I’m a bit weary after a week of too much to do and not enough sleep.

Without timeboxing: I have two hours of free time, so I decide to start reviewing words. After about 15 minutes, I start feeling bored. Then I see that the estimated time to finish all cards that are due now is four hours and ten minutes. I give up, but playing Starcraft is quite fun, so I do that instead. I won’t get through 300 words today anyway. I might do a few later. In total, I review around 80 words, mostly because I feel I can’t achieve anything anyway and I will have to spend too much time to succeed.

With timeboxing: I start Anki and use the built-in timeboxing settings. I think I can keep concentrated for fifteen minutes and I set the timer. Fifteen minutes later, I have reviewed 80 words. Then I feel happy for having achieved something, but I don’t review more words right now. Instead, I spend ten minutes to look up some characters that have been confusing me. Then I move back to Anki. Another fifteen minutes and 80 words pass by. I take a break, brew some tea, look out through the window for a while. Then I do another fifteen minutes. Then, seeing that I’ve already gotten through a substantial amount, I decide to play some Starcraft. In total, I complete around 200 words, feeling happy and satisfied with every step along the way.

Your mission for next week

Timebox everything you want to do, but find yourself postponing or having problems getting started with. Start with low times, perhaps five minutes, and then increase the time slowly. If you find that you cannot work for the set time, lower it to a manageable level. Of course, this time is related to your current mood and frame of mind, so expect some minor setbacks before you get the hang of it. The important thing is that you will achieve almost every time you timebox. No more procrastination because of disappointment or fear of failure.

Don’t think of the thousand miles you have ahead of you to your goal, don’t think about the steps you’ve already taken. Think about the next step, that’s all that matters. That’s what you’re doing now.

Just do it, just take that one step. It will get you farther than you think.

Goals and motivation, part 4 – Micro goals

This post is about micro goals. To see the introductory article about goals and motivation in general, please follow this link.

Micro goals

Just like long-term and short-term goals, micro goals have already been introduced, but let’s start from the beginning, shall we? To start with, I think the importance of micro goals is very dependent on personality, even though it should be an important tool for most learners. A micro goal is what it sounds like, a very, very short-term goal, perhaps only an hour or two.

Here is a number of examples:

  • Learn the words for the basic colours
  • Enter words from a chapter in your textbook to your computer
  • Read one chapter in a book
  • Write one diary entry
  • Post a contact add on a forum
  • Review your long-term goals

As you can see, many of these coincide with the short-term goals. For instance, you might have the short-term goal of writing ten diary entries this month, so writing one of them is considered a micro goal because you can probably do it within an hour.

Use micro goals whenever you sit down to study

You can set micro goals whenever you plan to study. Before you start, you simply think through what you want to do and then set about completing the task. If they relate to you short-term goals, you can make notes on that sheet of paper to see how you progress towards those goals. Again, this gives you a feeling of movement, you’re actually learning something.

Another important aspect of micro goals is that they limit your studying. If you just sit down to study characters in general, you might lose focus and feel pretty bored. That might happen if you have a micro goal as well, but the good thing is that you have already said how much you’re going to learn. If you know that you’re going to learn 10 radicals and one sample character for each, when you’ve done that, you’re done! If you want to continue, set up another micro goal.

Micro goals are flexible

For me personally, I seldom write these goals down, but I do try to be conscious about them at all times. If I plan to review vocabulary and have a huge workload (let’s say it would take two hours to review everything I should), I simply say that I will review intensely for 15 minutes and then take a break. This kind of time limited goal is usually called time boxing (please refer to Timeboxing Chinese). If I don’t feel tired, I set a new goal. I never sit down and just review without knowing what I wand to achieve, however. If you feel that writing micro goals down, by all means, do so! This is a tool, just like the other goals, use it intelligently.

Goals and motivation, part 1 – Introduction

I think everybody knows that motivation is something you need in order to succeed. I’m naturally going to assume that you have some reason to learn Chinese (otherwise, why are you reading this?), but that’s not going to be enough. Do you know why you want to learn Chinese? Are you the ambitious entrepreneur? The curious student? The involuntary learner? The Chinese culture aficionado? The linguistics nerd?

Be specific

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/zandi2000

Even though it’s helpful knowing what drives you to learn Chinese in general, that’s not enough and even if you feel that you fit in one of the above-mentioned categories, reality is seldom classified that easily. Thus, you need to create your own language learning profile. Naturally, this will change over time, but that’s okay, the point is to make you aware of what you are doing and why. You can revise your profile as your attitude and your outlook change.

A strong motivation is necessary to succeed with any task that requires an extended period of time to accomplish; learning Chinese is definitely not an exception. I’m not going to delve much deeper into how to maintain motivation at the moment, but try to be aware of what makes you move forward.

Goals

This is yet another buzzword that most people have heard in close connection with education and learning: you need to set goals for yourself! What goals? Lots of them, in fact, on many different levels. You need to set long-term goals as well as short-term ones. Sometimes, you can also use micro goals that only spans a couple of hours. It’s absolutely essential that you understand these concepts to gain anything from the rest of the articles on this website, so please pay attention.

Why are goals so important? Because they can tell you what you have to do and what you don’t have to do. Efficient learning is a lot about being able to ignore things you don’t need and spend the time you thus save on studying something really useful. Simply defining your goals won’t make you able to do this, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Goals is also a way of measuring progress, and since learning things makes most people feel good, achieving goals likewise make you feel that you are getting somewhere, you are taking steps down that thousand mile road.

This post serves as an introduction to goals of different kinds, but there is one article for each kind of the goals mentioned below. This articles simply aims to introduce them and point out their main uses. Please refer to each articles for more details and some hand-on tips.

Long-term goals (click to read the article)

A long-term goal is something you can’t achieve within a few days or weeks, but something that takes months or sometimes years. By definition, they will take a long time to achieve, but they are very important because they allow you to focus your learning process towards a few specific goals, which helps you to avoid distractions and formulate goals that can be more easily achieved.

Long-term goals are destinations on your language learning journey. You wouldn’t set out in your car without knowing where you’re going and then hope to arrive at some specific place, would you? There are many kinds of long-term goals, some are reasonably easy to attain, others extremely hard.

Here are some examples I think are quite common for Chinese learners:

  • Be able to chat with a Chinese friend
  • Understand a film in Chinese
  • Be able to do business in China
  • Be able to read The Journey to the West in Chinese
  • Teach Chinese in your country
  • Pass the highest level HSK exam
  • Pass a university course taught in Chinese

I have written more about long-term goals in the second article about goals and motivation.

Short-term goals (click to read the article)

If long-term goals stretch over months and years, short-term goals would stretch over days and weeks. These goals are as important as the long-term goal, but because they change a lot faster, you’re going to have to deal with them a lot more. Short-term goals are created by breaking down long-term goals, asking the question: What do I need to practice doing to achieve this long-term goal?

Here are a few example of short-term goals:

  • Pass the exam on March 5th
  • Go through all the sounds in Chinese
  • Read five short texts
  • Write at least ten diary entries
  • Find a language exchange partner
  • Learn the lyrics of five songs

Setting short-term goals is an art that requires lots of practice. It also requires a lot of knowledge about yourself and how you work as a person. Setting deadlines and making yourself accountable in some way (perhaps just by telling other people what you’re doing) are usually good ideas, but there are many more things to keep in mind.

I have written more about short-term goals in the third article about goals and motivation.

Micro goals (click to read the article)

Micro goals are, just like the name implies, very short-term indeed. They should be achievable in one sitting, perhaps even less than half an hour. The idea here is to be able to stay focused on something concrete and tangible, while the other goals (long-term and short-term) linger in the background.

Here are some examples of micro goals:

  • Learn the words for the basic colours
  • Enter words from a chapter in your textbook to your computer
  • Read one chapter in a book
  • Write one diary entry
  • Post a contact ad on a forum
  • Review your long-term goals

Staying focused even for short periods of time is sometimes incredibly more productive than aimlessly learning words or otherwise studying without a specific goal in mind. Micro goals needn’t always be written down, but it’s good to be aware of them.

I have written more about micro goals in the fourth article about goals and motivation