I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of reading about how limited my willpower is, and how I should use it wisely. Preferably as early in the day as possible. Preferably on something productive, not on abstaining from a run to the bakery.
See, when you’re learning a foreign language, that’s not the only thing you’re doing. You’re probably also working a job, studying full time, traveling or raising children. These are huge drains on willpower. And at the end of the day, or in between multiple tasks, you won’t have a lot of willpower left for a foreign language study session.
This is why, if you want to see some progress, you should focus on strengthening your study skills, not your willpower. What matters is not just how much willpower you have, but developing your skill to get back to the task at hand. So changing your habits (for the better, hopefully) is more about skill than it is about will.
I came across this notion while reading the book Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co. I thought it was a brilliant idea, because willpower I do not have. (Remember, I live right up the street from a bakery. My limits are already tested every day.)
Willpower, the authors say, is a concept that urges you to rely purely on a tough-it-out model. While it may be useful and doable to do so, not everything on our to-do list has the same urgency. So let’s conserve the willpower for when we really need to tough it out. For the other tasks, let’s choose to act in key moments.
This is important:
“If you interrupt your impulses by connecting with your goals during crucial moments, you can greatly improve your chances of success.”
What does this mean when you’re learning? And how can you apply it?
It means that you need to learn and practice the following skill: when you feel the urge to stop (the impulse), that’s when you need to intervene with a rule.
Are you going to accomplish your goal if you stop now? Clearly not! Are you going to get closer to it? Not if you stop. So what is the obvious choice? To keep going.
This strategy works for whenever you feel an “impulse” to do something that might be detrimental to your goal.
The impulse to procrastinate.
The impulse to quit.
The impulse to multitask.
Recognize them for what they are: fleeting impulses. And be equipped with the skills to push past them.
“When it comes to personal change, you don’t have to be pushing yourself to the limit all the time. You need to focus on only a handful of moments when you’re more at risk.”
What rules will you follow when temptation arises?
Establish the rules in advance of facing a challenge, and you’re more likely to follow them when you’re faced with the challenge.
The pattern is this:
When I’m ____________ <key moment>, I will ________________ <trained skill>.
Here is an example of a rule to establish in advance:
Challenge: I feel like I’m procrastinating by just constantly going for snacks when I’m trying to study a foreign language.
Rule: I am allowed to get up once, go for a snack, take the snack to my desk and return right back to work.
Here’s another example:
Challenge: I always get distracted when I’m trying to complete a lesson.
Rule: Every time I get distracted, I will close all the tabs in my browser, and put my phone in a different room. NO EXCEPTION! No resistance! No questions asked!
The skill you’re training is to follow the rule.
It is very important that you observe what your “key moments” are (the ones when your impulse kicks in), and tailor the skills that you train yourself to rules that will make you push through. View this as an experiment in which you’re both the researcher and the subject. Notice the words in italics? They matter.
Every time you have used the skill to follow your rule, is a time you’ve successfully pushed through resistance. You’ve made progress.
The goal is progress, not perfection.
Further reading: Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co.