Launching Hacking Chinese Challenges

challenge-screenToday I’m proud to launch a new section of the website:

Welcome to Hacking Chinese Challenges!

“Build your language skills through daily practice and friendly competition!”

The concept is simple. Each month, there will be a challenge focusing on one particular area of learning Chinese, where you strive to reach your goal and/or beat your friends. The challenges are very straightforward: set a goal, study as much as you can, log your activity and make sure you reach your goal before the end of the month.

To make sure we diversify our studying, I have worked out a schedule and will cycle different types of challenges. You can join all the challenges and get a lot of everything or just join those that happen to be aligned with your current plans, it’s up to you.

If you join all the challenges, I will make sure that the proportions make sense, so even if there will be some special/unique/interesting challenges, most will just be very useful.


Once you have registered, you can join challenges, set goals and report progress. Please note that this month’s challenge will start on Friday, so even if you can enrol now, you can’t start reporting progress before Friday. I will write more about this month’s challenge on Thursday and will also post some suggested resources early next week.

I have included more specific instructions on how to use Hacking Chinese Challenges below, but let’s look at the schedule first. I will update this as I come up with new challenges or if I decide to include reader suggestions. Leave a comment if you have ideas for challenges!

I have sorted the challenges into three different categories:

Essential: Areas that will recur 3-4 times each year

  • Extensive listening
  • Extensive reading

Important: Areas that will recur 1-2 times each year

  • Speaking and pronunciation
  • Writing and composition
  • Characters and vocabulary

Interesting: Challenges that will occur sporadically

  • Translation
  • Grammar and sentence patterns
  • Culture related
  • Music and lyrics
  • Films, TV series and programs

There will be one challenge each month that will last for roughly three weeks, always starting on a weekday and ending on the last day of the month. Three weeks is enough to stay focused and achieve a lot, but not so long that you tire and get distracted. You also get one week breathing space between each challenge.

Challenge schedule for 2014 (subject to change)

  1. Extensive listening (October 10th to October 31st)
  2. Extensive reading (November 10th to November 30th)
  3. Translation (December 10th to December 31st)

You can enrol in any available challenge in advance (just follow the links above) and it’s also perfectly fine to join late, just adjust your goals, because the end date is the same for everyone! The page “your statistics” will help you keep track of how much time there’s left, how you have performed so far and how that compares with your goal. This is a bigger version of the image above:

challenge-screenEach challenge will be preceded by a post on Hacking Chinese where I introduce the challenge and share some relevant articles and resources (you can always go to Hacking Chinese Resources). Let’s help each other out and share tips, information and resources for each challenge!

Why do we need challenges?

I like challenges a lot and I think it’s an excellent way to stay focused, especially for learners who aren’t taking courses but still want to improve. My hope is that if you commit to these challenges, you’ll get more done.

I have participated in several reading challenges (this project is inspired by Read More or Die) and I typically read more than twice as much when I’m in a challenge compared to when I’m not! I want to use this power not only for reading, but for all areas of language learning. And I want you to join me. I plan to enrol in all challenges myself and I came up with the idea partly because I need this badly myself.

How to use Hacking Chinese Challenges

Most of the functions should be self-explanatory, but here’s how it works for new users:

  1. Sign-up (using your e-mail, Facebook or Twitter)
  2. View current and upcoming challenges on the front page
  3. Join either the current or an upcoming challenge
  4. Read the related article for tips, information and resources
  5. Study and learn as much Chinese as you can
  6. Report your progress on your computer or mobile device
  7. Check the graph to see if you’re on track to reaching your goal
  8. Check the leader board to see how you compare to others
  9. Share progress, tips and resources with fellow students

This is a beta version

This is a beta version. It has been through some testing before this (I ran a listening challenge with volunteers from the e-mail list as well as a short vocabulary challenge with people from Facebook). However, there are likely still occasional quirks and bugs. This is a work in progress and if you have any feedback or comments, please let me know!

Just as for Hacking Chinese Resources, I’m not responsible for the coding on this project. Instead I have relied on the invaluable help of Stefan Wienert, thank you! I have also received a lot of help from Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project.

Get ready

I’m going to tell you more about the October challenge this Thursday, but if you want to start now, you could prepare yourself by enrolling in the challenge and finding as much listening material as you can. I’m going to talk much more about this later, but try to find audio that is at or below your level. See you again on Thursday!

Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals

Image source:
Image source:

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:
Image source:

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.

Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps

We all experience slumps or periods when we don’t study much for some reason. This can be because the fun has gone out of it, because we’ve found other things to fill our spare time with or for a number of other reasons that are likely to be very individual.

When I talk about slumps, I’m talking about when you study less Chinese because of internal factors, so if you haven’t studied because you’re busy taking care of your newborn baby or surviving a one-man hike through the Amazon rainforest, you’re not experiencing a slump. Still, it’s important to realise that we usually have more time than we think, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Image credit:
Image credit:

I wrote about the problem with slumps last week, arguing that slumps affect your learning more than flows, mostly because slumps tend to be long and draining whereas flows may be intense, but seldom last very long. I also said that the most important way of dealing with slumps is to prepare for them before they happen.

However, even though I think I explained the why, I didn’t really explain the how.After several comments about this both here on Hacking Chinese and on Facebook, I decided to expand the topic with another article focused exclusively on how to handle slumps in particular.

Productivity, time management and having fun

I have written three articles earlier that are all crucial to understanding how to deal with ebbs in motivation. For those of you who haven’t read them, I’ll summarise them as follows:

  • Study according to your productivity levelWhen studying and choosing between the many things you want to learn, you should choose a task that is as demanding as you can manage. This might sound obvious, but it has some really important implications. First, if you are too tired to learn something, your default solution shouldn’t be to stop learning, but you should learn something easier instead. Conversely, you shouldn’t waste productivity by doing things that require no effort at all when in fact you feel like you could conquer the world. Scale down or scale up depending on your current state of mind.
  • Have fun learning Chinese or else…The importance of enjoying yourself is something that really can’t be stressed too much, even when we’re talking about normal learning as opposed to learning in a slump. The logic is quite straightforward: Learning Chinese takes an awful lot of time and if you don’t enjoy it or find it interesting, it will be almost impossible to force yourself to do it. It would also be quite stupid. Find ways of learning that you like, or at least make the best of every situation.
  • The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think – The important lesson here is that accomplishing anything can be broken down into smaller tasks of various sizes. Some of them require serious planning because they are bulky and require a lot of space in your metaphorical time barrel (thes tasks are called rocks), some can be fitted in almost anywhere (pebbles or sand)  or even superimposed on top of other tasks (water). In order to fill your days with as much Chinese as possible, you should think about how to fill all those small spaces between the boulders. The picture below shows how to fill the time barrel.

timebarrelsHow to handle slumps

Now that we have looked at some of the key concepts involved, we can start talking about how to deal with the slump itself.

First, based on the article about productivity levels, it’s clear that we’re not going to accomplish anything too serious during a slump. Thus, anything that you consider challenging in anyway is probably not a good idea (you might still be forced to do it because of exams and so on, though), because you don’t have the motivation to see it through. To as large an extent as possible, stick to what  you already know.

Another option is to choose tasks that don’t feel much like studying at all:

Second, focus on anything you find interesting or fun for reasons that aren’t connected to learning the language itself (if you think learning the language itself is fun, you’re probably not in a slump at the moment and you’re reading the wrong article). Here’s some advice from the having fun article. If you already like…

There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:

  • Finding friends who share your interest
  • Reading blogs about the topic in question
  • Writing about what you like on a blog
  • Talking with friends about what you like
  • Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes

Third, if we look at the time barrel, it’s easy to see that the big rocks need to go. They require focus and represent major obstacles that you certainly don’t feel like negotiating right now. When you feel upbeat, go ahead, but during a slump, you should get rid of most or all the bigger, more draining tasks. Depending on how serious the slump is, you could also get rid of lots of pebbles. The point is that you should keep as much of the small stuff as possible. Here are some suggestions:


  • Listening to a few minutes of audio on your mp3 player
  • Chatting with a friend in Chinese online
  • Reviewing vocabulary a few minutes at a time


Don’t conquer, consolidate

In general, I think that one common denominator for all the above arguments is that things you know already are less demanding than things you don’t know. Familiar things fit more easily in the time barrel. This means that you shouldn’t focus too much on adding to your knowledge in a slump, which could be likened to conquering new territory, but rather reinforce the Chinese you already know, which would be more like consolidating what you have already conquered. In essence, jump one rung down on the ladder of progress, go back to where you were half a year ago.

Naturally, this is easier the more advanced you are. If you can read comics with ease, but find novels hard, stop reading novels and go back to comics. If you find new comics too demanding, re-read old ones or continue reading a series you’re already familiar with. Re-watch your favourite Disney or Pixar films in Chinese.

If you have a serious slump as a beginner, you might have a different kind of problem. How serious are you about learning Chinese? Rather than studying, I think you should try to find ways to motivate yourself in general. What made you start learning Chinese in the first place? Return to that inspirational source or find others.

Focus on ways of learning that don’t involve studying

Another way to look at this is to highlight the difference between studying and learning. The first usually means that you focus on doing something in order to learn (i.e. learning is the main goal). Learning is then the result of studying (if you’re using an efficient method). However, studying isn’t the only way you can learn! Basically, anything you do that’s related to Chinese will improve your Chinese. Don’t think of studying Chinese as sitting in front of a computer looking up characters or doing grammar exercises in a book. During a slump, focus on ways of learning tat don’t involve active studying.

You’re not alone

Although I haven’t discussed it explicitly above, social factors are very important. You’re not the only one learning Chinese and neither are you the only person around in general. It’s much harder to motivate yourself if you’re doing everything alone, but if you allow other people to help you, it will be much easier. This includes normal social interaction with Chinese speakers as well as teaming up with study partners or discussing learning online. I have written more about this here: You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone.


This is a Chengyu that for some reason seems very common in textbooks but which use is quite limited (as is the case with most Chengyu). This is the definition from Baidu:

未雨绸缪,拼为wèi yǔ chóu móu,

In other words, you make sure the doors and windows are tightly fastened before the storm (rain) arrives, which simply means to prepare for an event in advance, to prepare for a rainy day. Or prepare for a slump before it hits you. This is my final and perhaps most important piece of advice:

Prepare for the slump before it hits you

The logic behind this is very simple: There are many things you can learn during a slump, but most of these require effort of some kind before you get started. To name a few examples, you can’t watch a Pixar film in Chinese if you don’t have it available, you can’t reread a comic book if you haven’t read any comic books, you can’t practice sports if you haven’t found a club, you can’t hang out with friends that you don’t have, establishing habits is much harder than maintaining them. And so on.

You need to find learning activities at all different levels and establish habits when you have the energy to do so, not when you’re in a slump. I review vocabulary daily because it’s a habit I have established over many years. It doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s just something I do. Establishing such a habit is hard, maintaining it is not (that’s part of the definition of a habit).

Lastly, even though this might be obvious, don’t overdo any task that will come back and haunt you later. This is perhaps most important when it comes to spaced repetition software. Some people binge study in programs like Skritter and Anki, but fail to realise that the hard thing isn’t to add lots of flashcards, it’s to maintain those words later. Instead of just adding lots of words, spend that time actually using Chinese instead (listening/speaking/reading/writing).


If you’re in a slump now, take a step back (or down) and follow the advice above. Try focusing on the fun aspects of learning and avoid forced studying. Hopefully, your motivation will come back soon. If you don’t have much to fall back on in terms of habits or leisurely activities, you’d better make that a priority after the slump.

If you’re not in a slump now, you should prepare for the storm now rather than waiting for when the rain starts pouring in through your leaking roof. I have provided a lot of things you could look into, but I’m sure you know better than I do what will work for you in a slump. You will still experience slumps, but hopefully they will be less severe!

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

Study according to your current productivity level

In order to learn Chinese, there are a wide range of things we need to study. Some are very demanding (writing, active listening), some relatively monotonous (entering new vocabulary, reviewing old vocabulary), others aren’t actually studying, but still beneficial (finding suitable reading material, reading articles on Hacking Chinese), yet others are fairly passive and can be combined with other activities (background listening, passive listening). Perhaps the most overlooked kind of studying is that which doesn’t really feel like studying (listening to music, playing computer games, doing sports).

These all require different levels of productivity. Sometimes, we are full of energy and feel that we can do anything, but sometimes we feel listless and when we try to write an article or transcribe a dialogue, it simply doesn’t work.

If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it

In order to invest thousands of hours into learning Chinese, you need to either enjoy what you’re doing or be very masochistic. Not only does studying become a pain if you don’t enjoy it, but studies also show that being interested in what you’re doing and enjoying while you learn is of paramount importance for your study results. Therefore, if you planned to do something, but then figure out that you don’t have the energy required, you shouldn’t force yourself. Generating negative feelings in connection with learning Chinese is dangerous and counter-productive.

If you don’t feel up to it, do something else instead

However, just because you don’t feel up to spending an hour transcribing a dialogue or writing an article on Lang-8, that does not mean that you should play games on Facebook or idly browse the internet instead. No, you should instead try to find something else to study, something that matches your current productivity level. This is the true topic of this article. Maximising output is about being able to find something suitable to study for any given mental state or level of productivity.

If you have to do it anyway, choose the best time

Before delving deeper into different kinds of tasks and how to rank them according to productivity level, something should be said about procrastination. If you have tasks you really have to do, either because you think they’re essential to your language learning or because of curricular pressure, you can’t simply choose other tasks, at least not all the time. However, if you start with your assignment well on time, there’s usually enough time to allow some flexibility. If you just can’t concentrate on learning complex grammar right now, perhaps after lunch or before dinner will be better?

This is not an excuse to postpone indefinitely, it’s about knowing yourself. If you know that you become very tired after meals, don’t place heavy tasks like active listening or writing articles directly after lunch. If you know that you’re usually very productive for a few hours after waking up, try to use that time to get these things done instead. This is related to what I’ve written about time quality earlier, but is more closely related to your own emotional state, rather than external factors.

In essence, you should choose the task that most closely matches your current productivity level and mental state.

This means that you might have to do things you don’t feel up to sometimes, but that’s difficult to avoid if you have exams and homework assignments.

Productivity levels vary over time

Although people are certainly different in this regard, productivity levels vary over time, both in the short and long term. Personally, I know that I’m very productive before lunch (this article was written around eight o’clock on a Sunday morning) and after midnight. On the other hand, I know that time between lunch and dinner is much less productive for me, and the closer to five o’clock it gets, the more prone to procrastination I become.

Productivity levels also vary in the long term. If I’m busy with other things that require productive output of some kind, I have less energy left for demanding study tasks. If studying Chinese is the only thing I’m doing at the moment, this usually isn’t a problem, but it still might be. Almost everything in our might influences how productive we feel (particularly social life). Therefore, understanding yourself is necessary if you hope to optimise your studying.

Tasks requiring low productivity levels

Regarding tasks requiring low productivity levels, I think it’s important to always know what you’re going to study next. You can keep post-it notes on your desk or have a text file on your phone, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but having a list of things to study is necessary. Why? Because determining what you want to study requires productivity/creativity in itself! If you don’t have that, how are you supposed to know what to study? Here are a few things I can do almost regardless of how listless I feel:

  • Review vocabulary – Make sure to timebox if it’s hard to concentrate or if you feel tired
  • Edit vocabulary definitions – I routinely mark and update flashcards with new info, example sentences and so on
  • Find, download or manage audio – Do you have relevant audio on your phone? If yes, you can always get more.

If these things are too demanding or you find them too boring to cope with, then try the following (but don’t do this all the time, know yourself well enough to know when you’re procrastinating and when you are realistic):

These are just examples, of course. What you personally think is demanding isn’t something I can comment on, but the above examples are based on my own experience. For instance, music is something which makes me more energetic, so using music almost never fails. This might not be the case for you, but I hope you understand the principle.

The most important thing of all: When you feel tired, don’t stop studying, study something else instead

If you take one thing with you from this article, I’d like it to be this: The next time you feel tired while studying Chinese and feel like giving up, don’t simply put down the book and go on Facebook or similar. Instead, find something else you can study which is more suited to your current emotional state. It might be something which doesn’t feel very serious (such as music), but it’s still exposure to Chinese, something you need more of. In any case, it’s much better than doing nothing!