Getting Stuck on Japanese Learning Autopilot

You’re determined to learn Japanese. You study a lot and are improving every week. The progress might be small some weeks, but at this pace you’ll surely be fluent within a couple years. There is a will there that won’t go away… right?

That’s what I thought anyway.

I’ve had my share of setbacks and frustrations in my journey, but I’ve never quit. Rather than quit, I just stopped making progress. For five months, I only studied enough to stay at the same level. My Japanese was on autopilot.

Just Cruising Along

To be fair, this sort of thing had happened before. Sometimes a week was super busy and my studying was at a minimum. I would always bounce back, often more determined than ever. This time was different though. Even when the busy times had passed, I still acted as though I had no time for Japanese.

Here’s what this time period looked like for me:

1. I wouldn’t add new cards to Anki.
2. Most of the time I wasn’t even caught up on Anki.
3. Every couple weeks I would finally get caught up, only to quickly fall behind again.
4. There weren’t even that many reviews to do, but I would only spend a few minutes a day reviewing if that.
5. I basically didn’t read my manga at all (maybe a chapter a month)
6. I would watch maybe 3 anime episodes a week. 8 if I went crazy (In normal times I would watch around 15-21).
7. Every now and then, I would remember that I can get some easy immersion walking around with my iPod (I was usually too lazy to put in the small amount of effort).
8. About once a week I would return to Jalup, read the articles, nod, and then go about my day.

Best as I can tell, my skill in Japanese stayed perfectly still. The only saving grace was that I occasionally got small spikes in motivation, usually just for a day and most of the effort was spent on catching up with Anki.

Yet I still had every reason to pick up the pace again. I was taking the JLPT, applying to ALT positions in Japan, and becoming good friends with a Japanese exchange student.

There I was, cruising, with no acceleration.

Taking Control Again

I only recently came out of this and there’s two main things I’ve learned.

1. This “too busy to study” feeling is almost always a lie.

This feeling is usually what starts a lull in my studies. Perhaps some of you remember the “J-J Sentence Siege Challenge” on this site a while back. The goal of it was to add 1000 new cards within 3 months. At the same time as the challenge I had the busiest semester yet at my university. That didn’t stop me, I took that challenge and gosh darn it I was going to complete it. And so, in my busiest semester, I add more cards than I ever had before (and since). Being busy is an excuse, a good one admittedly, but still an excuse.

2. Productivity is a funny thing. There’s a momentum to it.

The autopilot mentality I had leaked into other aspects of my life. Why do homework when the internet exists? Maybe tomorrow. Each decision influences the next. What’s the harm in one YouTube video? The next video I decide to watch afterwards, and the one after that… Each video slowed down my momentum. Two hours later when I finally quit watching videos I had virtually no motivation. And now there’s not much time left in the day, probably only really time for… more videos.

What’s awesome is that it works the opposite way too. I finished that sentence challenge because pulling out my phone to do Anki had become second nature.

Sometimes the best thing I can do for my productivity is take 5 minutes to think. What are the best things I can do with my time? Why in the world would I waste this time on something besides these things? That would be awful. Now I know exactly what to do. My mind is more at peace because of this clarity. All because of 5 minutes. 55 minutes well spent are better than an hour wasted.

I only just finished writing my last article “Japanese was Created by Mortals.” Yet of the four articles I’ve written for Jalup, the one you are reading now is the first that I finished in a day. This is no coincidence. I have many other things to do this busy week, but I specifically choose to write this article because it was important to me. The same goes for studying Japanese.

Being on autopilot sucks. Much of the time it feels just the same as quitting. However, all you need to do is remember where you’re going and have the courage to take the wheel again.

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Drew V.

Majoring in Computer Science and mastering in Japanese (in spirit anyway). Was blind to my love of Japan until age 19. Seriously Japan, where were you all my life?


Getting Stuck on Japanese Learning Autopilot — 10 Comments

  1. Man, I know exactly what you mean. Autopilot is almost inevitable at some point in this multi-year project, it can be hard to recognize and even harder to escape.

    • Yeah, during the auto-pilot period I would often be able to deny it by thinking about the times when I was studying more.

  2. My experience with Japanese pilot just happened. This month was crazy. But really, it was really only so busy I couldn’t add cards to my reviews for like 1 of the days tops. The other two were just me protesting because it didn’t feel like I had as much control over my time as I would like. Everything hit me at once. I haven’t had a stretch of more than a few days in Japanese autopilot and I hope it stays that way. I have one more year of school left so I’ll see.

    • Sounds like you still managed to get by pretty well. Not always adding cards is a lot better than never adding cards. Good luck with your last year of school, since the autopilot happened during my last year.

  3. I feel like it’s okay to be in autopilot for a while, but it’s important to realize it’s happening and switch out of it eventually.

    I personally definitely struggle with being consistent and am more the kind of learner to learn in waves. But actually going through multiple of those lows then struggling my way back and finally facing new stuff… Going through that more than once actually made me realize, that I won’t ever quit Japanese completely. I’ve always been drawn back to it and by now I’m very sure I always will be. And even though that sounds a bit funny, this realization that came out of being super inconsistent made me become a little bit more consistent overall (though I still suck). I guess what I want to express is: Being inconsistent is far from ideal in language learning but it’s not the end of the world either ;)

    Anyway: Get back on your horses, you can do it! And if you can’t right now, take the time to think about your relation to Japanese… and then get back onto your horse!

  4. One good thing about being on autopilot for me is that I never considered quitting Japanese. Sounds like you’re the same too. It’s kind of like procrastinating getting back into Japanese.

  5. I have been in this phase for about the past year. I for the most part keep up with my reviews but only on certain days do I add new things.

    To give an idea of how little I have done the past 10 months:
    10 levels in WaniKani
    350 cards of JalupBeginner
    Newbie series of Jpod 101
    And like a few chapters or different things on grammar.

    I’m heavily starting to feel burnout this past month since I have been studying for a year but don’t have much to show for it.

    I know I need to just have discipline but it seems I’m always using it on the other things I do from day to day since Japanese is only my 4th priority after work, school, and fitness.

    I’m hoping I can just push through this summer in order to get to the point where I can actually feel like I’m getting somewhere. Since I won’t be taking any classes I’m going to try and use the time I would normally be in class / studying to study Japanese.

  6. Oh, that article article makes me doubt myself….!!!

    I’ve actually just decided to take some time off Japanese.
    Maybe you’re right, I’m not too busy to study. But maybe Japanese is just not a priority for me right now. I don’t know in what measure this is true, but I do know that I need a break.

    I have too much on my plate, so I’ve decided to take 45 days off. I’ll just keep up with Anki. I’m scared to go on autopilot and drift endlessly, so I’m trying my best to just conscientiously let it go for a little while, and come back stronger in a month and a half.

    I don’t know if this is the right approach, but this is my solution for right now.

    • Make sure to keep your reviews under control during your break and you should be fine. I do have occasional burn out moments, and I find that it helps to realize it as early as possible and adjust the speed to prevent it from getting out of control. Even if you are just reviewing, you are still learning the cards you have already added.

  7. Thanks for this boost, Drew. I recently stopped adding cards and went on that auto-pilot, but now I realize that I missed the forward movement. I’m going to get back to it, and also start doing the other writing (like my blog) that I’ve put aside. This was another great post by you!

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