Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Just keep doing it

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

“Just do it!” is a slogan used by one of the world’s biggest makers of sportswear and sports equipment. Wherever you live in the world, you have probably seen it on T-shirts, on signs, on posters, and in many advertisements and TV commercials. It is simple, catchy, and memorable—all the things that make a great slogan.  Generally speaking, “Just do it” is great advice for life. It reminds us that we should do what we want to do (or what we know that we need to do) without overthinking or procrastinating. As clever as this slogan is, however, it is actually not very good advice for language learners. Or rather, it is somewhat incomplete. Let me explain what I mean.

In order to achieve a long-term goal or outcome, there are three steps that need to be taken:

  1. Decide to do something.
  2. Do it.
  3. Keep doing it.

The first two of these are relatively easy. People who fail in their attempts to achieve a long-term goal do not usually stumble at either of these hurdles. Even if we think of something like running, “just doing it” is actually not that difficult. Of course, step 2 takes a bit more commitment than step 1, but it is still not a particularly hard target for most people to achieve.

When people fail to achieve their goals, it is usually number three that trips them up. Pretty much anyone can decide to run every morning and then do it for a couple of days. The problem comes when the weather turns cold, when you are tired or sick, or when your motivation starts to flag. In a similar way, I don’t think anyone has ever had much trouble starting a diet; the problem is staying on that diet for long enough to see the desired results.

Language learning is exactly like this. What you decide to do matters much less than how long you continue to do it. In my last article, I talked about getting the most “bang for your buck” from your studies, but no matter how potentially beneficial a study method or material might be, its effect will be zero unless you keep doing it. Does extensive reading really bring all the benefits that researchers tell us about? Not if you give up after a week, it doesn’t!

Going back to the topic of weight loss, there is no mystery at all about what we need to do to lose weight. I call it the ELEMentary method: Eat Less, Exercise More. So why do people have to try so many different diets until they find one that works for them? Actually, all of the diets would “work for them” if they kept them up, so what this phrase really means is diets that they are able to stick to. When people say, “This diet worked for me,” what they mean is “This is the diet I was able to continue for long enough to see results.”

I was listening to a podcast the other day in which a UFC fighter was talking about his training program. He was saying that the most important point for him is that he never trains at 100%. The interviewer was surprised and ask him why. The fighter explained that his goal is to maximize the amount of training he does over the long term, and that training at below his maximum level allows him to keep himself motivated and avoid injury. He said that a fighter who pushes himself to the limit every time he goes into the gym is going to get tired of the pain and eventually start to lose motivation and look for excuses to miss training. This means that over the course of a year, a fighter who trains at below the maximum level will end up doing far more training.

I think that exactly the same thing happens in language learning. If you start out at full pace and push yourself too hard, or if you adopt a method of studying that you do not really like, you are going to end up dropping out of the race altogether. Just as the person who runs three kilometers every morning for six months is going to end up running far more than the person who runs ten kilometers every morning for two weeks before getting sick of it and giving up altogether, the person who studies steadily for six months is going to improve a lot more than the person who studies like a maniac for two weeks before finding something else that they would rather be doing.

In my opinion, continuity is the most important factor in language learning, so the primary factor to think about when deciding what you are going to do is how long you think you will be able to keep it up. It is a good idea to try lots of different approaches and materials, but always keep in mind the following rule:

 Anything will work if you keep it up for long enough, and nothing will work if you don’t.

Of course, there are people who can keep doing things they don’t enjoy over long periods, but this is a rare talent. For regular people, the most important thing to think about is making your study enjoyable, or at least not making it so unenjoyable that you start to dread it and look for excuses to stop.

To return to the sportswear company’s slogan, “Just do it!” is great advice for people who want to start something, but for people who want to succeed in reaching a long-term goal like learning a foreign language, the correct slogan should be “Just keep doing it!”

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