Why you procrastinate & 3 research-backed ways to stop it from ruining your language learning

4th May 2017

What comes to mind when you hear the word procrastination? Sitting on the sofa in your underpants? Staring at GIFs on buzzfeed? Watching a 106 year old Indian lady give cooking lessons on YouTube?  (a few of the things I did while I should have been writing this article). If you procrastinate, it’s easy to feel guilty because people associate it with laziness - doing brain dead stuff, like checking Facebook, when you should be getting on with something more important, like learning that language you’ve always wanted to speak. Feeling work-shy is one reason you might struggle to get started. Most people procrastinate a bit when faced with something that takes a lot of effort: it’s just easier to watch an Indian grandma rustle up a nice biryani. But there’s something else that could be stopping you from learning a language.

Learning a language: why can’t I just get on with it?

I realised there was more to my procrastination when I looked at the tasks I never get done. These tasks are:
  • Recording myself speaking
  • Writing sentences to practise new vocabulary/grammar points
I knew I’d struggle to start if these tasks felt too much like hard work, so I made it really easy by setting tiny goals: speak for 2 minutes, write one sentence. But I still didn’t do it. I found it easier to get around to more effortful tasks, like reading for half an hour, reviewing grammar or learning vocabulary. If laziness wasn’t the problem, what was it? Well, one thing these tasks have in common is that they require me to produce something, rather than just passively reading or listening to it. And I have to look at the results, which certainly won’t be as good as I’d like them to be. Then I had an interesting thought: was I avoiding speaking and writing because I was afraid of being a bit shit at them? To test my theory, I tried lowering my expectations. Instead of setting myself the goal of speaking well for 2 minutes, I asked myself to speak for two crappy minutes. A couple of crappy minutes didn’t seem that hard, so I started. And once I got started, I wasn’t even that crappy.

Procrastination: perfectionism in disguise?

Many of us feel guilty when we put stuff off because we think we’re being lazy. But sometimes it’s the fear of being shit - or to put it more delicately, perfectionism - that makes it so hard to get started. Maybe you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to be good at something that you’d rather avoid doing it all together, than risk doing it badly. I get this feeling a lot in speaking and writing. But it could pop up at any point during your language learning. Do you ever feel disappointed when you think about your language skills, because you’re not as good as you’d like to be?

Why do you put off language learning?

If this sounds like you, there are two things that could be getting in the way of you getting down to language learning business.
  1. High perceived effort: If you think learning a language will take a lot of effort, you’re more likely to put it off.
  2. Perfectionism: If you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, you’re more likely to put it off.
If you think learning a language will take lot of effort and you’re worried you won’t live up to the standards you’ve set in your head, it’s going to be really, really hard to get started. The cause of your procrastination probably lies somewhere on the perceived effort vs. fear of being shit scale.   To beat procrastination (or keep it to a minimum) aim for the sweet spot in the bottom left corner: reduce the amount of effort it takes to start learning a language and your fear of being rubbish at it. Let’s find out how.  

3 research-backed ways to stop procrastinating and get on with learning a language

 

1. Reduce perceived effort with the 2 minute rule

Scientists have found that the mere thought of doing something we don’t want to do can activate the insular cortex, the area of the brain that experiences pain. This is probably why so many of us procrastinate: we’d rather avoid this discomfort by turning our attention to something more enjoyable, like looking at pictures of baby otters holding hands.

Why do people prefer looking at pictures of baby otters than doing something productive? Science has the answer.

But research suggests that we only experience this discomfort at the thought of the task, not while we’re actually doing it. In other words, it’s the anticipation of the task that’s painful, not the task itself. The secret lies in getting started. But how? Writer James Clear suggests making it easy for yourself by using the 2 minute rule. Break the task into something super small that you can complete in 2 minutes. Instead of writing for an hour, ask yourself to write one sentence. Instead of reading a whole chapter, set yourself the goal of reading half a page. Once you’ve started, you’ll probably end up writing for an hour or reading the whole chapter anyway.

2. Forgive yourself

Does this sound familiar?
  1. Feel worried or anxious about a task that requires effort.
  2. Go on Facebook/YouTube/Buzzfeed to avoid said task.
  3. Feel worried, anxious… and guilty
  4. Procrastinate even more.
  5. Feel worse...
Negative emotions like guilt, anxiety and worry can throw you into a vicious circle of procrastination. The more you procrastinate, the more effort it takes to get started. The more effort it takes to get started, the more you procrastinate. But research suggests you can break the cycle by letting yourself off the hook. One study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating before their last exam were less likely to procrastinate on studying for the next one. Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to reduce your procrastination to 0% immediately after reading this article. But you can do yourself a favour by remembering that guilt and anxiety perpetuate the procrastination cycle. As soon as you realise you’re putting something off, forgive yourself and get back to business.

3. Embrace crappy

Lowering your standards doesn’t mean settling for subpar. The opposite is true. Research suggests that students who consider less-than-perfect results a natural part of learning are more likely to become high achievers in the long run. Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the growth mindset. People with fixed mindsets see setbacks and failure as a sign that they’re not cut out for language learning. They avoid situations where they might get things wrong and miss out on important learning opportunities. The problems of this mentality seem obvious, but most people fall victim to this way of thinking at some point or another. The growth mindset, or as I like to think of it, giving yourself permission to be a bit shit at first, makes it easier to learn a language. Once you realise that crappy is just the first stop on the road to fluentville, you don’t worry so much about forgetting words, speaking slowly and making mistakes. By lowering your standards, it’s easier to get started so you'll give yourself more opportunities to practise. And when you practise more, you'll get better faster.   Embrace crappy and you might just do your best language learning yet. Those were 3 simple ways to reduce procrastination and get on with learning a language. Next, I’ll talk about how I plan to integrate these ideas into my own language learning this month.  

My language learning plans: May 2017

I’m learning 5 languages at the moment: Italian, Mandarin, German, French and Spanish. To make it manageable, I have 1 sprint language that I focus on intensively and 4 marathon languages which I study in a slower, steadier fashion.

Italian

My sprint language for the moment is Italian as I’m preparing for the C2 (boss level) exam in June. Last month, I set myself the following goals:

Listening

  • Watch 1 hour of TV a day
  • Earflooding (aka filling my ears with as much Italian as possible by listening to podcasts on the tube, while doing the dishes etc.)
I didn’t always manage squeeze in 1 hour of TV every day (it’s not always easy to find an extra hour on busy days) but I did watch at least 30 minutes most days.  I also listened to lots of Italian podcasts as I went about my daily business. Now if only I could get myself to concentrate on what they are saying rather than thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner... I’m going to keep this up in May, with a small adjustment. I’ll try and watch more highbrow programmes about politics and such (there was a lot of dubbed Family Guy going on last month). This way, I’ll get more practice with the kind of things I’ll need to listen to - and talk about - in the exam.

Writing

I aimed to write 4 practice exam essays last month, but I only managed 1! The anticipation of doing these is definitely painful - I can almost feel my insular cortex going wild at the thought of it. I’m going to make it easier to get started by setting myself a 2 minute goal: just read the question. This should help me overcome the urge to look at baby otters and get on with some work instead. Hopefully, once I’ve done that it’ll be easier to go ahead and do the whole thing.  I had also planned to write a few example sentences with the new grammar/vocabulary points I learned, which I ended up avoiding because I was putting too much pressure on myself for it to be good. This month, I've set myself the goal of writing one crappy sentence. Then we'll see what happens from there.

Grammar

In April, I aimed to review a few grammar points by doing 2 exercises a day. Overall, I managed about 20 (out of 40), which means I skipped a lot of days. This is another one of those tasks which feels a bit painful, so I'm going to make it easier for myself by setting the 2 minute goal of one question per day.

Pronunciation

Last month I planned to practise 1 sound a day from my nerdy pronunciation book. Then my computer broke and I couldn’t access the sound files. Finding a way around this seemed like way too much effort, so I decided to wait until my computer was fixed before starting. I've done 4 sounds since I got my computer back from the shop last week and I'm hoping to keep this up in May.

Reading

Last month, I continued (slowly) reading my way through a pile of unread books by my bedside table. In May, I'm going to focus on reading news and science magazine articles as these are more similar to the reading tasks that will come up in the exam. 

This month I'm going to read Internazionale - a magazine that brings together Italian translations of some of the most important news stories from around the world

Chinese

In April, I planned to:
  • Read at least 1 graded reader story
  • Take 2-3 conversation lessons per week with a tutor on italki
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

What went well

I met my vocabulary and speaking targets: I learned 60 new words in total and I did 8 conversation lessons on italki.

Having a chat to Jane, my online Mandarin tutor. Online lessons are one the most useful (and my favourite) ways to learn Chinese.

What didn’t go so well

I didn’t watch as many YouTube tutorials as planned because it started to feel a bit counterproductive: I was learning new things when I hadn’t had time to assimilate the old stuff yet. So I abandoned this plan after the first week and spent some time reviewing instead. I didn’t quite reach the end of my graded reader so I'm hoping to finish off the last couple of chapters in the first week of May.  

I've been using these graded readers to improve my Chinese reading and listening. They've been incredibly useful, but I'm feeling ready to move onto something new...

Plans for May

I’m starting to get a bit bored of using materials for learners, so for the rest of the month I’m going to try and watch Mandarin TV. Wish me luck! Here are my plans for May:
  • Finish my graded reader story
  • Learn 15 new words per week
  • Start watching Mandarin TV (with Mandarin subtitles)
  • Watch 1 short Chinese tutorial on YouTube per day (except weekends)

German

At the moment I’m watching 1 hour of German TV a day, which suits me as I can improve my listening skills and chillax at the same time. I’ve also been doing little bits of grammar by pulling the odd sentence from the subtitles and trying to understand the grammar they used.

Active listening

Just one problem: when I’m watching TV in a foreign language my mind tends to drift and I don’t learn as much as I could. I’m going to address this by writing down keywords as I listen. Once I’ve finished watching, I’ll use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched. 2 crappy minutes.

French and Spanish

Last month, I aimed to learn 15 words per week in each language, which I managed without too much trouble. 15 words is a great number for me: big enough to make progress over time, but small enough for me to reach my target each week. I'm planning on keeping this up in May. I’ve also been doing some listening in my downtime, by watching films and TV in both languages.

Active Listening

I’m going to apply the same ideas I had for German to make my listening more productive:
  1. Take the odd sentence from the subtitles and try to understand the grammar used
  2. Write down keywords as I’m listening
  3. Use these keywords as prompts to talk for 2 minutes about what I just watched
Join in! This post was part of #clearthelist, hosted by Lindsay Williams, Kris Broholm, and Angel Pretot, who share their monthly language goals and encourage you to do the same. Head over to Lindsay does languages for more info on how to take part.

How about you?

What are your language learning plans for May? Share them with us in the comments below!  

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