Let’s say you’re going to run a marathon. That’s the plan, at least. “I’d better go run today,” you say. But… you just don’t really feel like it, so you think “okay, I can skip today, no biggie.” Tomorrow, the same thing happens. Then again. Suddenly, it’s the day of the marathon and you’re like “eh, oh well. Maybe next time!”

There’s a lot going on here. Some of it is physical ability. Some of it is being busy. Some of it is being lazy. But… it all really comes down to your motivation. If you’re not motivated to do something you’re not going to do it (or if you do, it certainly won’t be at 100% focus and effort levels). Motivation is key in absolutely everything that you do. While I’d say around 25-50% of motivation has to come naturally, that other 50-75% can be manufactured by you. You just have to know what that process is. Once you’ve discovered this power, you can apply it anywhere in your life and basically choose when you want to be ultra motivated. What you end up choosing, however, will be up to you.

Of course, in this post we’ll mainly be talking about motivation in relation to Japanese learning. I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about the topic of motivation (it seems to be really core to our Japanese learning sites TextFugu and WaniKani, after all), so I wanted to write a series of posts covering the topic. I was going to write it all at once in one article, but then thought it’d be best spread out so you can try individual techniques out a little bit at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. Without wasting any more time, here’s today’s “motivation”-related topic: Setting Stakes.



Stakes / Shutterstock

This idea isn’t a new one, but I was reminded of it by a Tim Ferris TED talk. Simply put, you should set stakes for yourself. Now, this sounds really easy and all, but it’s actually quite a bit harder than you’d think. I think most people set stakes just by telling themselves they have to do something by a certain time. For example:

“I’m going to learn the joyo kanji this year!”

“I’m going to lose 500 pounds this year!”

Those sound a lot like New Year’s Resolutions to me, and we all know how often New Year’s Resolutions are carried out (not that often). When there are stakes associated with goals like these, they tend to be “I better learn it!” or “I have to learn it!” but there’s never really any reason to follow through. The only stakes here are the ones that make you feel bad for not completing your goal. Humans forget and move on easily. These kinds of stakes will not do anything. This is not motivation at all.

Now go ahead and think about the times when you get something done because the stakes are high. Focus mainly on the victories. What sorts of stakes were they? Fear of losing your job? Getting a bad grade? Letting down a friend? Getting whipped by your overlord? Losing money? Breaking the streak? What motivates you will depend solely on you, but I can pick out one or two things from that list that would certainly work well for me (and already have). What about you? Figure that out and move on to the next section.

Asking A Friend


Friends / Shutterstock

Friends can be very helpful for setting stakes. In fact, when it comes to setting stakes, you should never be in control. If you’re in control, you’re liable to cheat and unset your stakes. It’s a particularly natural and human thing to do (if you have the power to make your life easier, you probably will make it easier). So, pick a friend who’s particularly evil and very willing to do things to you that you wouldn’t want them to do. Also make sure you can trust them enough to not screw you over on purpose.

Step 1: Figure out what you’re trying to achieve. It shouldn’t be an impossible thing, because that would be silly. Also, it should be quantifiable. You can’t say “done with learning kanji” because that doesn’t mean anything. You have to say something like “be able to read this list of 1700 kanji and know their meanings at a 90% accuracy rate when tested in xyz way by xyz date.” This is very specific. It’s obvious if you can do it or not do it since it’s all numbers that can be measured by you and by your semi-evil friend.

Step 2: Find a friend you can trust. Family could work too, though they tend to be soft, and that’s no good. Evil friend it is.

Step 3: Tell them about your goal. Tell them what you have to achieve (make sure it’s specific!). Tell them how they will test you when the time comes.

Step 4: Think of “a lot of money.” How much that is depends on who you are. Let’s just say $1,000 for the sake of this example. Now, think of a group of people you’re not a fan of. Nazis? KKK? Whatever. Write a check out to them. Give it to your friend. Tell them that if you don’t complete your goal by a certain date, they should mail that check off to the organization of your (not) choice. Add some postage and an envelope to make it incredibly easy to send.

Step 5: Get cracking. You don’t want the KKK using your money, right?

Now, the really hard part is actually doing something that you’d be terrified to do. Like, accidentally giving $1,000 to the KKK is a terrifying prospect to me. Why would you even put yourself in a situation where you’d have to give $1,000 to the KKK? Well, because you want to accomplish your goal. So, bite the bullet and embrace the fear. Pick something you’re terrified of and it will greatly increase your chances of success by quite a lot, possibly doubling or tripling your chance of success.

Using stickK


And, believe it or not (I know you believe it) there’s a service that does just this. It allows you to create a goal, add stakes (money, which can go to your friend, a charity, or an anti-charity), add a referee (that’s your friend), and then friends for more support. It basically streamlines everything and will hold on to your money until the referee decides whether to give it back to you or release it to George Bush’s Library fund.

Anyways, I’d trust this more than giving my friend an envelope with a check in it. Who goes to the post office these days, right?

Setting Goals, Setting Stakes

As I mentioned before, goals need to be specific and quantifiable. If you can’t decide “true or false” whether or not you accomplished the goal, then there’s no way the referee can make a decision for you. While your goal is going to be unique and specific to you, here’s some ideas:

  • Learn the Joyo kanji by ________. Here is the list of Joyo kanji. I am going to learn the on’yomi reading and meaning for all of them. I will test myself by allowing my friend to show me 100 of these items at random, and then I have to write down the answers (and he will guess). I must get 90% correct.
  • Burn __ number of WaniKani items by _________.
  • Be able to read any page of this Japanese book, at random, by year’s end (make sure to have a referee that can judge that you’re not making things up).
  • Study my Anki deck every single day this month, even if it’s a little bit.

Goals can be big or small. I’d suggest things that are 1-3 month goals, as you can keep setting new goals and setting new stakes more often. It’s easier to gauge 3 months than it is to gauge a whole year, too. You’ll be able to set difficult but more realistic goals this way.

Tell me what kind of goals you could make for Japanese in the comments. Then let me know if you have any ideas for stakes. I’m sure other people here would be glad to borrow some ideas from you if you’re willing to share. Good luck and be sure to stickK around until next week, when the next “Staying Motivated” article gets published!

  • April Roberts

    Thanks. I now have to clean coffee (yet again) off of my laptop, clothes and face, because I started to laugh at the thought of my evil friend sending a check to the KKK. How horrifying! Hot coffee through my nose, I’m feeling motivated!

  • kungfudiscomonkey

    A little different than stakes, but possibly complementary, I like to create a “Seinfeld Calendar” for things to help judge progress.

  • Beetle BANE

    Its cool that a site like that exists for this sort of purpose! I hope it helps a lot of people.
    My stakes are more violent in nature or cause some sort of physical harm, so I suppose I take my goals a bit too serious with radical stakes like that. So normally I try not to use stakes because they are a pain(badum-tsh~) Personally though, the powerful sense of self-disgust in not doing things that I believe I should/need to do is enough to get me to do them anyways.
    Can;t wait to hear more motivational techniques though! This will be interested and useful!

  • Luke

    I really like this, but what if you try your hardest and just aren’t good enough. So the money goes to some terrible organization?

  • Ari

    Making friends help you stay motivated this way is a great idea, I’ll definitely use this! Now step one would be to make some friends…

  • Tora.Silver

    I’ll definitely do this…

  • Aya

    I’m gonna go all out and bet my life to studying 1000 kanji in the remaining months of the year! I will be studying radicals like my life literally depended on it because

  • koichi

    That right there is the point. It’s horrifying!

  • koichi
  • MandaMac

    I do that already. I have to study my Anki decks every day, IN FRONT OF MY HUSBAND, or he takes my Kindle and mp3 player to work with him the next day :( This is a serious horror for me.

  • Juli

    Nuh-uh! *I’m* going to learn 1,000 by the end of the year! >:D

  • Jennifer Richardson

    OMG, that is such a good idea, but would probably end in divorce for me…

  • MandaMac

    Yep, it’s caused a few issues. I made him eat PBJ for supper and sleep on the couch one night. BUT, I can’t stay pissed for long, because I know why he’s doing it. It does no good to get angry…he’s one of those people that is unflappable…yelling and threatening him is like hitting a punching bag. You can do it until you’re bloody and it doesn’t bother the bag(or the husband) one bit. He still takes my stuff. Sooo…in the end, I keep studying.

  • MandaMac

    Agreed, Ari-さん. One of the biggest hinderances to anyone learning a second language is not having anyone to practice with. Especially if you are self-learning. I know it “de-motivates” me sometimes.

  • Jackdaw

    Personally, my only day-to-day goal is to stick to my daily routine without failure. It’s been working incredibly well so far and I’m very pleased with the results. In the last 6 six weeks I have mastered all kana and learnt 547 kanjis with LRNJ: Slime Forest Adventure and 510 words with Anki. All that coupled with reading tofugu, grammar guides and japanese texts (childrens’ stories, shounen manga, games and such) religiously everyday, I’m confident that I’ll soon reach a level of profiency I’m satisfied with, which will be when I can read novels and play imported games without assistance. And then I’ll study some more, because of course, you never stop learning! :)

  • Helen Kirifides

    ^ You gave some pretty good tips in this article too, & I hadn’t read this one before. So thanks for this link!

  • Helen Kirifides

    I was about to go to sleep. But I guess I will now be studying kanji, and THEN going to sleep. Dangit, Koichi, ~__~ you are right.
    ^__~ *kanjikanjikanjikanji*

  • medium_robin

    Does anybody happen to have those 12 key sentences from Tim Ferriss translated into Japanese??? If so, it would save me a lot of work!

    The apple is red.

    It is John’s apple.

    I give John the apple.

    We give him the apple.

    He gives it to John.

    She gives it to him.

    Is the apple red?

    The apples are red.

    I must give it to him.

    I want to give it to her.

    I’m going to know tomorrow.

    I have eaten the apple.

    I can’t eat the apple.

  • Ben Nichols

    I’m going to learn the JLPT N2 and N1 kanji, ON and KUN readings, before December 1st, using the Seinfeld method (20/day 6d/wk). My stakes? I already paid for the JLPT N1 exam and if I don’t pass, it’s a waste of money and huge disappointment for me. Also, my Japanese wife quizzes me a few times a week on the readings as I learn them.

  • jlbyrey

    As somebody sympatysing to KKK’s cause, I feel offended by this article. But whatever.