Warning: incredibly long post. Skip here if you want to get straight to the language learning stuff.
Not long ago, my parents decided to make a few changes to their home. This meant that they needed to move their furniture around and the items I had stowed away in some of that furniture had to go.
You see, my husband and I had just moved in together, so I had only taken what I needed from my parents’. That meant that a good part of the possessions I accumulated over the years remained in my old bedroom.
It was time to decide if I would bring it home with me or let it go for good.
And it was one of the hardest things I had ever done.
I don’t consider myself to be very materialistic. Yes, there are things that I like to have – books, mostly. But I didn’t realize just how much stuff I had acquired or saved.
There weren’t just books but old school projects, every piece of music I had ever received for performance or practice (what if I needed it again one day?), various collections I either started on my own or was given, remnants of the various activities I participated in over the years such as girl scouts, softball, and dance.
Up until that point, I never had a good reason to go through it.
And even then, I wasn’t ready.
So I packed most of it up in boxes and brought it home. Those things remained stacked against a wall longer than I care to admit.
What would I get rid of and what would keep?
What would I get rid of and what would keep? The question was harder to answer than I assumed.
My desire to hang on to things stemmed from stories I often heard (and still hear) from my dad growing up. He always mentioned things he had as a kid that he wished he had hung onto or taken better care of because of what they are worth now. It stuck with me.
He constantly told me to take good care of my toys and he was the first to pack them up into boxes when I outgrew them or lost interest “in case they might be worth something someday.” Everything that I bought became a little, mini investment and I dreaded having to get rid of anything just in case.
And “just in case” wasn’t my only fear.
Things and the Memories Attached to Them
To be honest, when I decided to get rid of my old clothes, toys and collectibles, I thought it would hurt. I feared that some part of me would feel like it was missing if I no longer possessed the things I once so greatly cherished.
The truth is, many of my “things” had memories. The baseball cards my father brought me when he returned home from trips, the clothes that I wore on my first date with M, the books that I collected when I decided I wanted to pursue music as a career.
I felt like those memories were tied to those items and that getting rid of them would be like getting rid of the memories themselves.
But then I realized something important.
What purpose did those memories serve if I never brought out the items to experience them?
I took things even further.
What purpose do books serve sitting on the shelves if I never intend to read them again? Wouldn’t they better serve to go to someone else who would be interested in reading them?
Do I really need a closet full of clothes that I only keep just in case something comes up where I need that exact item?
Isn’t it better to have a few items that I really enjoy and cherish or clothes that I love wearing than it would be to own several items I no longer have interest in?
I took a look at the boxes I had brought from my parents’ house, still packed and cluttering our living room. It was clear that I had to make a choice. I’d rather make room in my life for the things that I truly love and truly enjoy than bury myself with things that no longer matter.
And so, I began to minimize. Little by little.
A Little Wasn’t Enough
It has been a few years since I finally worked up the courage to open those boxes and sort through them. And during that time, I’ve continued to make efforts to minimize unnecessary distractions (both physical and digital) from my life and routine.
But it was something that I wasn’t aggressively doing. I was pretty passive about it.
My goal was to get rid of one item per day. Instead, I’d often let several days (or even weeks go by) and then do a big purge just to catch up.
The problem was that it wasn’t enough. Especially since I only occasionally accounted for the new things that entered my home.
And it wasn’t just physical things that were cluttering my life.
My digital spaces were also full of clutter to the point that my phone ran out of space for photos or new music and I had so many hard drives I couldn’t keep track of which drives held which information.
The result? A lot of mental clutter and an inability to focus on what was important.
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
I knew things couldn’t keep going the way they were. I needed to tackle minimalism seriously.
I decided to start by reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. And I kid you not. That book is life changing.
To be clear, I don’t agree with everything in the book. I didn’t envision myself thanking each item I chose not to keep and nor did I imagine asking my house how it wanted to be organized helping me in my mission.
But it did make me realize I needed to reframe how I was thinking about what stayed and what went.
It isn’t about figuring out what you can get rid of, but about deciding what you keep.
Making that change in mindset allowed everything to fall into place.
How Minimalism Can Be Applied to Language Learning
At some point, you’ve probably heard me say that I only like to work with 3-4 resources at a time. This stems from my desire to keep my study spaces clutter free.
If I allowed it, my desk would be covered with books (both coursebooks and native language material), my iTunes library filled with audio language lessons and podcasts, my Internet bookmarks overwhelmed with an incredible collection of online language resources, and my to-do list packed with various new-to-me tools I wanted to check out.
For me, it was all too familiar. There are just too many amazing language learning resources and it’s tempting to want to try them all. But as an experienced learner, I can tell you that this is never a good long-term strategy.
In a way, a wide range of material to choose from is a good problem to have, but it can be distracting. In a past post, I discussed how to choose the right learning language resources for your language learning goals, but even when you narrow down the types of materials you use, you can still end up with too many and not enough time.
And sometimes, it can take too much time and energy to decide what to work with (so much so, in fact, that it can quickly eat up a good chunk of your study time).
For many of us, time is short as it is. So why waste any more of it than necessary?
Spending a bit of time paring down up front will do wonders for your productivity and focus during your study sessions. Here are a few ways you can apply the minimalist approach to your language learning so that you can be more focused and productive in your studies:
1. Do not allow yourself to own more than you’ll use. This includes digital resources.
Stuff isn’t just a waste of physical and digital space. It also quickly becomes a waste of time. I’ve found that when I have too much stuff – whether it’s stuff stored on my computer hard drive or stuff on my desk – I spend more time sorting through it to find what I need than is necessary. I also have to invest more time to keep it organized.
I found that the quickest way to keep things from getting in the way of my productivity is to just not have them to begin with. This means you’ll:
A) Need to get rid of the items that you aren’t using and
B) Think much harder about whether or not you really need something when it comes to acquiring new materials.
Doing this will also save you a surprising amount of money.
2. Have a place where you keep what you’re currently using so that it’s easily accessible. NOTHING else should be kept in this space.
You should keep the resources you’re using on hand. This might mean a neat stack of books on your desk or a folder on your computer desktop.
This also means that whatever you are not using at the moment should be put away. You might stick your books on a different part of your bookshelf, in a closet or in a box somewhere and digital files in another folder on your computer.
3. Limit the number of tools you work with at any given time.
I talk about this in some shape or form quite a bit here on Eurolinguiste. But that’s only because it’s something that I strongly believe in.
I believe that in order to be truly productive with your learning, you should focus on working with only 3 to 4 resources at a time for any given language. This isn’t to say the resources won’t change as you progress, but if you work with any more than that at once, you’re not likely to get through them as quickly (plus you risk repeating a lot of material by using too many resources rather than taking on new material).
4. Be selective with those limited tools you work with.
What are your language learning goals? Not sure yet? Take a moment to sit down and think about them. This article will still be here when you get back.
Got ’em? Good. Write them down and stick them somewhere you’ll see them often.
Now that you’ve established what your goals are, take a look at the resources that you’ve been using. Are they helping you work towards those goals?
If not, get rid of them and spend some time finding (or creating) resources that a better suited to helping you work towards your goals. It will be worth spending that time once you have them. If the tools you already have are helping you, then make sure they are one of those 3-4 resources that you’re working with regularly.
5. Minimize the Process.
Spend the last five minutes of every study session preparing for the next. One of the toughest things about studying a language is getting started – both starting in general and starting each session. The easier you make it to pick up your studies the next day, the greater chance there is that you’ll sit down to work on language learning.
For me, for a long time, the hardest part about practicing (music) was getting started. I’d look at my sax case and think, “ugh, I have to set up my saxophone” and that would be enough to deter me from actually sitting down to practice. It wasn’t even that setting up my saxophone was hard or that it took a long time (I’ve got it down to under two minutes). It was just that there was something about that step that was keeping me from working on my craft.
I quickly found a way to keep myself from using that particular obstacle as an excuse.
I took my sax out of the case, set it up and left it sitting out where I’d walk by it regularly. The result, I ended up practicing a whole lot more (every day, in fact) just because my sax was right there. Eventually, it got to the point where practicing became a habit like brushing my teeth, so I was able to put my sax away safely. The days I didn’t practice made me feel so guilty that the “set up” process no longer kept me from practicing.
I minimized the process, or the steps I needed to take, to practice each day and in result, I got more practicing in. It just took a little planning to figure out a way to prepare myself for practice (and to make it more accessible).
These five steps are a great starting point when it comes to applying the minimalist approach to your language learning, but there are, of course, quite a few more things you can do to really break things down and focus in on what’s important. The key to doing to doing this successfully lies in knowing what you think is important for your language learning goals. And once you figure that out, you’ll also find that you’re language learning process actually becomes faster!
Worried about the actual decision process? Don’t worry, I won’t leave you on your own just yet. Here are a few techniques to help you decide what stays and what goes when simply holding the object and decided whether or not it ‘sparks joy’ is enough.
1. Start with the items you have no attachment to.
In the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo advises you to start with the objects that have the least sentimental value and work towards those that have the most. She determines this by category. Her order is: clothing, books, papers, miscellaneous, and then sentimental items.
But if you’re anything like me, and as a language learner, you probably are, books are much closer to the sentimental or difficulty line than miscellaneous.
Let’s take a look at the types of items we acquire as language learners and see how we can apply the minimalist approach to language learning.
The tools you’re most likely to have are:
* Writing tools and papers
* Physical books
* Digital books
* Online bookmarks and resources
* Mobile apps
* Miscellaneous (games, flashcards, etc.)
Take a moment and put these in the order of least sentimental to most. For me this is: writing tools, online bookmarks and resources, mobile apps, miscellaneous, digital books, and then physical books.
Start with the least only keeping what you need and use, working towards the most.
2. It Doesn’t Have to Be Thrown Away
For physical items, you can sort them into three boxes labeled ‘donate’, ‘sell’ and ‘trash’.
For digital resources or mobile apps, you can create a list for later as a single document, but remove them from immediate access. Or, if you’re a blogger, create a roundup post to share them with other learners who may find them useful but then delete them from your devices or bookmarks for yourself.
3. Set Up Systems for the Items You Can’t Make Decisions On
Sometimes you just can’t decide if an item should stay or go. But there’s something you can do to decide this for you.
With my clothes, I turned the hangers in my closet around backwards. When I took out an item and wore it, the hanger was put back facing the correct way. After a few weeks, it was easy to see what I actually wore and what I didn’t. I pulled the items that I hadn’t worn and went through them to see if there was really anything I wanted or needed to keep.
The same can be done with books. Turn them around so the spines face backwards. Or if you have to many and won’t know what they are, turn them so the titles are facing the wrong way. After a few weeks or months, see what you’ve read or referenced and what you haven’t. It will make the decision of what to keep easier.
For digital items, you can throw all of your bookmarks or apps into a single folder. If you use one of them, move it onto your desktop or a folder that’s easier to access. After a few weeks, get rid of the rest.
4. When You Sort Through Your Tools, Empty the Space Where They’re Stored
It’s hard to truly evaluate if you need to keep something when you look at it on a shelf. Pull everything out and put it in a pile in the middle of your floor (or in the case of digital files, in one folder). Handle each item as you decide whether to return it to it’s place or get rid of it.
It’ll also give you an opportunity to clean the spaces where things are stored in ways that you can’t when you clean around the objects stored in them.
Feeling lazy? Don’t. Emptying the space completely is really effective because it’s impossible to miss or overlook items.
5. Once You Make a Decision, Follow Through Immediately
Once you decide where each item is going, deal with it right away. That way you can’t change your mind and the items you are getting rid of don’t take up space somewhere else in the interim.
6. You Aren’t Done Once Your Initial Purge is Complete
There are always more ways to cut down and boost your efficiency. Plus, you need to be as vigilant in keeping new items from entering your space unless they merit it.
I found that completing the Konmari method made me much more conscientious about the new items I brought into my home and study spaces. Don’t fall back to old habits just because you felt the work was already done!
A few tips on How to Minimize on a Daily Basis
+ I still keep my books reversed.
Even when I buy a new book, I put it on the shelf with the spine facing inwards. I want to make sure that I actually use all the books I’ve invested in, so I’ve stuck to this method.
With my clothes, I’ve stepped up the backwards hanger technique. I also started to color code my hangers (red ones face out and white ones face in) because the items I’m not wearing stand out to me even more. This also helps me cut down the total number of clothing articles I wear because I don’t allow myself to add in any other colored hangers (even though I have them).
I thought, why not do this with language?
So I bought two colored boxes. In one I place the miscellaneous learning resources I haven’t used. Once I use them, I move them to the other box. If something hangs out in the first box for too long, I don’t keep it.
+ One in, one out.
If I decide I want to buy something new, I have to get rid of something that resides in the storage space the new item will call home.
When I buy a new book, I have to donate one that I already have. If I bookmark a new website, I have to delete the link to one I’m no longer using.
I’ve found this to be extremely effective for two reasons. The first is that it keeps my total number of possessions down. The second is that it forces me to think about how badly I want something new because I’ll have to give up something else to have it.
+ Spontaneous Purging
When I have a little bit of downtime (or when I’m feeling overwhelmed), I empty out a space and reorganize it (like I did at the beginning but on a smaller scale). So instead of emptying out my entire storage closet, I may just empty out one shelf. This gives me the opportunity to see exactly what is kept where so that I don’t forget about things I’ve stored that I may no longer need.
I found that even after my initial efforts, that minimalism is an ongoing process. I constantly evaluate and eliminate what doesn’t work for me and I advise you to do the same.
What I Noticed Immediately After Applying the Minimalist Approach to Language Learning
Once I started to get rid of the learning materials that I didn’t use or need, I noticed three things immediately:
1. I felt overwhelmed less often;
2. I felt less distracted;
3. And I had a little bit of extra money from the items I sold or didn’t buy (which made me feel less stressed about work and have more mental energy for language study).
It was noticeable with simple things like deciding what to wear in the morning or getting to work at my desk. Without the clutter on my desk I became more focused with the tasks at hand and with fewer items in my closet, it was easier to pick out my outfit for the day and start my day without decision fatigue.
I also found that I had the room for things that I really wanted but didn’t have a place for before I got rid of stuff. For example, instead of the three outdated music business books on the shelf collecting dust, I could have one Chinese language learning book that I actually used.
It was incredibly liberating and inspired me to continue.
What about you?
Do you think that your language learning could benefit from a bit of minimizing?
If you’ve tried your hand at minimizing, what are some of the techniques you’ve used to keep your possessions to a minimum?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
PS. Here’s an interesting video from Tim Ferriss on Minimalism and Language Learning.