Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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 every day, 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, which tells us little apart from that we need time to form habits. There is nothing magic about it and habits can form quicker, but typically takes longer.

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 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 many people, including myself, go wrong. We plan only for how to form the habit and what to do when we succeed. It’s all or nothing. If we 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.

Failing more than once should never be the same as failing just once.

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, so I gave my dad $1,000 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. Punishing or rewarding someone can have the opposite of the intended effect, especially if the reward or punishment becomes a major reason for doing something, and especially if that something is creative in nature. I think it worked for my freelance project because it was a push to get started and invest the necessary time (that’s not a creative problem), not a push to write a good text (which is a creative problem). I was not rewarded for doing it well, just for doing it.


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

The modern Bible of habit formation:

Atomic Habits by James Clear

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

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  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”

  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.


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