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5 ways to leverage discipline and motivation for language learning success

Learning Japanese, I’ve picked up many interesting tidbits of vocabulary and grammar patterns that I now use every day. I recently started pondering where I picked up each little piece of the language. Did I learn them gradually? Did I pick a bunch up at once?

I later sat down with a sheet of paper and tried to remember. Surprisingly, my brain had kept a strong association between the expressions I use and the times and places where I learned them.

Even more surprisingly, I started to notice a clear pattern in my scribbles: I did not learn the language at a constant rate, but rather in bursts, often learning as much in a single day as in the months that followed.

Each of these bursts corresponded not so much with where I was or what methodology I followed, but rather with my discipline and motivation at the time, and how the two kept each other in balance.

Finding the right balance between external discipline and internal motivation can be tough. But new research on procrastination suggests that not only are discipline and motivation both important when completing a task, when properly understood, they can reinforce each other in a positive feedback loop that increases productivity, and supports emotional and mental health.

Positive vs. negative momentum

Procrastination is a fickle beast. We all have days when we just don’t feel like being productive, no matter how much we usually enjoy and look forward to mastering that quirky character or exciting new expression.

It’s a pervasive emotion that can cause us to freeze up and binge-watch another season of Friends instead of meeting our goals, or to mindlessly flip through flashcards instead of truly understanding what’s on them.

Procrastination vicious cycle

Procrastination can be thought of as negative momentum. You don’t feel like doing something, or you don’t feel like you can do it well in your current frame of mind, so you do something else, hoping you’ll feel better soon.

But instead, you feel guilty or ashamed for skipping out on your responsibilities. That makes you feel even worse about the project, which makes you less motivated, and the downward spiral begins.

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Identify your trouble spots

The key is to take control early on in the cycle. This requires getting to know your own procrastination response. Do you sit down with every intention of reviewing some vocabulary only to find yourself up to your ears in social media an hour later? Or do you avoid your “work zone” altogether when you know you should be doing something, procrastinating with other tasks like cleaning instead?

Right before your usual procrastination cycle starts (or once you realize you’re in the thick of it), do something active to stop the spiral.

Break the cycle

If you’re still in the “I don’t feel like doing this” (or the “I can’t do it properly right now”) phase, try doing a small, inconsequential chunk of your work rather than tackling a big important piece. Review words you already know instead of learning new ones. Play a language game for a few minutes instead of tackling a big lesson. Telling yourself you only have to do a little bit and then you can stop is one way to break a procrastination spiral before it even starts.

If you’re a little deeper in—say, to the guilt or shame stage—acknowledge where you are and recognize that it’s not too late. You can try again. Instead of berating yourself or retreating into distraction, take control of the negative emotions and redirect them into something positive, like recognizing what you still have the power to accomplish. It’s not hopeless—and you’re not hopeless! This happens to everyone, and you can still accomplish your goals, even if you have to reorganize them.

Bridge the gap between intention and action

Once you’ve recognized that you’re in a negative cycle, you can use discipline to your advantage. This doesn’t have to be rote, forced repetition that ignores your emotions. Use healthy, positive adjustments to help get yourself into a better frame of mind.

Discipline can be as simple as showing up regularly, even when you don’t think you can do a great job. It can mean doing one small piece even if you can’t accomplish your whole goal.

Make discipline work for you

When you start to feel unproductive or unmotivated, instead of doing something that you hope will put you in a more productive frame of mind, do something that you know will help you get to work. If you’re not sure where to start, try one of the following ideas.

Once these small habits become permanent, they can actually increase your motivation over time and prevent procrastination in the first place. Try these methods of using discipline to your advantage—without letting it turn you into a soulless robot.

1. Target small, actionable tasks

Don’t try to learn everything at once. Rather complete small, actionable goals that you will barely notice in order to build positive momentum and increase motivation through actually using the language.

For example, rather than learning the volitional case of an abstract group of verbs, master just the verb ‘to want’, in just the specific context of ordering a cup of your favourite tea or coffee. The smile on your barista’s face when you make your first order in their native language will shoot your motivation through the roof, and you can then easily extend your skill to other verbs that follow a similar pattern.

2. Banish guilt

Guilt is an easy way to fall right back into the procrastination cycle. Celebrate what you did accomplish, even if it was only a first step, and then get right back to work like nothing ever happened. Don’t see mistakes as failure, but rather an opportunity for success—a clear path to improving your fluency!

3. Take care of yourself.

Remember that motivation (and whether you feel capable of completing a task) is largely dependent on emotional state. Exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration can hijack your emotions before you even try to start being productive. Incorporating small changes that will improve your emotional stability over time can play a big role in boosting your self-esteem and motivation.

Also remember to schedule enough downtime. Procrastinated downtime makes you feel worse, but intentional laziness can leave you feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the next challenge.

Find ways to recharge, whether it’s something ‘healthy’ like exercise, or something that would normally trigger guilt, like watching TV or checking Facebook. Engage in these activities intentionally, not mindlessly. Stress-reduction techniques like meditation can also be helpful in clearing the mind, getting a fresh start, and even resetting a procrastination cycle.

4. Set (the right kind of) deadlines

Deadlines that are far out can be counter-productive. Deadlines that feel more urgent can break a procrastination cycle and “shock” you into action. This could be setting a goal like getting in some extra review time before meeting up with a friend to practice your new language or attending a cultural event.

External deadlines are often more effective than internal deadlines, so try working with a partner or scheduling frequent meet-ups that will help you get into gear. And remember: bite-size deadlines are better than deadlines for a whole project, so break things up.

At LinguaLift, when our team gets distracted and not focused on work we do a 20 minute Pomodoro session to get everyone refocused. If anyone interrupts during the session, they have to buy lunch. No one every interrupts! 

5. Make it fun!

One study found that when a task was perceived as fun, not work, chronic procrastinators completed it at the same rate as people who did not usually procrastinate. Try reframing your goals and projects as something enjoyable to jumpstart your efforts.

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Why can’t motivation and discipline be friends?

When you feel procrastination setting in, instead of asking yourself if you feel up to this task, remind yourself why it’s something you care about. Allow that feeling to be stronger than whatever is stopping you—perfectionism, boredom, distraction, fear, or simple tiredness.

Remember that if your goal is worthwhile and will improve your life, it may take some time for it to feel “worth it,” but that feeling will come. Whether you’re learning a language to reconnect with your roots, find romance, get a new job, or just to prove you can, keep showing up. If you keep at it even on days when you feel good enough, that discipline alone can motivate a whole host of benefits—even ones well beyond the joy of learning a language.

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