This is a guest post from my good friend Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months. Around this time last year, Benny and I were hanging out on the beautiful beaches of Thailand – and I can absolutely say he is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about achieving goals, it’s him – so pay attention! If you’re serious about learning a language, then I’d also highly recommend his Language Hacking Guide.
I used to make myself all sorts of promises for my new years resolutions – get fit, give up TV, read more books etc., and the result was one I’m sure many of you are familiar with; I dove in for the first week, eased off for the second and pretty much gave up on the third (usually “promising” myself that I’d come back asap).
These days, I’ve set myself a target of speaking a language every few months and pretty much always succeed (I can currently speak 8 fluently and get by in a few others). I’ve applied this strategy to other aspects of my life that I wanted to improve and it’s been a huge success. If you’ve made a New Year’s Resolution yourself, then you may consider applying these tips:
1. It may go against the title of this post, but you should immediately stop even using the word resolution. If you’ve succeeded with other ones in the past, then that’s fine, but simply put, most people don’t. “Resolving” to do something is not strong enough. I don’t make ‘resolutions’; I have MISSIONS. This has a sense of urgency and requires a plan of action beyond simply promising yourself you’ll do something.
2. Don’t be so vague! “Speak Spanish” or “get fit” are probably the worst possible things to aim for. There is no sense of concreteness for reaching the end goal. When learning a language I define precisely what I’m aiming for. If that’s fluency, I’ll be clear about what that means to me right down to how many seconds I can talk without hesitating for me to consider myself there. Instead of “get fit”, try creating goals like “lose x lbs” or “be able to do 100 sit ups”. These number based and thus less nebulous and easier to aim for.
3. Have a solid strategy. You need a plan of action to execute this goal. Use some program – even the latest self-help book is better than nothing – I find even people with bad strategies will do much better than those who do absolutely nothing; it’s a sort of placebo effect that motivates you to make progress because you feel your program is the best. Of course this will work much better when you have a good strategy! I feel learning languages for example work best when you speak it actively from day one, but other language learners have been successful with other approaches, because they believed in them and stuck to them.
4. Use a much smaller time frame than a year. Another reason people fail with resolutions is that it may have an end goal of “by December” so you can always procrastinate, since there’s still “plenty of time left”. NO. Aim for something by the end of this month. With a language, I aim to be able to make a simple phone call, or spend an entire night with natives in two weeks or even by tomorrow as something to work towards. To lose weight, reduce your end-goal to something much smaller and easier to attain, and aim for that within two or three weeks. To “change your job”, aim first for sending off your resume to places or starting a functional website by the end of the weekend.
5. Extend that further and have something you can feel proud of TODAY or even within an hour. Nothing kills your motivation to continue like a total lack of feeling of progress. I break my language learning into something like “learn words relevant to the kitchen within 2 hours”. This is something any mere mortal can do, so I will very likely achieve it. “Converse in Tagalog” (my current two-month mission, feel free to follow along to see how I do!) is a goal that will take me weeks before I see any progress, so I will start day one by mastering the pleasantries and using them immediately. Every day you must have a concrete mini-goal (jog for 5 minutes more than yesterday etc.) that you can feel proud of. Every tiny piece adds up to bring you to the ultimate end-goal!
6. Be PUBLIC about your mission. If you keep it to yourself, you have nobody to “disappoint” if you decide to give up. One reason I think I’ve been way more successful in the last year and a half in my language learning missions is (as Sean very cleverly points out) because I started a blog. Even when I only had a few dozen people reading my blog, that was still a lot of people who I would feel embarrassed to have to write “Actually, I’ve decided to speak the language in nine months instead of three” or “Meh – maybe I’ll come back to this in a few months; right now I’m too busy!” after making such a big deal about achieving the goal. Start a blog, comment on others to have people interacting with you and your mission and that pressure will be a great motivator to drive you forward!
Editor’s Note: Last week I mentioned I was going to run a marathon in 2011. Well, for better or worse, I registered for the Eugene Marathon on May 1st. There is my public accountability. I’m terrified.
7. Encourage others with a similar mission. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one in the world doing what you’re doing. Look for other blogs, online forums, people in your community or even your close friends who are trying the same thing and share stories of your progress and pitfalls. Those more experienced than you will give you essential tips, and even those you can help will remind you of what you know and give you that extra nudge to make sure you maintain this “knowledgeable” position, by continuing to stay ahead. Encouraging others is mutual since your own advice will reinforce your beliefs in what you are doing and dismiss empty arguments like these. Writing about language learning and helping others has drilled my own advice into me to apply them even stronger than I did before!
8. Be persistent and look at challenges as something to overcome, rather than an obstacle or brick wall to stop you from continuing. You can invent all the bogus excuses you like of why you can’t achieve your target (I’m too old, fat, stupid, poor, don’t have that gene, wrong shoe size, wrong astrological sign, etc.), but they pretty much always have a workaround if you’re persistent enough. In all the discussions I’ve had with people who fail on important goals, it’s not usually the actual excuse itself that caused it, but that person’s commitment to the excuse rather than commitment to the goal. It’s a sad but avoidable aspect of any tough challenge.
9. Ditch the pass or fail mentality!! When your end goal only has two options: Pass or Fail, then that’s great pressure to achieve, but also includes the possibility of great disappointment. I have three possible outcomes with my missions: success, great success and incredible success! What I do is aim slightly HIGHER than I may realistically achieve, and if I “only” obtain 80% of that, then it’s still something to be damn proud of! Have a grey area of success where anywhere inside that is something to be proud of and ditch this fail or not-fail mentality. This of course is not to be used as an excuse to slack off!
10. Ask yourself what you really want out of this. “Get fit” and “speak a language” are not actually why people do these things. They want appreciation/attention from others, or to be able to look in the mirror and like what they see, or speak to their foreign family members casually and so on. When I honestly looked at my motivation for wanting to learn languages, I realized that I ultimately wanted to be able to meet more people. So learning a language helped a lot but wasn’t enough and I needed to improve my social skills with other missions (getting over fear of approaching strangers, being a more confident speaker and many other things). Now I’m clear about what I want to do with a particular language (no crap like “my life will just be better when I speak this!” mentalities) and this helps me learn it more enthusiastically.
11. Be PASSIONATE and willing to do anything to reach your target. What are you willing to sacrifice to reach your goal? Unless your answer is everything or a least “a lot”, then only aiming low can ever work, and that’s not how you dramatically change your life! For example I hate it when people smoke; I’m asthmatic and I think it’s disgusting and incredibly stupid considering how much we know about how it harms people. But I’m so passionate about speaking a language that I actually carry a lighter in my pocket for the many times people ask me if I have one (Unfortunately, I tend to live in countries with a lot of smokers), since that’s an excellent opportunity to meet a new person, strike up a conversation and get introduced to their (hopefully non-smoker) friends for some great language practice. Would you be willing to do something that may be totally against what you’d usually do, for the sake of your mission? Think about it and prepare yourself for some inconveniences if you truly want to reach that end goal!
12. ONE thing at a time! This “simplicity” approach is highly promoted on sites like Zen Habits: if you want to achieve something, make that, and only that, your focus and your only goal! Don’t have 10 resolutions and work on them all at once. You may think that it’s more time efficient to multitask on everything at once, but trying to quit smoking, lose weight, learn a language etc. all at the same time will almost certainly lead to failure in ALL of them. In my case for example, I wanted to be a “polyglot” (someone who speaks multiple languages). The wrong way to go about this would be to work on all target languages simultaneously. Instead, all my energy gets put on ONE language at a time. When I feel that is good, I’ll go on to the next. You may consider this a slower method than focusing on everything you want to change simultaneously, but you’ll do way better to have one intensive focused mission per month or so for a year, rather than 12 at once – spreading yourself thin all year long.
13. Most important: Have fun! 🙂 If it’s a constant chore, you will be quick to invent lazy reasons why you should skip it. Working on that task should be something to look forward to. Don’t like going for a jog? Make that your official time to listen to your favorite podcast! Not too thrilled to be learning foreign vocabulary? Why not try to read your favorite comic or play your favorite computer game in that language? Be imaginative and this resolution/mission will become a fun part of your life and stop even feeling like work.
So enjoy executing your mission, and make sure to share it with the world so you can feel even prouder of the achievement 🙂
If you enjoyed this article, check out more from Benny at Fluent in 3 Months, or take your goal of becoming location independent a step farther by taking a look at my e-course over in the sidebar.