Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Habit hacking for language learners

Habits are routines that become smooth and effortless with repetition. They are essential for managing daily life efficiently, and by developing the right habits for learning Chinese, you can learn more with less effort!

Habits are formed through repeated actions and can become an integral part of daily life, requiring minimal conscious effort. If you had to make deliberate decisions about every action in a normal day, it would quickly lead to mental exhaustion. By developing habits for routine tasks, we conserve mental energy for more important decisions and activities.

Forming a new habit is like blazing a trail through a dense jungle

Imagine a dense jungle. The first time you go from your camp to the river for water, you must hack through the undergrowth with a machete. That’s hard work! You get back to base with a bucket of water eventually, but you lose more water through sweat than you fetched!

Fortunately, you go to the river to get water several times per day. The second time you go, you only need the machete occasionally. After a week, a path started emerging, making walking much easier. If you keep at it, a well-trodden path will emerge. Maybe one day, you’ll be able to pave the path to form a road, too.

Habits work just like forming a path through the jungle. Something that used to require a lot of effort has become easy. I’ve borrowed this analogy from this Kurzgesagt video:

Invest time to form a habit now and reap the benefits later

Establishing a learning habit takes time and effort, but once it’s in place, it makes learning much easier. The first time you choose to listen to a Mandarin podcast during your commute, walk, or run, you might feel some resistance. It might not be as tough as blazing a trail through a jungle, but consistently listening to Chinese every day will be challenging at first and requires some courage and motivation to start.

That’s okay! If you keep doing it, listening will become easier and easier, and after a while, it will feel as natural as brushing your teeth. Listening to Mandarin podcasts will become a regular part of your routine, and not listening will feel strange.

Listening to podcasts is just one example. Other useful habits might include reading in Chinese before bed, reviewing vocabulary in the morning, or counting steps in Mandarin as you go up and down stairs.

Habits are like compound interest on the time you invest in learning.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear wrote that habits are like compound interest. If you keep making small improvements, the benefits will add up over time, much like steady savings in your bank account.

Reading or listening for an extra ten minutes each day might not seem like much, but if you do it for three years, you will have engaged with Chinese for nearly two hundred extra hours. Unless you’re already doing a lot of reading and listening, that’s a significant amount!

Not only that but since you engage with the language more, you will also understand more of what you read and listen to, further accelerating your learning.

Consistently showing up is better than binge studying.

The longer I learn Chinese, the more I realise that studying a little every day is more important than cramming once a week. Spreading your learning over time makes it easier to retain what you’ve learned, and it’s very hard to invest a lot of time in just a few sessions.

Diversifying your learning unlocks time slots that aren’t available if you think of studying in terms of large chunks of time. By spending just five minutes a few times throughout the day, like while waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for a colleague, or stuck in traffic, you can easily stay on top of vocabulary reviews without needing to set aside large blocks of time.

Diversify how you study Chinese to learn more

Another way of saying this is that steady progress is more likely to help you achieve your goal than sprinting short distances and then doing nothing in between. Anyone who has practised running, cycling, or other endurance sports knows that your average pace matters. Slumps affect your progress more than flows.

Habit Hacking for Chinese learners

Habits can be both good and bad. From a language-learning perspective, good habits are activities that help you achieve your goals, while bad habits are those that do not. Generally, we want to form good habits and eliminate or transform bad ones. Naturally, some habits, like eating healthy and exercising, are beneficial even if they don’t directly improve your Chinese.

For a general overview of habit formation, I strongly recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear. The book does a good job of explaining otherwise tricky topics of behavioural psychology and is full of practical examples, most of which can be applied to learning Chinese with some imagination.

Here’s a summary of how he describes the habit cycle in four steps:

  • Cue: This is what initiates the habit cycle and prompts you to think about your habit. Clear, specific cues help establish habits effectively. For example, decide to start a podcast every morning as soon as you leave home. Attaching your new habit to an existing one can also be effective. For instance, spend five minutes using Skritter right after brushing your teeth, or put on a podcast during your daily morning walk.
  • Craving: Make the activity as appealing as possible by focusing on its positive aspects. Associate the activity with a positive outcome, such as the usefulness, enjoyment, or cool factor of understanding a foreign language. Emphasize how good it will feel to improve your Chinese. Naturally, engaging with content you enjoy enhances this craving.
  • Response: This is the action you perform to achieve the reward. The key here is to make the response as effortless as possible. Ensure you have the necessary tools, set modest goals, and reduce any friction. For example, subscribe to several podcasts in advance and download them if you lack internet access. Avoid barriers like a low phone battery that could prevent you from listening.
  • Reward: After completing the activity, make sure it feels rewarding. Intrinsic motivation works best. Feelings of competence (learning Chinese), autonomy (being in control of your learning), and relatedness (connecting with others) are powerful motivators. If you can’t find enough motivation, use traditional rewards, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV series in English, but only after listening to an equivalent amount of Chinese content.

7 ideas for smooth and effortless Chinese listening practice

The key to successful habit formation is to take baby steps. Consistency matters much more than duration, so when forming a habit, make sure you always perform it when you’re supposed to, even if it’s only for a minute.

Starting small helps ensure success and builds confidence. Once you have established the habit of starting to read before going to bed, you can try to extend the time and read for a longer duration. If you try reading for an hour every day starting from nothing, you’re very likely to fail. Do not aim for the stars.

How long does it take to form a new habit?

You might have heard about the 21-day rule for habit formation. While the number isn’t accurate, it emphasises the need for consistent practice over time. The true number of days required to form a habit depends on many factors, and can sometimes be shorter than 21 days but often much longer.

The jungle analogy I used earlier only takes us so far. It would indicate that habits become easier and easier the longer you perform a routine, but this is only true in general. Sometimes, the first two weeks of habit formation might feel easy because you’re driven by an initial strong motivation to succeed.

However, the following weeks can be tougher as the novelty wears off. It’s easy to imagine someone who wants to start running, goes out a few times and feels good about it, but then quits after a week or two when motivation slumps.

Another danger to habits, including well-established ones, is when your other routines are disturbed, such as when you travel or when major life events happen. Habits are built on each other, so if you no longer start the day the same way, you might lose habits associated with that. I’ve lost many good habits by moving house, travelling or being sick.

Planning for long-term success can help!

How to forge iron-clad habits for learning Chinese

Planning for long-term success and anticipating challenges can help maintain both old and new habits. To ensure habits stick, you need a long-term plan and a backup plan. The long-term plan is simply how you want to build your habit, which is what we’ve been talking about so far.  Asking others to check in on you, setting digital reminders, and simply thinking about potential setbacks ahead of time all help.

For instance, make yourself accountable by asking a friend or family member to check in on you. You could also announce it publicly, which is what I’ve done for many of the vocabulary challenges here on Hacking Chinese. You don’t want to look bad or let people down by having to tell them that you have failed.

However, note that the relationship between extrinsic rewards, such as money or candy, can have adverse effects on intrinsic motivation, especially for activities that are intrinsically motivating in themselves. For example, if you enjoy reading short stories in Chinese, awarding yourself a cookie every time you finish a chapter might make you less motivated to read, not more!

I would be careful with using extrinsic rewards if it’s possible to foster intrinsic motivation instead. I wrote more about intrinsic motivation here: How to learn Chinese in the long term with intrinsic motivation.

How to learn Chinese in the long term with intrinsic motivation

Conclusion: Habit hacking for successful language learning

Establishing effective habits can make language learning significantly easier. By consistently repeating simple actions, such as listening to Mandarin podcasts or reading in Chinese, you can create routines that conserve mental energy and make learning less effortful.

Habits, like compound interest, yield significant benefits over time, making steady, incremental progress more impactful than sporadic, intensive studying. Forging good habits while eliminating or transforming bad ones will help you reach your goals!

What language-learning habits do you have currently? Which would you like to have in the future? Please share in a comment below!






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16 comments

  1. Hugh Grigg says:

    Another excellent post, Olle. For me the most helpful thing if I’m lacking motivation is to just think “anything is better than nothing”, and really push that to extremes if I’m not in the mood at all. E.g. if I’m really not in the mood for SRS, to tell myself that one flashcard is better than none. I nearly always find that opening up Anki and doing one flashcard is enough to get me going for at least 10 minutes, but the promise to myself has to be that I’m only required to do one.

    As you say, this gets me doing it daily, if only in small amounts when I’m not motivated, but that’s the most important thing. This same principle applies to languages, music, exercise etc. etc.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Khatz over at All Japanese All the Time says this all the time. Everything is better than nothing. The only truly bad number is zero. I agree completely and wholeheartedly. It’s also fascinating to see how much of language learning applies to life in general and how much of life in general applies to language learning!

  2. David Feigelson says:

    I agree that the long view is more helpful than the short view. How many projects were undone for a lack of patience!

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m tempted to answer “most”, but I also think some projects are undone because of a lack of action as well. I realise that I’m probably in a minority, but I do tend to plan too much rather than too little.

  3. xyz says:

    there is a real philosophy behind this small step techniques

    see this source
    books ” the kaizen way”
    ” mini habits”
    http://minihabits.com/

  4. george says:

    hmmm.. I am not sure that anything sticks as a habit by doing it consecuctive for 21 days, or vice vera.

    But habits do come about because they are useful and or pleasureable (like eating chocolate).

    Let’s just set aside all the guilt and shame of our bad habits and consider the fact that there is also a pleasure content to good habits. In the case of language learning, good habits save you time and allow you to acquire more knowledge with less effort.

    And so, I try to only study Chinese when I am ready to think in and to think about Chinese. I don’t try the ‘bring the body and the mind will follow’ approach. I suspect that is doomed. I do spend as much time thinking about how productive my study sessions are as I do to just studying. That is called have an ‘overview’. And I would have to say that habitually looking at how you are studying with some perspect of ‘overview’ is going to remind you how to waste less time.

    Over the long hual, wasting less time is a big deal. You are more productive when engaged in studying Chinese, and you have eliminated the negative dialogues that might slow down your learning.

    Learning a second language is as much about learning how to learn as it is about the target language.

  5. Chris Butler says:

    Agree with all of the thoughts you have.

    The whole concept around habit learning is something I have been thinking about a lot.

    The issue is that the reward for learning tends to be experiential rather than a physical object you gain. It points to the difference of intrinsic vs. extrinsic learning as well…

    Right now, I feel good whenever I see a character that I have recently learned out in the world in passing. I am fortunate to live in Hong Kong where it is everywhere.

    I wonder how this can be provided to someone that lives in the US or a non-Chinese speaking country… maybe they just need to walk around their respective Chinatown more?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Perhaps it would be possible to achieve this artificially or set it up so that you learn characters from a specific text source and then feel rewarded when revisiting that text and finding that you actually understand what it says? I don’t think rewards always need to be experiential, but they do need to be immediate and closely linked with the task in question.

  6. Robert says:

    Hey Olle –

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading it. Before even getting into the content, the writing was really fluid and easy to digest…thanks!

    I like the honest and transparent thought put into this article. Things like identifying that the first two weeks aren’t as difficult as week 3 and 4 due to the novelty wearing off is a great insight. To anticipate something like this happening and coming up with a plan to combat it or battle through it when it comes up is a huge benefit to thinking about this type of thing.

    Best,
    Robert

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