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.


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

Your slumps affect your language learning more than your flows

Let’s talk a little bit about cycling. As anyone who has ever cared about average speed knows, uphill stretches affect your average speed much more negatively than downhill stretches affect it positively. In other words, even though one might look at a track and think that a hill cancels itself out, this isn’t the case. In fact, the best kind of track is one with no height differences at all (provided we start and finish at the same altitude, of course).

altitude curveLearning Chinese is much like cycling in this regard. There are people who go on binges and study like maniacs for short periods of time (downhill cycling), but then run out of steam and have slump lasting considerably longer (uphill cycling). The problem with this uphill-downhill kind of studying is that it isn’t your top speed that counts, it’s your average. Or, if you will, the distance you cover. The best is to have a steady, regular performance that gives you the mileage you need without burning yourself out completely.

Slumps, uphill cycling and procrastination

We all have slumps. People tend to think that I’m very ambitious, but in spite what is sometimes claimed, I’m a human rather than a robot, and as such, I do have my periods of low activity and procrastination, too.

However, the main difference between many students I know and myself is that my low output is still considerably higher than zero. When I “stop studying” Chinese, I still chat with friends, read comics, watch StarCraft matches, listen to music, practise gymnastics and so on, all in Chinese. I learn a lot even when I have no energy to study. A key component is to be able to adjust how and what you study according to how productive you feel.

I’ve written about low-intensity learning before (see the list below), but it’s essential that you set these habits or routines up before you find yourself in a slump. Forging habits is energy consuming it itself and when your fighting yourself up a very steep hill, you won’t have the energy it takes to redesign your study method. Here are a few areas to focus on:

Doing this, being in a slump just means that you won’t focus so much on learning new words or grammar and that you won’t tackle new texts or recordings. You will focus on consolidating rather than conquering new territory. It’s still a slump, but it’s the difference between hanging in there, pedalling your way towards the top rather than stopping altogether.

Flow, downhill cycling and binge studying

That being said, flow is still something very useful. I sometimes feel a very strong urge to learn more and I try to go along with that as much as I can. The problem is that I think this kind of binge studying might feel very good when you do it, but that it still drains energy and makes the subsequent slump that much worse. If you often find yourself binge studying and then leaving Chinese alone for long periods of time, you need to change the way you’re studying.

Obviously, you need to binge study quite a lot if its going to make up for what you lose in the intervening slumps. If you can do it and it fits your personality and your schedule, by all means do it, but I think that most people would benefit from having steady routines and trying to level the highest peaks and fill the lowest valleys. That way, the road to Chinese fluency becomes that much smoother!

Final words of advice

  • Prepare for periods of low motivation when you’re motivated
  • Establish habits that increases your minimum daily Chinese exposure
  • Understand that all exposure counts as learning in some way

Continue reading: Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps