Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How to not fail with your New Year resolution to learn Chinese

A new year, a new beginning, the perfect time to commit to levelling up your Chinese and achieve greatness! But is a New Year resolution really a good idea? Didn’t you have the same feeling of optimism this time last year? If those plans came to naught, what makes you think it would be different this time?

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode:

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Generally speaking, New Year resolutions are poorly constructed attempts to achieve difficult things, powered by optimism and wishful thinking. The problem with that is that optimism and willpower tend to wane, and thus most New Year resolutions fall apart after just a few weeks. And if you were truly motivated to achieve your goals, why wait until New Year, why not get started immediately? Indeed, why didn’t you get long ago? There’s nothing magical with New Year that will suddenly make everything better.

New Year resolutions can work…

Still, while it is true that New Year is an arbitrary time to get started, it is as good a time as any. If you have a learning project in the pipeline that you’ve been wanting to pull the trigger on, why not do it now? Three years ago, I decided to stop eating candy, cookies, ice cream and a whole range of other things I’m a little bit too fond of, and that resolution is still doing well today.

…but there are better alternatives

Before we look at how to commit to long-term goals and making them stick, it’s worth mentioning that other approaches are usually better. Gradually building good habits over time is more likely to succeed than making radical changes overnight. Another approach is the forking path, which is a more human and less managerial approach to productivity. I have recorded a podcast episode about the same topic you can listen to here:

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese:

How to not fail with your New Year resolution to learn Chinese

But let’s say you do feel motivated and want to make next year better than this year. What to do? Most of the problems with New Year resolutions can be overcome by setting good goals and focusing on the right things. A New Year resolution is after all nothing more than a long-term goals that we commit to for the coming year. And goals are an essential part of efficient learning.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Make the goal challenging but achievable. If it’s too easy, there’s not much point in having the goal in the first place, but if you think it’s impossible, you probably won’t take the goal very seriously. Try to find a goal that is as hard as possible, but achievable given the time and energy you have to invest in it. Also make sure that your goal is specific and measurable, so “learn as much Chinese as I can” is not a good goal.
  • Make a realistic plan to achieve your goal. One of the main problems with New Year resolutions is focusing on the abstract, long-term goal, while neglecting concrete, short-term actions. Your resolution works as a direction, but you need more concrete steps to take along the way. If your goal is to read a certain number o   f books in Chinese, pass a specific test or do well in your course, identify milestones and list next actions that will take you there. This is something I discuss in much more detail in my course Hacking Chinese: A Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin. If you are a beginner, you should check out Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide to Beginners, which goes through how to build a stead study routine and how to figure out what to do first, along with most other things you need to know as a beginner.
  • Make yourself accountable. Setting a goal that only you know about makes it easy to abandon. There are various ways of making yourself accountable, but the best way is to put something on the line. Simply saying that you will do something can actually have adverse effects on your chances of success, as talking about your goal can make you feel like you’re getting closer to it, just as buying new running shoes or a gym membership can be a substitute for running and exercising. Commit to regular updates, ask friends or family to check your progress and so on. By far the most efficient method is to put money on the line. I once told my dad that if I didn’t finish a freelance writing project I found difficult to get started on within two weeks, I’d give him $1,000. After having procrastinated on that project for almost a year, I finished within the deadline with time to spare. Exactly how much money to put on the line depends on how serious you are and how much each dollar is worth to you. There are services that do this for you, such as Beeminder: plot your path to success and if you fall behind too much, pay up!

If you do none of the above, your New Year resolution is likely to end up on the scrap heap of broken dreams and discarded projects. Procrastination is a powerful foe and there’s a lot more to say on the topic. If you want to read or listen to more about that, I suggest you read or listen to this interview where Scott Young talks to Piers Steel, a leading researched into why we don’t do what we feel we ought to do.

Hacking Chinese Challenges: Building language skills through daily practice and friendly competition

One way to learn more Chinese in 2021 is to commit to participating in Hacking Chinese Challenges. These are completely free and there’s a different challenge every month, focusing on a specific aspect of learning Chinese.

Why not commit to participating in all challenges in 2021, with a minimum input of effort, maybe 10 hours for each active challenge (speaking, writing and so on) and 20 hours for each passive challenge (listening, reading, etc.)? Feel free to scale the numbers up or down depending on how much time you plan to spend on learning Chinese.

My New Year resolution is to do just that! I will participate in all of the challenges in 2021. Since I’m not really studying Chinese at all these days, although I do of course keep learning as much as I can, I will commit to a minimum of 7 hours for the active challenges and 15 hours for the passive challenges. I hope to be able to do more, but that’s my minimum.

This New Year resolution meets the criteria above.

  • It is achievable but not easy. While the above hours are nowhere close to how much time I spent when I studied Chinese full time, the truth is that I work more than full time these days and even if some of my work is in Chinese and most of it is related to Chinese, only a small part of it can be counted for the challenges. I’ve tried to set a goal that I feel that I can really commit to.
  • There’s a clear path to success. The challenge is specific enough that it’s easy to evaluate if I succeeded or not at the end of the year. Each challenge has specific instructions for how to participate, so it’s also clear what I’m supposed to do to achieve my goals. I would have preferred a goal that was based on performance rather that time spent, but this is simply too difficult to come up with in my case.
  • I can be said to be accountable because I have a public reputation of a kind. If I publicly announce that I will do something here on Hacking Chinese as I’m doing now, I will really do my best to stick to my plan. A good example is the video where I committed to clearing my Skritter queue during a vocabulary challenge, which took a lot of time, but which I did do. I have kept my review queue in check ever since!

Do you have a New Year resolution for learning Chinese?

How do you want to improve your learning in 2021? Do you have a specific resolution, or do you think that New Year resolutions are silly? To be honest, I wouldn’t have made a New Year resolution if it weren’t for this article, but like I said in the introduction, if there is something you feel you ought to do and have been wanting to do for a while, why not do it now? As long as you make sure your goal is sound, a New Year can really be a new beginning!

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I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!

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