So you’re trying to build a new habit, and it’s not going so well.

But why is that?

Many people learning a new language struggle to make learning a part of their daily life. They start and quit, again and again. What’s worse, they think that this failure is because of their weak willpower or a lack of self-discipline. That's a problematic way of thinking because it takes control away from you.

This article will help you understand the real reason we struggle to build new habits and propose a different approach that will allow anyone to (enjoyably) make a habit of consistently studying their target language.

Why is it so hard to make a habit?

Bestselling books about how to achieve your goals advise readers to to set a goal, write down a plan to achieve that goal, and then to do everything they can to stick to their plan. The last step is the one that people tend to struggle with. We've all written down goals and made plans to achieve those goals... and then never followed through.

Why is that?

Photo by christopher lemercier / Unsplash

Many personal development coaches say that we need to have strong motivation as well as a strong will to create new habits. Some people are lucky to have been born with those qualities. The rest of us know that motivation is fickle, and that willpower often fails.

So, should you give up and accept the fact that you will not achieve your goals? Not at all!

You just need to find a better way to create strong habits. One that’s based in science, rather than undependable things like motivation or willpower. To do that, let’s see how our brain works. We can use that knowledge to improve our learning process.

Our brains are wired against building new habits

Even nowadays, we don’t know a lot about our brains. Brains are very complex. Science keeps moving forward, however, and the information we do have suggests that there are more effective strategies than relying on self-discipline.

Here are some things you should know if you want to consistently build good habits:

Our brains are complex

A human brain consists of several parts. The most important ones are the subcortical nuclei and prefrontal cortex. They're located opposite of each other.

The subcortical nuclei, also known as the basal ganglia, was inherited from animals. It controls things related to survival and the satisfaction of basic instincts. The subcortical nuclei assumes a very powerful position in the brain, and it has no interest in our self-development or goals.

Instead, it loves comfort and stability.

The other part, which is the cortex, is uniquely human. All of our dreams, thoughts, and goals are born here. We can build plans for the future, create new things and make progress towards our goals thanks to this structure.

Our "animal" brain controls our habits

For better or worse, the cortex is not as strong as the subcortical nuclei. Furthermore, if a habit is already firm, it goes under the guidance of the basal ganglia… but when we are trying to create a new habit, we work with our prefrontal cortex. Part of the reason that forming new habits is hard is because our previously-formed habits can interfere with the formation of the ones we’re trying to build.

Photo by Aleksandar Cvetanovic / Unsplash

For example, say you’re trying to create a habit of reading for 30 minutes every morning, but you already have the habit of waking up at 7 a.m., and you have no time to read before you need to begin preparing for work. You might try to get up earlier, and you may indeed succeed for several days... but then your brain will sabotage you. Let’s sleep till seven, as usual. It is so comfortable and safe for us, it says, and before long you find yourself lying in bed instead of reading a book.

Willpower is weaker than old habits

And you should now know why: willpower comes from the frontal lobes of the brain, which are the part of the cortex and generally “weaker” than the subcortical nuclei which associates old habits with comfort and stability. While we all have willpower, and we can even strengthen it by doing some exercises, research shows that willpower is ultimately an exhaustible resource that needs to be restored.

You can imagine your willpower as being kind of like a battery. After a good night's rest, it's fully charged. When you do some work, make decisions, or try to do something new, your battery drains a little bit. At the end of the day your willpower batteries might have completely ran out of charge, levaing you with no energy to put towards your personal goals.

What does this mean for us?

Simply put: we cannot rely on our willpower, so we should look for something more reliable.


Motivation isn't a substitute for willpower

You might think that motivation is a replacement for willpower, but you’d be wrong. Motivation comes from the cortex, too, so it doesn’t stand a chance when fighting with the powerful subcortical nuclei.

More practically speaking, while motivation can help you get started, it isn’t the only thing you need to succeed. Learning a language well requires several hundred (more likely thousands) of hours, so it’s important to find something more reliable than motivation or willpower to keep you going.

Basically, our brains are lazy by nature. It pushes us to do what is comfortable, and unfortunately, creating new (good) habits often involves a significant amount of discomfort. If you try to start reading in the morning every day before work, you'll likely struggle because (a) nothing is forcing you to do this, and (b) your brain doesn't feel that the immediate payoff is worth the required effort.

That in mind, one immediate thing we can do is adjust (b) — reframe our desired habits as ridiculously-easy-to-accomplish goals.

Cool, but what's this better way to build habits?

Your first goal should be consistency. Once you're in the habit of doing something every day, you can worry about scaling your investment up.

The best way to do that is by setting ridiculously easy daily goals.

Caramel Cake
Photo by Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

This method was described in the book Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, written by Stephen Guise. It quickly became a bestseller because of its originality, strong scientific basis, and the wealth of personal experience that Stephen shares with his readers.

Let’s start by defining what a "mini" habit is. Stephen says that the ideal starter habit should be so small that thinking about it does not cause you any internal stress. As an example, he shares that his first mini habit was to do one push-up every day. He actually hoped to be doing a full 20-minute workout every day, but to start, he just did one pushup each day.

That mini habit was so successful that he dubbed it the golden push-up.

Now he continues to have that mini habit, but more often he actually does end up doing a full workout — and sometimes even trains in the gym.

Why mini habits are effective

Stephen highlighted several features of mini habits that make them so effective and easy to put into practice. You will see that this method takes into account the characteristics of the brain that we described above:

  • Mini habits don’t require willpower due to their small size and low difficulty. As a rule of thumb, a good mini habit is one you consistently do every day, even on days when you are tired and have no willpower. If you're failing to meet your goal every day, for any reason, your goal is too hard.
  • Mini habits eliminate the hurdle of "getting started." We feel some resistance/anxiety when we think about any task we are supposed to do. We dread the essay we have to write, and that dread makes it hard to even get started. Mini habits avoid this issue by their nature of being stupendously easy (ideally effortless) to accomplish. You'll just do it, because it's so easy... and more often than not, now that you've gotten started, you'll be able to keep going.
  • Mini habits gives you dependable boosts of dopamine. When you need to do serious work your brain gives certain signals to the body, and these signals cause you to feel tired — even before you start working. Mini habits do the opposite. They're so small that the brain doesn't even register them. The magic comes down to the fact that you actually have accomplished something, and you'll feel proud of yourself. Now that your brain is pleased with itself, it'll reward you with some energy! This helps cement in your good habits.
  • Mini habits are stress-free and gently expand your comfort zone. Doing a 20-minute workout every day seems stressful for both the brain and the body, but one push-up is nothing at all, right? You can do that without any stress. Once you've made a consistent habit of doing something, you'll likely find yourself naturally doing more than your mini habit. One pushup per day eventually turns into a regular daily workout.
  • Mini habits do not compete with your old habits, so you'll be able to make progress without feeling like you're torturing yourself

In a nutshell, then, mini habits eliminate fear, doubt, timidity, and inaction.

Now let’s see how to create effective mini habits.


Eight steps make new desirable habits

In his book, Stephen Guise gives step-by-step instructions on how to make habits a part of your life. Here is a summarized version of his eight rules:

  1. Choose mini habits you want to do and to make a plan about how you will do them.
  2. Ask yourself what the main reason behind your desire to do something is. This should be connected to your own inner values, something that inspires and energizes you.
  3. Set start time for the new habit. You might choose a specific time or choose to do your mini habit in relation to another activity (ie, after finishing dinner.) Both methods are perfectly fine, so just choose whatever feels more convenient to you.
  4. Make a reward plan. It is necessary to encourage yourself. Get creative! Before long you're going to be on a month long streak. How are you going to reward yourself?
  5. Write down all of your progress. You should mark down/confirm that you got your habits done every day, but it's also great to keep a diary where you can write your thoughts and observations. How do you feel after doing that habit? Do you find it particularly difficult to meet certain goals? If you didn't meet your goal on a certain day, what happened? Were you busy? Maybe you slept or ate poorly the day before? So long as you make note of these things, eventually you'll start noticing patterns.
  6. Focus on consistency. That means you should stick to your original plan without increasing your mini habit's difficulty. If your goal gets too ambitious you could find yourself consistently giving up once again. Remember that the goal of a mini habit is just to get you started. If you do ten pushups one day that’s great, but all you really need to focus on is your one daily pushup.
  7. Know that there will be very productive days where you end up doing a lot more than your mini habit, but there will also be days when you feel tired or sick and end up doing just the bare minimum. That's OK. That will be enough.
  8. Admit your achievements, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Be patient and consistent.

Some things to keep in mind

  • Don't cheat. If you find yourself consistently failing to achieve your mini habit, that’s a good sign that your mini habit is too difficult! Being easy is the point.
  • Never think your habit is too small. The first and hardest step towards achieving any goal is simply getting in the habit of putting in the work every day. Mini habits make that a piece of cake.
  • If you start feeling bored, go back to step #2 and remind yourself why you’re doing this. If you're no longer certain you want to continue your mini habit, that's great, too! Now you've freed up time that you can put towards acheiving whatever it is that you really want.
  • Remind yourself how easy your mini habit is. It’s only one push up — how can you not do that?
  • Do use your energy to do more on days you feel like it, but don’t increase the difficulty of your goals or punish yourself on days where you only do the bare minimum. Remember, the most important goal is simply to keep up with your mini habit every day.

How to apply mini habits to language learning

This method is multipurpose, so you can use it to build any habit you think would be useful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read one page of a textbook per day
  • Do one training session on Glossika per day
  • Set your YouTube location to a country where your target language is spoken, see what videos are trending over there, and then click on one video that seems interesting
  • Sing along to a song in your target language

For more information read the book, but this article should be enough to get started!

What’s your language learning mini habit?

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Want to learn more about learning?

  1. Advantages of Deliberate Practice Over Random Practice
  2. What It Takes to Master a Language
  3. Relationship Between the Brain, Memory, and Language Learning
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