Building study habits

By changing and managing your habits, you can learn just about anything.

I'm a living, breathing example of this. Without good study habits, I doubt I ever would have become fluent in Japanese…

Study habits – a case study

From late 2012 to mid 2016, I did the same thing almost every single morning — I woke up, grabbed a coffee, and immediately studied my Japanese flashcards. Sure, I missed some days, but only very rarely.

So what happened in 2016?

Well, at the end of 2015, Rei and I started posting Japanese lessons for our students every single day. Since I prioritized those lessons over my flashcards, they became the first thing I did each morning instead of flashcards.

In short, I broke my study habit because it wasn't a high enough priority for me.

This small, simple habit of studying flashcards every morning generated incredible results, and before I knew it I'd learned over 20,000 Japanese words.
20,000 words. And all I was doing was waking up in the morning, having a coffee, and studying some flashcards.

Cues, routines, and rewards

One of the first nonfiction books that I ever read in Japanese was a translation of The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.
Duhigg's argument is as follows:

The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.
Habits aren't destiny.

It is said that habits make up for about 40% of all that we do, and according to some fancy MIT researchers, there is a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward.

One example of this is brushing your teeth. Sometimes your mouth feels icky, so then you brush your teeth, and at the end you feel sparkly fresh, so you end up repeating the action again.

In other words, it becomes a habit.

How to change your habits

The basic explanation for how to change a habit is to keep the cue and the (nature of the) reward, but change the routine.

For example, if you're trying to stop eating junk food, you might find a new, healthier food that feels like an indulgence, then you'd eat that every time you craved junk food, and eventually this would become a habit.

Cue: Crave something delicious.
Routine: Eat junk food.
Reward: Taste delicious food.

Cue: Crave something delicious.
Routine: Eat healthy but delicious alternative.
Reward: Taste delicious food.

Okay, that's great. People can change habits.
But the real question is: How can I use this for learning Japanese?

Why, I thought you'd never ask...

Habit tagging — a simple approach

Changing habits is really, really hard. Most of the time people talk about changing habits, they're trying to stop eating junk food, quit smoking, etc.

But we're not trying to get rid of a bad habit; we're trying to gain a good habit. And creating a new, good habit is much easier than changing an old, bad habit.

Habit tagging is one way to do this.

For learning Japanese, it would look something like the following:
Pick a habit that you already have.
Link it with Japanese.

By "habit tagging," you can take a deeply ingrained habit that you already have and stick a new, beneficial routine like studying Japanese onto it.

I mentioned earlier that I studied Japanese every morning right after waking up. I used to think that the cue for this habit was waking up, but after reading The Power of Habit, I realized that the real cue was my deeply ingrained desire to have a coffee every morning.

I took something that I really loved (my morning coffee), and I made a rule that I had to study my Japanese flashcards every time I did that thing (or before I was allowed to do it).

One way I use habit tagging today is by listening to Shadow Loops (a productive activity) when I go for long walks (which I love to do).

Established habit that I enjoy:
Cue: Have free time.
Routine: Go for a long walk.
Reward: Feel healthy and adventurous and see lots of cool things.

Established habit that I enjoy 2.0:
Cue: Have free time.
Routine: Go for a long walk and listen to Shadow Loops.
Reward: Feel healthy and adventurous, see lots of cool things, and get better at Japanese.

An assignment

What is something you love doing that you could be doing every day?

Going to a café for a coffee? Sitting on a quiet patio under the morning sun? Curling up under a big blanket with a cup of hot tea?

Maybe you already have a deeply ingrained, enjoyable habit that you could inject some NativShark into, whether it's completing your daily core studies on a phone or laptop at a café or in bed, or going for a long walk while you review Shadow Loops.

By finding a way to marry your NativShark studies with an already existing habit, you can limit the amount of willpower required to study, which will make it easier to stick at this for a long time.