Motivation and habits when learning a skill – Part 2/2


Statue at Samgwangsa temple in Busan, Korea
Statue at Samgwangsa temple in Busan, Korea


This is part 2 of my post on motivation and habits—for part 1, click here.


Developing habits is another great way of getting stuff done, without using too much of your “motivational batteries”. Being too motivated for a short period of time can drain your batteries, after which you’ll have to take a break and relax. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that everybody goes through the ebb and flow of motivation. In “Success with Foreign Languages: Seven Who Achieved it and What Worked for Them,” author Earl Stevick expresses his astonishment in learning that even highly successful language learners and polyglots go through motivation troughs. Listen to what Ed has to say concerning  how he goes about learning languages:

Ed: At the beginning of a new language course, I have a lot more energy for studying – for doing things at home. But after a certain period, it becomes boring. I just don’t have the incentive. It’s not that I think I can’t absorb any more. This feeling comes and goes, usually in cycles.

Earl: Maybe in the first few weeks, these cycles are more or less cancelled out by the newness, the reservoir of initial enthusiasm?

Ed: Whatever the reason, in the first weeks I feel no strain at all in continuing my study after I get home.

But it goes in cycles. Yes. Two weeks ago, for instance, I absolutely could not do anything outside of class, and right now I can. I even ask the teacher for something to do because I feel I want to continue doing something. In addition to knowing that it’s good to keep working, I feel like doing it now.

As you can see, having cycles of enthusiasm and motivation is absolutely normal. However, the problem is when these cycles become too pronounced. The best way to ensure that drops in motivation will not result in significant drops in output is to create habits.

Sebastian Marshall, hailing from his popular productivity blog of the same name, has recently written a post about William James, who was a top psychologist at Harvard in the mid-to-late 1800’s and start of the 1900’s. Some of James’ quotes are very interesting, so I’ll use some of these ideas to underline the importance of developing habits.

Habits are, essentially, what we are. “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,— practical, emotional, and intellectual,— systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be,” says James. Humans don’t like to change their habits. They do the same stuff over and over again, without ever questioning these very actions, and these habits literally determine the path your life will follow. Habits, it should be noted, do not take up any motivational juices, since they are automated and do not require any effort or enthusiasm. To quote James again, “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”

To serve as an example, every morning when I commute to work, which takes me roughly 25 minutes, I listen to a language podcast (typically Chinese POD or TTMIK) on my MP3. At first, listening to a language podcast required real motivation and effort—I felt like I could’ve been doing something else instead, such as staring in the air, or playing some time-wasting game on my cell phone. However, because I’ve now been listening to my MP3 while commuting to work/school for over 2 years now, it’s an engrained habit that requires no effort at all from my part anymore. In fact, not listening to my podcast while commuting feels strange, and I feel like I’m wasting my time; this is in itself costs me more energy than simply keeping up with the habit I have developed.

Develop habits, and you’ll see that no matter your level of enthusiasm, learning will become automated and effortless. Put the right amount of effort at the beginning, and the rest will be a breeze.

Velocity-based goals

Scott Young is a popular blogger on learning and productivity, who recently completed his 1 year MIT Challenge. In his free e-book entitled “Get More From Life,” Scott argues that focusing only on how much growth we are experiencing at any given moment is the only true indicator of success. This is because the past has already occurred and only exists as a fuzzy memory. The future hasn’t yet happened and lies only in the realm of speculation.

If you have ever set goals for yourself and have failed to reach them, you probably know that this is usually very demotivating. This is often why so many new goal setters fail to continue with this practice, says Scott. The pain of failing to achieve when you’ve tried your best is often too great. Velocity-based goals remove this problem entirely.

Velocity simply refers to the speed at which you are learning. The goal is, therefore, not necessarily to reach a certain destination in the distant future, but to make sure that every day you cover a distance satisfying enough so that you feel like you are making good progress. Now, take good note of the following: because a goal is simply a servant of directing and pushing your own growth, as long as you know you are trying your best (maximum velocity possible), then the goal is successful regardless of whether you underestimated the deadline necessary.

Nonetheless, position-based goal setting can still be useful, but I would encourage you to combine position-based goals together with velocity-based goals. For example, have a position-based goal where you see yourself at a certain point (destination) in the future (say, I will reach a B2 level in Spanish at the end of the year), but also think of your goal as how much you will be able to improve every day/week/month. For example, in the case of language learning, this could mean having a goal of learning at a certain rate, and keeping a certain routine every day. At the end of the road, even if you didn’t manage to reach your position-based goal, if you still stuck to your velocity-based one, you will have succeeded and will have avoided severely losing motivation.

The importance of curriculum

The last point I’ll mention in this post is the importance of having a curriculum for discipline and motivation purposes. One of the strength—which can also be a weakness, depending on the subject—of more formal, classroom education, is that it forces you to adhere to a curriculum. When you know that you have to take micro- and macro-economics before delving into international trade, it’s easier to focus on learning step by step, even if at times the content in question might seem irrelevant. In language learning, though, I am not convinced this way of working is the most efficient, although depending on your learning style I guess it could be.

Most traditional classroom-based language education will cover grammar and verb tenses early on. If you’re learning Spanish, you will invariably learn the present tense—and only the present tense—first, after which you will proceed to learn the preterit and imperfect tenses, and after a while you might graduate to learning the future and conditional tenses. So if you’ve only been learning Spanish at school for a few weeks, and you want to ask your Mexican buddy what he’ll be doing this weekend, you’re out of luck. In any case, having a roadmap to learning a skill such as a foreign language is a good idea. Try to find a curriculum early on, on which you will base your velocity-based goals on. As Scott Young says, “[t]hink of it like having a map when you’re in an unfamiliar country. No, you don’t need to follow it dogmatically, getting lost can be part of the fun. But having a map with you ensures you don’t stay lost permanently.”

So, what do you think? Have you had motivation problems before? Has anything worked for you? If yes, share your story with us. If not, try out the tips mentioned in this post and let me know how it works out!

By Lingholic

  • is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

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  • Great article! I think the combination of a position-based goal with a velocity-based goal works very well.


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