How To Trick Yourself Into Good (Japanese) Study Habits If you don't trick your brain, it'll fight you the whole way

    You know how it’s hard to quit bad habits? Biting your nails, drinking, eating too many cookies, yadda yadda (sure, you could take it to be the Seinfeld reference if you want)… But I bet you didn’t realize you have a ton of good habits as well. Brushing your teeth (well, not all of you have this), putting away the dishes, going running, etc.

    Now, I’m not saying that creating a habit to study Japanese on a daily basis is easy (it’s not!), and that’s why I’ve compiled a few sneaky things that will “trick” you into studying Japanese and getting yourself into a good habit. It all comes down to analyzing what makes habits into habits, and taking advantage of those things so that you can create a habit without actually having a… habit.

    Why Look At Habits?

    I think you may think the answer to this is self explanatory, but give me an opportunity to try and create a revelation for you anyways.

    Now, I’m not trying to get you to form (actual) good study habits. Perhaps that will be the outcome if you try the following techniques out, but that’s not the end goal. I’m only going to try to help you trick yourself into studying by using certain aspects of “real” habits that you can implement on your own. It’s not easy to form a good habit. It is, however, easy to trick yourself into thinking you have a good habit, and if you do it enough it may just become a reality.

    Sure, it’d be easy to say “you should study every day” (and I suppose I do say that), but here’s how you’ll be able to get there, one little victory at a time.

    Creating Action Associations

    An ashtray with used cigarettes
    Source: Darko Pevec

    Riddle me this, Batman. Is it easier for a smoker to stop smoking on vacation or at home?

    Answer: On vacation. Why? Because there are fewer action associations with smoking.

    At home, there are so many reminders that the smoker should start smoking. Ash trays, porches, rooms that are particularly good for smoking, etc. Over time, associations are built up. If I see this, I think “oh, I often smoke there… I should smoke a cigarette.” On vacation, however, none of that exists. There are no associations with Smoking & the hotel pool, for example. That’s not to say there won’t be reminders (ash trays, other people smoking, etc), but there certainly are fewer associations like this.

    You can trick your mind into doing something like this with your Japanese studies, as well. I do this with my work time. If I’m at the local cafe, it means I work on TextFugu (and nothing else). If I’m not working on something, I try to do it away from my desk. I’ve created boundaries in my life where I force myself to only do certain things in certain areas. Although this won’t work immediately, you can also choose to separate certain things and associate them with certain places (or things). Some examples of what you could do with Japanese studies:

    1. A particular bean bag that you only sit on when you are studying Japanese.
    2. A colored light bulb you turn on only when you study Japanese.
    3. Certain music you play during Japanese study time, and nowhere else (I’d vote Mozart).
    4. A certain part of the house that’s a Japanese study area.

    And so on…

    The idea is to create associations with things and associate those things with Japanese study (and only Japanese study). Now, this won’t necessarily get you to study (at least, not before you’ve created these associations), so let’s take a look at some other habit-forming trickery that will get you to study. Then, all you have to do is apply this section when you do study and create some action associations. Before you know it, you’ll walk by your beanbag and say, “oh yeah, I study Japanese there. I should study Japanese,” and you’ll become a Japanese studying rock star.

    Writing Down Exactly What You Plan To Do

    Woman writing down her plans for studying Japanese
    Source: Daniel Sandoval

    Did you know that if you write down exactly what you’re planning to do you’ll have a 75% higher chance that you’ll actually do it? I’ve used this with all sorts of things, and it works great.

    Here’s how you do it.

    1. Figure out what it is you want / need to do (it’s really important that you want to do something. If you don’t want to do it, well, you’ll find a way not to do it, so I can’t help you much there). I’m guessing the thing you want to do is study Japanese, because that’s what this article’s all about.
    2. Get a piece of paper (I’d recommend writing this by hand… there’s just something about writing by hand that makes things feel more solid) and a pen/pencil.
    3. Write down exactly what it is you plan to do. This includes, when you’ll do something (down to the minute), where you’ll do it (on the beanbag?), how you’ll do it (I’ll use TextFugu to learn Japanese, of course! DOI), and what you’ll do (I’m going to study kanji XYZ in this study session).

    The more specific you get, the better all this works. When you do this, for some reason you get something special stuck in your mind. When the time comes, you’re way more likely to get out the study tools and get studying. I definitely challenge all of you to give this a try, even if it’s with something else in your life. This trick is incredibly useful.

    For me, I use it check e-mail (though, sometimes I’m bad and break this rule). Although I don’t include the “place” in my plan, every morning I decide what time I’ll check my e-mail. For example, this morning I said I’d check my e-mail at 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. Most days I choose a time that’s around 1pm or 2pm, and limit the amount of time I have. So, in the morning I’ll write down: “Checking e-mail between 2pm-3pm today.” Then, when 2pm rolls around, I’m checking my e-mail and I stop at 3pm. For some reason, when I do this, it totally stops me from worrying about e-mail the rest of the day. When I don’t do this, I check e-mail every 30 minutes (definitely a bad addiction).

    For you, you could come up with something like this for your Japanese studies:

    From 2pm-3pm today, I will sit down at my desk and open up my kanji book. I am going to study the kanji 食, 飲, 県, 急. I will learn the on’yomi and kun’yomi of them, as well as three common vocab that use each one of those. At 3pm I will stop studying and go do XZY.

    See how incredibly specific that was? The more specific you can make these, the more likely you’re going to actually do them and follow through. Doing this essentially creates a fake habit in your brain. Really, all habits do is tell you what you should do and when you should do it. By writing down exactly what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, you’re tricking your brain into thinking this is something you always do in this place and at this time. It’s really great brain hackery, if you ask me.

    Give this a try and let me know how it goes for you!

    Writing Down What You Won’t Do

    Just like the previous section, this one also involves writing things down. The difference is that you’ll be writing down the things you don’t want to do. There’s only so much time in a day, and there’s always a lot of things competing for your time. You can use the techniques in the above section to come up with things you won’t be doing during the day as well. This leaves more time for other things (like studying your Japanese) and will allow you to focus more effectively when you do start studying Japanese.

    Things I sometimes add to my not-to-do list:

    • No checking e-mail except during e-mail checking time
    • No Google Reader (this week, this day, this month, etc).
    • Check Twitter only during lunch time
    • Don’t listen to music while I’m working

    And so on. Think of the bad habits you have. Now, write out your not-to-do list. This will trick your brain into thinking you don’t really do those things (or, at the very least, you’ll get an alert in your head the moment you try to do one of these things, and it will say “hey, you said you weren’t going to do that,” so you have time to stop yourself).

    Make The Road Easier

    Sign for Easy Street
    Source: Bruce Fingerhood

    Really, when you think about it, habits are habits because they’re really easy to do. Well, they’re not necessarily easy, but at the very least you think they are. They’ve become so ordinary and regular that you go on autopilot when you’re completing these habits. Do you really think about brushing your teeth every night, or do you just kind of… do it? I’m guessing it’s more of the latter. Habits are pretty darn easy to do as long as you actually have those habits. That’s the difficult part.

    One thing you can do, however, is make the things you want to be habits easier. For example, if you want to create a good habit to exercise every morning, you should put your exercise clothes out and ready to go the night before. This little thing make sit just a little bit easier to exercise when you really don’t want to early that next morning. Perhaps you could pack your lunch the night before so you have more time. There are any number of things you could do to make the “dreaded” act of exercising easier on yourself, which means you’re likely to do it more often, which means you’re more likely to turn it into an actual habit.

    With Japanese, you can do the same thing. A little prep goes a long way. Here are some ways to make Japanese study easier, which in turn will help you make Japanese study into a more regular habit.

    • Decide exactly what you’re going to study next at the end of your previous session.
    • Stop studying when you feel most motivated to keep studying
    • Start reading about what you’re going to study next the day before. Just a little bit, like five minutes will do. This will make it so you’ve already started, and starting is always the hardest part. The next day all you need to do is continue where you left off from your mini study session.
    • Put out the flashcards you’re going to learn tomorrow today. Put them out on their own, though. This is a lot less daunting than putting them on top of a huge stack.

    Put some paper and pencils/pens out, all ready for studying so you don’t have to do it tomorrow.

    Do you notice a pattern in some of these? A lot of them have to do with planning ahead and knowing what you’re going to do the next day. With habits, you always know what you’re going to do next. it’s autopilot, after all. Japanese studies is one of those things where you have to learn something new every day, which makes it much harder to form a habit around. If you take an extra five minutes at the end of every study session and decide exactly what you’re going to do next, you’re making studying the next day 100x easier on yourself. With habits, they’re easy to do because you know exactly what to do. So, with Japanese studies, you’re making habit-forming a lot easier if you figure out what you’re doing next before you actually do it.

    What Are Your Tricks?

    There has to be a bunch of habit-forming hacks out there that you’ve used and love. Share your secrets on Tofugu's Facebook or Twitter and help others trying to study Japanese, too! :)