I still remember the first time I tried to start running every morning. I set up my alarm earlier than normal, went to bed at a reasonable hour, and fell asleep full of confidence that tomorrow, I'll finally get myself back in shape.
6AM, my phone rings. It's the crack of dawn, and still rather cold outside. My running shoes are in the closet, water bottle empty, and I can't even beginning to remember where I left my keys last evening.
Not surprisingly, I never got myself to the track that morning. There were just too many obstacles to get myself going.
Today, when I decide to run next morning, I place my running shoes and track suit next to the bed, fill up my bottle in the evening, and get everything else ready so I can jump up and leave in under a minute. When I'm abroad, I also try to live next to a park or sports ground, lest I have one more excuse to stay at home.
I had to find a way to decrease the activation energy, make it easier to start it. I just went to sleep in my gym clothes. My mom wonders why I’m single. It’s experiments like this.
—Shawn Achor, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness, Harvard University
This brings me to one simple trick that can make all the difference when you try to instill a new routine: You need to change your surroundings to remove all unnecessary effort needed to start the habit.
Transform your surroundings to make learning habits easier
1. Schedule your study sessions
One of the biggest obstacles there are, and one we rarely think about, is the need to make a decision about what we're going to do next.
I'm trying to get fit, but which of the dozen body weight exercises should I do right now? I want to learn Japanese, but do I start by reviewing my vocab, or dive straight into shadowing? The more decisions we have to make each study session, the sooner decision fatigue kicks in, and the more likely we'll give up altogether.
To avoid this effect, take a few hours of conscious thought and research to decide on a set of activities, schedule them on your calendar, and stick to your study plan until there's a clear reason to adapt it. (such as when your goals or proficiency level change substantially).
2. Prepare everything the day before
Now that you have a clear schedule, prepare everything you'll need to achieve your plan the day before.
French chefs have a special term called “mise-en-place.” Literally “putting in place,” it refers to arranging all ingredients that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift. This is as effective for learning, as it is in Michelin-starred restaurants!
If you have vocab review scheduled for the morning, open LinguaLift or Anki so that it's front and center when you wake up your computer the next day. If you plan to update your post-it notes, place the pen and stickers on your desk. If you want to practice listening, make sure to choose and download the podcast in advance.
Everything you need to start your study session should be ready and right in front of you when the time comes to start learning.
3. Dedicate a separate space for learning
Getting things ready in advance sounds easy, but life gets in the way. Stuff literally piles up on top of your post-it notes and textbooks, and learning websites get buried amid a myriad of other tabs.
The best way to get your study habits back on track is to create a learning space where you can escape from the daily grind and distractions.
As I suggested in the 60-second hacks to stay focused on learning, for your virtual world, the best approach is to create a virtual desktop, and move over all that’s related to your language learning. Anki, dictionary apps, PDFs—they all should be in a place of their own.
In the real world, things can be a little bit more complicated. If you have a large house or apartment, I recommend to go as far as to dedicate an entire room you don't normally use too much to language learning. This will instantly put you in study mode when you enter it, and give you ample space to store everything you might need.
If you live in a studio, try to reserve a small table, or at least an armchair for your learning, or better yet, find a cozy neighbourhood cafe. There's ample research that moving away from where you sleep is beneficial for work and study, and this will also remove the need for artificial background noise.
4. Start with tiny, tiny habits
No matter how much you prepare, some burdens are inevitable. You can't go running without putting your shoes on, and neither can you understand the next chapter of your graded reader without learning the vocab it contains.
The good news is that these obstacles too can be made effortless—you just need to make them one of your daily habits.
Don't attempt a marathon right away. Start by putting your sneakers every morning, without crossing the doorstep. Once that becomes a habit, move on to 15-minute strolls.
Similarly, don't burn out by attempting to read a whole newspaper in your target language. Start by browsing through the illustrations every morning, move on to deciphering a few headlines, and eventually entire paragraphs.
The key is to make every obstacle its own tiny habit, so they no longer stop you from getting into real learning.
Get ready now!
Building new learning habits can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be if you approach the task with a clear plan.
Choose one tiny learning habit for tomorrow, and think how you can minimize all obstacles that could stop you in your tracks.
For example, let’s say that the anchor and tiny habit you choose is: “After I turn on the kettle in the morning, I will tune in on the French radio.”
Here is how you could prepare the evening before:
1. Move the radio to the kitchen, ideally close to the kettle
2. Tune in the radio on the correct wavelength
3. Stick a post-it note on the kettle reminding you to turn on the radio
With just 5 minutes of preparation, the chances that you’ll actually perform the tiny habit and stick to it in the long term will go through the roof.