Finding the Self-Control Necessary to Learn a Language on Your Own


You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

A common excuse for people not learning a language on their own (or not learning a language at all), is that they don’t have the self-control or willpower necessary to do it. They can’t, the excuse goes, go through a textbook without someone behind watching their every move to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to (rather than checking Facebook or YouTube for the xth time today). Others, who take language classes and have a teacher, end up never putting work outside the classroom to actually ensure they progress and retain the information they have learned.

“Not only do we have self-control problems, but they are likely to get larger and larger over time, through things such as new technologies,” says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of the best-seller Predictably Irrational. New technologies have brought an increasing scarcity of self-control and focus in today’s modernized world. We now have smartphones, game consoles, Facebook, YouTube, MP3, you name it.

Now, “not having enough self-control” sounds like a fairly reasonable excuse. After all, learning a language does take a tremendous amount of effort, work and focus, and while it’s a fun journey, any journey will always have bumpy rides and hilly sections in addition to the nice straight roads.

The only problem with this excuse is that it can be used in any context to prevent yourself from doing pretty much anything at all. Exercise? Nah, I don’t have the self-control that it takes. Save some money? No way, I’m not that diligent! Start a business? Maybe one day. You see where I’m going?

Today, I thought I’d give you a few simple, actionable steps that you can take right from today to boost your self-control, and a few will also deal with improving your ability to focus. This will no doubt help you in your language studies, but also in any other area of your life where you feel you are lacking in self-control. Before going straight to the meat, though, let’s first have a bit more detailed look at what is self-control and whether you can do something about it.

What is Self-Control, and Am I Hopeless?

Man screaming, looking out of controlSelf-control is often defined as a set of problems that differentiates between what’s now and what’s later. One of the options often comes naturally in the present moment. The truth is that everybody has lapses in self-control. Have you, in the last week, eaten more than you should have, or perhaps not as healthily as you would’ve wanted? Have you procrastinated with your language studies, or perhaps at school or with a project at work?

Self-control, then, is a general problem between what’s exactly now and what’s in the future. What’s in the future doesn’t have to be very far from now, it could be quite close, like tomorrow morning, or even 20 minutes from now. The problem is that the present is extremely powerful. Often, when we have the choice of doing what’s good now and what’s good in the future, we, not so surprisingly, choose the former, even if it’s a decision that will end up hurting us in the future. In fancy terms, this is called the “Present Focus Bias.”

Kid using self-control during the Marshmallow TestThe “Marshmallow Test” is a well known series of experiment conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In the experiment, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel, etc.) provided immediately or two small rewards if he or she waited until the experimenter returned (after an absence of approximately 15 minutes).

The interesting thing about this experiment is that the number of minutes that the kids were able to wait in order to get a second marshmallow or snack ended up predicting a whole host of outcomes for their lives; they were better rated by their teachers in school a few years later, they got better SAT scores in high school, they made more money, they didn’t go to jail and didn’t use as many drugs when they were in their 20s and 30s. So in other words, the ability to exercise self-control has great implications for life. But what can you and me do about it?

Here’s the good news: Hedy Kober, a psychologist and cognitive-neuroscientist at Yale University, says that if you want to, you can train yourself to have better self-control. She uses the metaphor of self-control as a mental muscle, that can be trained and reinforced with exercises. And the cool thing about the Marshmallow experiment is that even those kids who couldn’t wait and who ended up eating the marshmallow right away suddenly were able to wait much longer if the experimenters taught them some strategies right then and there. Can we do this with adults too?

Yes we can! A very simple strategy that can be taught to adults to “regulate” their cravings is to think about all the reasons they have not to, for example, eat the chocolate cake, not to smoke cigarettes, etc. Basically remind yourself of all the negative consequences that your loss of self-control might incur. So if you start procrastinating on your studies of a foreign language, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of all the beautiful opportunities you will miss by not speaking the language fluently in X amount of time.

Five Tips to Improve Your Self-Control

  1. Have short-, mid- and long-term goals. Having goals helps you to track your progress and gives you a sense of direction. This in turns help to increase motivation, and reduces your chances of giving up. Make your goals ambitious but realistic. I wrote an entire post dedicated to the importance of goals a few weeks ago, check it out if you haven’t done so already!
  2. Study in the morning. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, says that when we are continually exerting self-control, our ability to resist temptation weakens. This suggests that if you have tasks that require self-control, it’s probably better to do them in the morning, rather than in the afternoon or evening. If you are going to school early in the morning, why not listen to Pimsleur or Michel Thomas in your headphones while commuting? Develop a habit of putting a small amount of time every morning towards the study of your target language.
  3. Reward Just Ahead Road SignReward yourself when you reach a goal in your language learning. Have some weekly, monthly, and yearly goals, and treat yourself to dinner, to the movies, or to whatever it is you enjoy when you have reached your goal. When you reach a goal that was over a longer period of time, reward yourself with something bigger!
  4. Set a contract ahead of time with yourself. If you don’t do something that you want to (say, study your target language every day for at least 30 minutes), you will incur some kind of penalty. This is often called a Ulysses Contract. For example, you could strike a deal with a member of your family or one of your best friends and pledge to donate them some money if you fail on your goals. If you think you might not be honest enough to pay your family/friends in the event you would fail to complete what you promised yourself, think about signing up to a website such as
  5. A schedulerHave a schedule. Having a schedule written down on paper or in a schedule-making software makes it much easier to manage your time and to develop good habits. Scott Young, a popular blogger who completed all the courses of a 4-year MIT computer science degree in one year entirely on his own (from home), says that for several years now he has used a productivity trick called weekly/daily goals. The gist is simple: 1) You keep two to-do lists, one for the day and one for the week. 2) As the week goes by, move items from your weekly to daily list. 3) When working, only focus on the daily list. When it’s done, you’re finished for the day.
    The power of this method is that it forces you to not work on certain things. You avoid the infinite to-do list syndrome of constantly procrastinating because it feels too hard to get started. And in regards to focus, Scott says that one of the reasons he became such a fan of habit training was simply that countless experiments and studies acknowledge how incredibly weak our willpower is. If our actions run on autopilot 95% of the time, doesn’t it make sense to learn how to reprogram the autopilot?
  6. Eat sugar and drink plenty of water. Scott Young says that the truth to why you have difficulty focusing is simple: you don’t have enough energy. Scott points to Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, who conducted an interesting series of experiments. In them, he showed that willpower wasn’t just a personality trait, it was something you could boost up or down with something as simple as a sugar cube. In general, though, simply make sure you get to eat healthy foods such as fruits, nuts, protein bars, etc. I’ve written about the importance of a good diet in Tip #10 of my series on “How to Drastically Improve Your Memory.”
    Tynan, another popular blogger who has been developing a new blogging platform almost entirely on his own for the past two years, says that he drinks 16 ounces of water when he feels stuck or low on energy. “Drinking water doesn’t always have an effect,” he says, “but sometimes it wakes me right up.”

Can You Do It?

The big question is: can you learn a language on your own, and can you be successful at it? The answer is: of course, but it entirely depends on you. If you feel like you lack some of the self-control and discipline necessary to stick with your goals and learn a new language, try a few of the tips I’ve given you today.

I like the metaphor of self-control as a brain muscle; it’s something you can exercise and get better at. This is extremely good news for all of us, because it means that even if you’ve had problems with self-control in the past, it can always get better in the future if you work on it. Every time you feel like procrastinating and doing something you probably shouldn’t be doing, remind yourself of all the negative consequences that your loss of self-control might incur.

At the same time, don’t forget to enjoy learning languages. It’s a journey, not a destination! If, as of lately, you’ve been bored or lost motivation with the material you are working with, think about adding some variety; music, movies, friends, whatever clicks for you. Don’t forget to have fun with the language, that’s the most important at the end of the line.

That’s it for me today, I hope this post will have been useful in one way or another, and as usual I’s love to hear about your experiences and stories. Thanks for reading!

By Lingholic

7 thoughts on “Finding the Self-Control Necessary to Learn a Language on Your Own”

  1. Dan French Poole

    Love this one man!
    Psychology and language learning is such an interesting combo.

    I haven’t really thought much about rewarding yourself for reaching your goals – but it’s definitely good advice! I’m generally motivated enough already, as I love languages. It’s a great way also of staying motivated.

      1. Dan French Poole

        Semester starts next Feb, but I’ll probably try to head over there toward the start of the year to get settled in, and maybe even see a few places before school starts.

        I’m super excited! Being a full time Chinese student is like a dream come true for me haha, it is actually quite self indulgent. It’s like it would be for some people getting to watch TV or eat chocolate all day!

        1. Dan French Poole

          By the way, I’ll be in Nanjing, a couple of hours from Shanghai by train (which is a super fast train). There’s also an airport. If you’re in China at all during the first half of next year, definitely come for a visit! Hopefully I’ll be able to show you round by then 🙂

          1. Great to hear, man! Sounds like it’s going to be an awesome year for you! I don’t have any plans to go anywhere near China next year, but hey, who knows! My sister will be studying in Beijing though!

  2. Another great article Sam but I have a slightly different view on point #6. I agree that you may not have enough energy to focus, but I don’t believe the solution should ever be sugar. It’s an extremely short-term option that may result in a post-sugar “crash” that causes more problems for low energy than it resolves.

    Better options are a regularly healthy diet, or more balanced snacks…maybe some nuts, or certain types of snack or protein bars. They’re going to result in much better output than straight sugar.


    1. Thanks for the advice, Jared!

      I agree that simply eating sugar is a short-term option that might result in a post-sugar “crash”. I’ve made some small adjustments to the article to reflect your advice. I think that eating healthy and getting natural sugars from fruits and other healthy foods is of course a much better option!


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