How to Trick Yourself into Studying
Learning Japanese is a big goal. To achieve such a big goal you break it down. You break it down further. Then you break it down into what you do every day and what you plan to do right now. Many people make what they feel are small goals, yet still can’t reach them. You can’t get your daily reviews down to 0 on a single day. How are you going to ever learn Japanese?
I slightly regret writing this post about the power of 0. It is a realistic goal. It is a goal that would do a lot of good for you. But it’s a bad goal. Realistic goals that are good for you aren’t necessarily good goals. Because you can be lazy and avoid realistic goals just as much as you can impossible, far-fetched ones.
The problem with “Anki down to 0 every day” is that it may prevent you from doing Anki at all. You wake up, and there’s Anki starting at you with a few hundred cards. The thought of what it takes to get that down to 0 will drain your willpower in a second. The result? You don’t attempt that goal today. The worst part is that since you know it is a goal that is good for you, and one you should be aiming for, you tell yourself that you’ll try it again tomorrow when you have some more energy. You couldn’t do it today, but you can do it tomorrow.
Here’s the harsh truth:
A Japanese goal you couldn’t accomplish today, you are most likely not going to accomplish tomorrow. Or the next day. A goal you aren’t working towards is not a goal you want to have.
The problem with just making your goals smaller
In the realm of studying Japanese, people say smaller is better. Just study 10 minutes a day. Just do 50 reviews. Just read one page of a manga. You’ll hear something along the lines of “small goals will build up over time and pave the path towards your bigger goals.”
10 minutes a day is around 60 hours a year. This isn’t nothing, but will make you a very casual learner. If you are trying for anything more than casual learning, this goal is doing you more harm than good. If you want to be fluent, this will be a losing race. With 10 minutes a day, you’ll slowly get better. However, eventually your dissatisfaction in not being able to do what you want will overpower that 10 minutes a day. You will lose your race to immersion.
Small daily goals may be easy. But once you reach the point of expecting results and having nothing to show, they become much more difficult to maintain. You can only support small daily goals while you still have hope and optimism.
The real secret behind utilizing small daily goals is learning how to use deception.
Trick yourself into doing more
You all know the following phenomenon:
1. You sit down to do a small task that you plan on doing for 10 minutes.
2. You end up doing that task for an hour or more, without any struggle or pressure to continue, as though you were possessed.
This phenomenon results from two principles: Starting is hard. Momentum is easy. If you say you are going to do 25 Anki cards a day, while you are doing them, there is a good chance that you’ll do more. Giving yourself a small goal like this tricks yourself into beginning and gaining momentum. This is the reason why small goals win.
However, it’s not that simple. The obstacle you face is that you aren’t stupid. You know this mechanism because you’ve experienced it countless times before.
This is what you can’t think:
I’m going to study 25 cards daily… but if I feel like doing more, I’ll study more!
You can’t pressure yourself like this using deception. The second you acknowledge that you are setting a small number just to get started, but expect yourself to do much more, you’ve lost. You can’t secretively plan on turning this into a bigger goal. You are too smart for that, and your willpower will know what is being expected of it and will try to convince you why it doesn’t feel like doing anything today.
You must actually convince yourself that you will only study 25 cards, and quit after this amount feeling happy, with no expectations of anything more. If you convinced yourself, there will be times it truly will only be 25. But there will be times it will be more. Lose the ulterior motive, and you will be able to trick yourself.
Stop and reflect
Search for what is causing you to miss your goals over and over again. Experiment how you can shrink your goals to get you to the point of actually starting. Follow through trying to meet only those small goals, without secretly planning something bigger.
You can trick yourself to win.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Yes, I fell into this “get reviews down to 0” trap, and I stopped adding cards. Then I got bored, so I started adding cards every day. I feel much better about adding cards as I’m almost finished with Jalupnext beginner, but I have 700 reviews to do. I’m still figuring it out. Thanks for the pep talk!
Sounds like it is working out then. Just break those 700 reviews into small goals, stick to them not expecting more, and you’ll be fine!
this is exactly what i started doing recently! i decreased the number of cards, both review and new because i wasn’t finishing and the number kept scaring me away. then after reducing my count, if i only do that number i feel accomplished. but i’ve taken to adding more review cards, adding the ones i’ve forgotten, and reviewing ahead. my japanese grammar class today went better than it ever has before because i could read all the kanji easily and didn’t have to resort to english for vocab words i should already know! trying to force myself into doing more was really hard, but accepting that less is better than nothing has made me study more in the past couple week than i have for several months.
tldr; this works.
That’s the way to do it! And that extra kanji knowledge can really make a difference, as you are finding out now.
For me the magic words are “I’ll do five minutes.” Even on bad days, I can mostly force myself to do five minutes of reviews. And guess what, even then I can usually manage to do more. But I probably wouldn’t get started if I tried to force that! Somehow “It’s okay to stop after five minutes – really!” already helped quite a lot to just get started.
It also helped alleviate “I don’t have time to study right now!” a bit. Most things can wait for five minutes, so “I’ll just do 5 minutes of reviews and then I’ll do other-none-Japanese-task” seems to work out better for me than thinking “I need to block this big timeslot for Japanese”
I’m not sure if “You must actually convince yourself that you will only study 25 cards, and quit after this amount feeling happy, with no expectations of anything more.” really is how it works for me. I guess I know myself too well for that ;) But just knowing that “it’s fine if I quit after five minutes!” is working out pretty well (and thinking about it, in the end is probably rather similar anyway) and it’s something I did manage to convince myself of!
Another thing I just noticed: I think I’m even sometimes using this more than once a day, or on days I actually do feel motivated to get me going a second (third?) time. “I’ll just do another 5 minutes before going to bed <3" and in that case it might really only be five minutes and as it's additional study those are some really positive five minutes! (But I guess it might actually make the "just five minutes" work better on low motivation days as well as there are more positive memories attached to it?)
tldr; works for me!
You’ve mastered the art of tricking yourself :) And it’s working well.
Consistency is far more important with reviewing than just getting the number down to zero. It’s great if you get rid of a backlog of 500 cards in just one day, but chances are high of not doing reviews the next day. After all, the backlog is there because you skipped several days, so the habit will be to skip reviewing. Even though there aren’t as many cards, the last memory of reviewing was that it was a huge ordeal.
It’s more likely you’ll fall back in the habit if you do 150 cards over multiple days. There will also be more time for immersion, which is an essential motivator.
That’s a great point that consistency can be even more important than specific goals. When people try just once to get rid of all their Anki reviews, they usually have the same problem again in the near future, unless they really work hard to change their habits.