Staying Motivated: A Habit Is Formed Offer an hour everyday to Kanji and Kanji will give you some love

    Last week on the “Staying Motivated” front we talked about setting stakes and how that can greatly increase your chances for making big progress in learning Japanese. Let’s say you did that, and now you’re ready for the next step. That’s where this article comes in.

    Right now you’re motivated to complete the task at hand, be it learning the joyo kanji or being able to read hiragana. Let’s talk about habit forming and how to use that to get from A to B. If you don’t have that consistent gradual progress, there’s no way you’re going to make it to the end goal. No matter how motivated you are, waiting until the last minute on a big project like “learning the Japanese language” isn’t going to work at all. No, you have to form a habit.

    The Importance Of Habits

    green pill bottle
    Source: Damian Gadal

    I think we all know the importance of habits, but I felt like I should reiterate a little bit, just in case. With habits, you’re doing several positive things for yourself:

    • You make regular progress towards a goal. With small, consistent steps comes big change.
    • Especially in terms of studying, a habit will help to space out your learning. By spacing your learning, you’re forcing yourself to recall information larger spaces of time. This helps with learning a lot more than putting all your learning into one concentrated moment only not to have to recall said information for weeks or months.
    • You’re less likely to burn out since you’re not putting all your proverbial eggs in one basket.
    • Habits will cause much less stress on you and your mind. It won’t use up your limited resource of willpower, either (more on that later).

    Essentially, with a habit you get stuff done. You also get stuff done faster in the grand scheme of things and be a much happier person overall. When you associate less stress with the actions you’re taking, you also won’t learn to hate these actions as quickly either. Not hating the thing you want to do is always a big plus.

    Fifth Time’s The Charm

    Polish 5 cent stamps
    Source: Kevin Dooley

    Time Ferris talks about this “5 times” rule a decent amount, so let’s see how it works with Japanese. The basic idea is that if you do something at least five times, you’re way more likely to keep doing that thing more than five times. Nike+ data shows that the difference between people who go on five runs and the people who don’t go on five runs is pretty huge. Basically, if you can figure out how to run five times, you’ll be much more likely to have formed a habit.

    So let’s adopt this hypothesis for Japanese. If the Nike+ data is true, then that means that if you study Japanese at least five times, you’ll be more likely to continue studying more than five times. This sounds really dumb and obvious, but I do think it’s quite important. If you want to get into a habit, you should attempt to do it five times. It really does work most of the time.

    Besides just buckling down and studying your Japanese five times in a row there are some strategies you can try and implement, which I’ll go over right now.

    Create A Tracking Method

    First off, you should create a tracking method. For some reason tracking information reminds your brain about it and then causes it to want to continue the action. Perhaps it’s part “beat the streak” and part just plain old remembering. Whatever it is, this does indeed help quite a lot.

    • Pick something that you can track. Kanji learned? Kana learned? Anki sentences cleared? WaniKani reviews? Whatever it is, make sure it’s quantitative. Something you can graph and see at a glance.
    • Put this paper/tab/window somewhere where you’ll see it. It will remind you.
    • Do whatever you can to fill this out five times. Profit.

    It doesn’t actually matter what you track, to be honest. What matters is that you track something. This is the motivation that keeps you going long enough to form a habit.

    Making It Easy

    Humans are particularly lazy creatures. If it’s easier not to study, there’s a good chance we won’t study. If we make it so it’s easier to study, we’ll probably end up studying. Simple as that. People only have a limited amount of willpower, so once it’s all used up, it comes simply down to this idea.

    So, think about the things that are “easier” to do than studying. What is preventing you from completing whatever it is you’re tracking? Figure out what those things are and eliminate them. Is your Xbox there, waiting for you to turn it on? Put it in a box that’s taped shut for a little while… at least until you get to the magic five (or six, or seven) number. Is it easier to click on the bookmark to your news feed than it is to go to WaniKani to study? Delete the bookmark link. Hide your bookmark bar. Make your homepage http://wanikani.com/reviews.

    It’s a pain to do all these things, but you have to remember: humans are lazy, and so are you. We like to take the easy way out whenever possible, so if you change your environment so the easy way out happens to be studying… well, I think I see a habit forming on your arm. You’d better get that checked out by the you’re-awesome doctor.

    Becoming A Tradition

    book notepad and ashtray on desk
    Source: Philipp Tautz

    What happens when something becomes such a habit that it becomes a tradition? Something very good, actually. Habits become traditions when they become something that you just do. You don’t even think about it. It’s not even something you worry about. It’s never an “if I want to” thing. It’s also never a “maybe I’ll do it” thing. It’s a…. if ____ then ____ for-sure-100% sort of thing. For example:

    • After walking my dog, when we come home I wash his feet.
    • When I wake up I do 20 pushups.
    • When I eat food, I don’t eat meat.

    Once the “optional” part is taken out it becomes a tradition, not a habit. When something is a tradition it doesn’t use up any of the (limited) willpower that you and every other human being has. It is just something you do, and it causes zero stress or pain on your brain at all. You just do it.

    Turning a habit into a tradition takes some time, but I think it mostly comes down to changing how you think about habits. For the things you do often, be sure to think of them as “if ____ then ____” statements instead of “if I want to” ones. If you apply this type of thinking to your habits, they will slowly turn into traditions. It will take some time, but once you get here you’ll notice (or maybe you won’t) things going much more smoothly. A lot more will get done as well. This is basically the Super Saiyan version of habit forming.

    Your Japanese Habits

    closeup of pen and spiral notebook
    Source: Skakerman

    As you can see, habit forming works best when you can measure the things you’re doing. They also work better when you think about them as things you do, not things you could do. With this in mind, here are some ideas for habits you could attempt to form, should you want to. Of course, you should come up with habits that will affect you the most positively in your Japanese studies, so come up with your own habits where you can.

    • Learn the meaning and reading of ten kanji per day.
    • Zero out my WaniKani reviews before going to sleep every night.
    • Write a Lang-8 post every night before going to sleep.
    • Learn one new vocabulary word every day.
    • Read a page out of my book every morning at breakfast.

    Notice how they all include a “when” as well as a very specific “what”? Hopefully the habits you’re attempting will look like this too, whatever they end up being. Whether big or small, the important thing is that when you feel like something has become a “tradition,” add another habit to work towards into the mix if you think you can handle it. Traditions (in theory) don’t take up any willpower, which means you should be able to keep adding more up to a certain point. Eventually you’ll find your limit, but hopefully by that time you’ve completed some goals via this “traditions” method and will have some extra room to spare.

    Good luck on your Japanese learning and hopefully you’ll get into the habit of continuing to read Tofugu, because there will be another “Staying Motivated" article next week!