Having a goal for studying Japanese can be a help or a hinder. Some people swear by goal setting, and by telling the whole world about your goals. I used to be one of these people but found that eventually the pressure I was putting on myself was not helping.
Yes, I liked having the goal of working towards the JLPT exam, but I did not like the constant voice in my head that said, “you should be studying!” This was particularly the case when I told myself “I need to study X number of words a day” and that never happened.
What I found over the years was building healthy habits helped improve my Japanese a lot faster than tight deadlines with strict targets. The book Atomic Habits by James Clear really helped with this, and I suggest reading it if you’re interested! (If you’ve read it, then you will probably see some overlap in the following article.)
Change Your Perception
One of the tips from Atomic Habits is to change the way you think about your goal. Instead of thinking “I want to be able to speak fluent Japanese”, imagine yourself as someone who can speak fluent Japanese.
It sounds super corny, but it works!
The book argues that when you focus on what you want to become, not what you want to achieve, the habit is easier to build as it becomes a part of your identity. It is then much easier to be motivated and to keep the habit up for the long-term.
“Ask yourself, “Who is the type of person
that could get the outcome I want?”
So, every action you take should be towards becoming that person.
Let’s say you want to become a person who can read manga and light novels in Japanese. Then your actions (and the habits you make from your actions) should help you in becoming someone who can read manga and light novels in Japanese.
Build Healthy Habits – Gradual Improvement
The biggest point of Atomic Habits is to create good habits where you improve by 1% every day. These daily 1% achievements build up over time have the biggest impact on achieving success. This gradual improvement over a very long time can make it hard to see improvement in short spans, but will make a big difference in the long-run.
Be careful though, because if you have bad habits, then you will improve those bad habits by 1% every day (which you don’t want!)
For example, when I did flashcards and came across one I kind of knew but didn’t really I thought “I’ll get it next time”, but I never did when I thought that every time. The moment I started to stop, take a minute to understand why I was getting something wrong, then giving myself mnemonics to remember it (if I needed one), then I started to improve a lot faster. I had to make a conscious effort to get rid of my habit and build a good habit from it.
“If you want better results, then forget about setting goals.
Focus on your system instead.”
But again, don’t set goals, create habits. Instead of saying “I need to learn 10 words a day”, say “I’m going to practice Japanese using this app today.”
How to Turn Studying Japanese into a Habit
- Stack Japanese study to other habits
- Change your environment and create cues for studying Japanese
- Consciously remove temptations (aka distractions)
- Make studying Japanese attractive
- Make studying Japanese easy
- Keep studying Japanese, don’t get stuck planning
- Start by studying for just 2 minutes
- Make yourself accountable for studying
We’ve gone over perspectives and adjusting how we think about habits, now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of building the habit of learning Japanese.
Stack Japanese Study to Other Habits
“One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day
and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking.”
Stacking habits is a great way to start a new habit because you’re already building on something you already do. Say you do the dishes every day then go watch TV. Instead of watching TV study Japanese for 10-15 minutes after you wash the dishes, (then watch TV.) Or after you brush your teeth open Anki/Memrise and drill flashcards for 5 minutes.
You can also pair a new habit with a time or location. Such as, practicing grammar at 6PM at your desk/in your study. Environment can have a big impact on your habits as you often unconsciously associate places with actions.
Change Your Environment and Create Cues for Studying Japanese
“Every habit is initiated by a cue.
We are more likely to notice cues that stand out.”
Sometimes your environment can be linked to bad habits. Like when I sit down on the sofa I instantly want to turn on the TV, or open Twitter as soon as I open my laptop. If you’re struggling to create a new habit in your environment, then it could be because you’ve associated that space with a bad habit.
It can be impossible to remove this bad habit completely, but it is possible to shift them so you can get your new habit done before you get distracted by bad habits.
If you want to create a healthy habit of studying Japanese then it helps to pick a location and create a cue that will trigger your studying. You can do this a few different ways.
- Create a new space and associate it with Japanese study. – You can do this by moving your room around, or re-decorating your desk. Then pull out your textbook as soon as you sit down. (No social media at your desk!)
- Make the cues easy to trigger. – Keep your study tools in easy to access locations. Keep your textbook open on your desk, your study apps on the front page, flashcards in the toilet or kitchen, etc.
- Make the cues really obvious. – Move your study materials in easy to see locations (even sticking them to the walls!), or create a unique “Study Japanese” alarm (with a different sound for your other alarms) that becomes your cue to study at a certain time.
Consciously Remove Temptations
“One of the most practical ways to eliminate a bad habit
is to reduce exposure to the cue that causes it.”
It’s so easy to get distracted by temptations.
As I mentioned, I often find myself getting distracted by Twitter for at least 20 minutes a few times a day. As soon as I open my phone I find myself at Twitter even if I didn’t mean to go there. I’ve created a bad habit of “open phone = Twitter” and need to consciously get rid of this habit. (Still working on it.)
The best way is to put yourself in positions where your bad habit cues are less accessible. Such as putting your phone elsewhere while you study.
“Highlight the benefits of avoiding a bad habit
to make it seem unattractive.”
If you use an app or the internet to check Japanese terms, but find it leads to you getting distracted, then perhaps it’s worth getting a paper or electric dictionary?
Make Studying Japanese Attractive
“Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop.
When dopamine rises, so does our motivation to act.”
The trick to this is not to give yourself a reward after the habit, but to make the habit itself a reward.
If you try to reward yourself with something after studying then you’re turning the study into an un-fun chore. But if you look forward to studying because you want to study, then you make studying itself a reward. Anticipation to do the habit leads to a better dopamine spike than rewarding yourself with a chocolate after studying.
If you’re struggling with this then you can pair studying Japanese with something you want to do. Such as,
- reading manga (combined with studying new words and kanji)
- watching anime (improves your listening skills)
- listening to music (study from the start to end of a new album)
Learning Japanese can be difficult, but it’s fun too! Finding what you enjoy from Japanese makes it easier to turn into a habit.
Make Studying Japanese Easy
“We will naturally gravitate toward the option
that requires the least amount of work.”
This ties into the section on improving your environment and cues to trigger a healthy habit, but you really want to make studying Japanese as easy as possible.
You can do this by, as I mentioned, keeping apps on the homepage of your phone, putting flashcards in the toilet or kitchen, sticking vocabulary or kanji to the walls. Put your study materials in a place that’s incredibly easy to pick up if you go near that place. They’re no good if they’re at the bottom of a huge stack of books and papers.
The studying itself might not always be easy, but the act of studying can be!
Keep Studying Japanese, Don’t Get Stuck Planning
“The most effective form of learning is practice,
I am guilty of this. There was a time when I would spend more time watching videos or reading articles on how to study Japanese than I did actually studying Japanese. I think videos and articles like these can be great inspiration needed to kick-start studying, but they can also easily turn into distractions.
If you find yourself spending more time planning then studying, then consciously stop planning and just do it.
Start by Studying for Just 2 Minutes
“The Two-Minute Rule states, ‘When you start a new habit,
it should take less than two minutes to do.’”
If you’re building a brand-new habit of studying Japanese then start by doing it for just two minutes. Doesn’t matter if you’re an advanced learner or beginner, a new habit should start small.
The idea is that you’re starting to get into the habit before building on it. Once you have the habit going you naturally start to improve it and spend more time on the habit.
If you try to study 30 minutes to an hour everyday right from the start, then you might find yourself burning out really quickly. This is because right from the start studying Japanese has turned into a chore that takes out a huge chunk of your day, and focusing for 30+ minutes when you’re not used to it is incredibly exhausting.
Starting small means you begin to work on the cues for creating a healthy habit. As you start to get used to the cues associated with studying Japanese then you start to do it without even thinking about them. This then slowly builds up so you’re studying more and more every day. It also means that even if you only get a few minutes of studying in, it’s at least something! This is how those 1% improvements build up over time.
Make Yourself Accountable for Studying
“Habit trackers and other visual forms of measurement
can make your habits satisfying by providing clear evidence of your progress.”
A great way to keep a habit going it to track it. Apps like Kanji by Chase or Memrise have built in trackers, but you can also keep tabs of your own progress with a calendar or diary. Time trackers can also be useful for tracking habits.
You don’t have to track or list everything you did during a study session, even just a tick or a cross that you did something that day can help visualize each little step you’ve taken.
“An accountability partner can create an immediate cost to inaction.
We care deeply about what others think of us,
and we do not want others to have a lesser opinion of us.”
Another way to keep on track is to find people who will keep you accountable. You can do in a number of different ways:
- Find people (or a person) to track progress with.
- Study with a teacher or in a class.
- Track your study progress on social media. (Check out #langtwt on Twitter!)
I personally I find accountability and tracking can add to my study stress. I don’t find either of these useful, but that just leads to the next point…
Do What Works for You!
“Habits are easier when they align with your natural abilities.
Choose the habits that best suit you.”
Everyone is different. What works for some people doesn’t necessarily work for others. As such, it really helps to find what works for you.
Habit making in general can be particularly hard for neurodivergent people, especially people with ADHD. Which is another reason why it helps to find what works for you and not to beat yourself up if something someone swears by doesn’t help you.
This might seem like a lot, but it really is all just suggestions for how to turn studying Japanese into a habit.
Start by picturing how you’d like to use your Japanese, and pick study methods/materials which help you towards that version of you! Make your studies easy to pick up, and fun and rewarding to do.
If you’re starting a new habit from scratch, then keep it small. Even just two-minutes a day can build up over time and extend into longer and longer study sessions if you feel comfortable enough. And keep the habit going by making yourself accountable for studying.
But only do what works for you! This might take some trial and error at first, but once you’ve found things that work for you and built a habit of studying, then you’ll be well on your way to mastery!
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