I read about this strategy on Lifehacker (you can read the whole thing here) about a week ago, and thought it would be particularly useful for kanji (and vocab) learning. Learning a new language isn’t so much about the language itself. It’s more about staying motivated and making progress. Sure, some people can grind through things and never get off track. For the rest of us, “learning hacks” like these are extremely helpful.
Jerry Seinfeld’s Secret To Productivity
Jerry Seinfeld is a master at being funny. That’s pretty much what he’s done for a living most of his life. That being said, it’s not like he became funny overnight. Despite what you might think, being funny (or being anything, for that matter) takes a lot of practice. His secret to productivity / being funny? Write jokes every day.
That’s not the cool part, though.
Doing something every day is hard. The thought of, say, learning a new kanji every day can feel daunting. It becomes a chore, just like “washing the dishes every day” or “vacuuming every day.” If you think about repetitive, small tasks like this, they get repetitive and you won’t want to do them as much, which is unfortunate, since learning a little bit every day really adds up. Think about it:
If you learn one kanji per day, that’s 365 kanji per year (doesn’t seem like much, but it’s probably more than most people learn in most classes).
If you learn a mere two kanji per day, that’s 730 kanji per year.
If you learn three (just three!) kanji per day, that’s 1095 kanji per year and half of all the kanji you really need to know (around 2000). Plus, this is way faster than the speed at which Japanese kids learn kanji.
If you learn five kanji per day, you’ll know a cool 1825 kanji by the end of the year. Depending on how you filter things, this is pretty much all you need to know (I know joyo kanji have a bit over 2000 kanji to learn now, but this is pretty close).
Five kanji per day is definitely doable… but most people never do this. Why? Because it’s hard… it’s hard to do something every single day. Really, it’s as simple as that, I think.
So, the question isn’t “how do I force myself to do something every day?” The question should be “how do I change my way of looking at kanji learning to motivate myself to want to learn?”
Luckily, Seinfeld has that part down too (otherwise, how would he write all those jokes?). Here’s his real secret:
Seinfeld has a big year calendar, showing all the days of the year. Every day that he writes jokes, be puts an X through that day. After a few days, you’ll have yourself a little streak. Then, you’ll find that you’ll start to enjoy the chain. You’ll want to see the chain continue. Then, your only job is to do what it takes to keep that chain going. As he emphasizes in the article: “Don’t break the chain.”
This is great, because it moves the pressure and motivation around. Your focus isn’t “what kanji do I need to learn today?” Instead, it’s “what action do I need to do to take to keep my streak going?”
The longer the streak, the more important it becomes. The more important it becomes, the more likely you are to do it. Instead of doing less and less over time, you’re doing more and more. All these little, daily sessions add up to something big – and that’s not even taking into account how you’ll get better at learning kanji, which means you’ll learn more in less time the more your practice.
The Tools You Need To Get Started
Now, you could buy a big year wall calendar (they are pretty nice if you have the wall for one), but I whipped up an alternative you can download and print out right now if you’d like to get started asap.
The above download is a PDF that can be used in a couple of different ways, depending on your preference. The sheet itself is pretty simple. It consists of 365 boxes (plus one extra for leap year), each with a number (between 1-365). You could either…
- Try to keep your streak going for 365 days (and then if you miss a day, print out a new sheet and start over). Or…
- Just keep going with the same sheet even if you miss a day, or two, or three. The goal in this version is to make the longest streak possible within these 365 days, which means if you miss a day or two, those boxes would be blank, and you’d re-start your streak after the blank tiles.
I don’t know which one is better, but the second one is a little closer to Seinfeld’s version if you want to stay true to that. Then again, you can also get yourself a big year wall calendar, but hopefully this is a good enough alternative for some of you.
Oh, And This Doesn’t Have To Be Used With Kanji…
I was just thinking something like this fit really well with kanji when I was writing this article. Of course, you can use this strategy (and PDF) to to motivate yourself to do all kinds of things. Here are some additional ideas:
- Getting through all your Anki reviews / other flashcard reviews
- Learning X number of new vocab words
- Reading/translating a Japanese newspaper article, blog post, tweet, etc., every day
- Writing a Japanese journal entry every day on Lang-8
- …not to mention all the non-Japanese language related self-improvement things you could be doing!
Remember, it’s about the streak, not about the kanji. Give it a shot, see if you can get something going for a good week or two.