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How Procrastination Will Destroy Your Language Studies & Tips for Overcoming It

How Procrastination Will Destroy Your Language Studies & Tips for Overcoming It

I used to procrastinate.

And okay, yes, if I’m completely honest, sometimes I still do. But I’m trying to kick the habit.

In the past, I’d put things off because I always figured I’d get to them later. But then, I missed out on an important experience, thinking I’d get to do it the next time around. As you can guess, that didn’t happen and so now, I do everything I can to avoid procrastinating.

It’s easy to sit back and think, “I have plenty of time.

And yes, you have a lot of years ahead of you. I can see why you think that. But not doing something now – today – can quickly become not doing something in the next few days, months, then years. I’ve come to realize that later = never more often than not.

Time Honestly Flies By

I know I’m not alone when I say that I sometimes look back at certain events or tasks and think, “was it really that long ago?”

Yes. Yes, it was.

If you plan to do something, do it when you first have the opportunity. If you don’t, you may never have the chance to actually do it.

Travel? Oh you have plenty of time…

Language learning? You’ll get there soon. Don’t worry about it for now…

Going after your dreams? You need to focus on other, “safer” things…

Those books you want to read? You’ll have the chance when you retire…

If something is really important to you, then do it. Otherwise you’ll constantly live with the regret of having held yourself back.

Let me tell you that personal story I hinted at just a moment ago.

When I was getting ready to graduate from university (the first time), I dreaded the idea of attending the commencement ceremony. It was in part because I’m extremely introverted, but also in part because of the size of my graduating class. It would have been a long day out in the sun.

When graduation finally rolled around, I was still on the fence. I avoided pulling out the sign up form despite being prodded by my parents and professors to participate. I had already planned to continue my education and earn my Master’s degree, so I figured I’d just walk when I finished my education.

But that didn’t happen.

After completing the final semester of my Master’s degree, I moved to California. Before the graduation ceremony was scheduled. I left Ireland in June, mailed my dissertation in September and commencement was held in December. I didn’t get to go.

I never got to experience what it would have felt like to be handed a college diploma. To celebrate my experiences as a student. Instead, my only graduation experience was that of messages from a friend back in Ireland telling me how I was listed in the graduation program.

I learned then that if I wanted to do something – to experience something – NOW is the time to do it. If you wait for the opportunity to do it later, that chance may never come.

You might be thinking, “Thanks for the story, Shannon… But what does this have to do with languages?”

Great question. The answer? Everything.

Study Now, Even If It Is Only For a Few Minutes

More days than I care to admit I come home from work completely drained. I take one look at my study space and the first thought that pops into my mind is: “I’ll sit down and study this weekend.”

The thing is, if I don’t sit down and put some time in now but instead wait for the weekend, I probably wouldn’t study. On the weekends, I get so caught up in other responsibilities and tasks that the days disappear without a moment of language learning.

Putting things off – waiting to do your language study later – usually means you won’t get around to studying.

But it’s not just complete avoidance that gets me. Sometimes I AM studying languages, but I’m not being effective at it because I’m still procrastinating.

What Procrastination Really Looks Like

When you think about procrastination, what do you imagine?

Waiting until the night before to submit a school paper? Avoiding scrubbing down the bathroom by rearranging the contents of your cabinets? Reading clickbait articles when you should be researching?

When I procrastinate, I’m often guilty of doing things like:

* Socializing during my language exchanges or lessons rather than working
* Waiting for the perfect moment or break in my schedule to study
* Prioritizing any one of 100 tasks over language learning
* Reviewing material I already know well rather than tackling that tough grammar point (like the subjunctive in Spanish or cases in Russian)
* Constantly switching tasks, resulting in wasted transition time
In the moment, it may feel like I’m doing the work, but really, these are all forms of procrastination.

A little surprised? I was too when I first sat down and thought about it because in my head, procrastination = lazy. My vision of it was that I was only procrastinating if I knew I had an upcoming deadline but I chose to veg out on the couch and play video games.

I didn’t feel too guilty about the ways I was actually procrastinating because it wasn’t tied to laziness. I was still getting things done, but I wasn’t being productive. I was still putting off doing the things I really needed to do by focusing my attention on other, less important tasks.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Procrastination happens for a variety of reasons, but the reason I want to focus in on is feeling overwhelmed at the task at hand.

Language learning is a huge project. So it makes sense that at times you might feel overwhelmed or uncertain about the next step.

The go-to advice for this is to set small, quick little tasks that result in easy wins. I could easily tell you to do something like aim to speak without pause for 30 seconds to a minute about yourself, or write a 500 word introduction to one of your hobbies, or to earn 30 points on Duolingo and leave it at that.

It would give you something immediate that you could achieve in five minutes or less – yay you – but I would be neglecting the real problem if I did that.

So let’s look at why we really feel overwhelmed, intimidated, or even shy about studying and using a new language.

Can you guess what it is?

A fear of making mistakes.

This particular problem is discussed by tons of well-known language learners, but it’s often associated with confidence. So what does it have to do with time management?


When you’re afraid of making mistakes, you’re afraid to invest in your language learning. You hold yourself back, find excuses not to put the time in, and to avoid challenging situations like exchanges, difficult grammar, or opportunities to use the language in the wild.

This avoidance leads to poor uses of your time (and studies) and stagnates your progress.

I completely understand the desire to have everything perfect. I’m shy and an introvert, I struggle with confidence and when I make an effort, I want that effort to be right. I don’t want to have spent all of that energy and courage I’ve worked up to go to waste because somehow I messed it up.

The way you speak, your overall comprehension of a language, the body language you use, the timing of your jokes, your understanding of idiomatic expressions, the way you present yourself to native speakers of your target languages are all things you worry about. The list can go on. And you’re especially tempted to strive for perfectionism, particularly when you’re aiming for that tantalizing goal of “fluency”.

But the truth is, perfectionism can stop your learning in its tracks. It can hold you back, paralyze you and keep you from moving forward with not only your speaking, but in your progress with the language as a whole.

Not a good way to be productive or manage your time if you ask me.

Perfectionism can hinder any part of your language learning, but it can especially hold up your progress when it comes to speaking a language. When it comes to speaking, we often feel an added pressure to speak “perfectly”, as though we’re being judged on our performance in the language. Our accents and pronunciation need to be on par with native speakers, our grammar flawless, and our vocabulary impressive.

But that’s not actually the case.

As long as you can make yourself understood and you can understand what’s being said to you (for the most part), then you’re doing a pretty good job.

You can get lost in the preparation stage, never giving all your hard work in a language a chance to see the light of day. And that’s an opportunity all the effort you’ve made deserves!

If You Wait For Perfection, You’re Missing Out

Everyone worries that they’ll be judged, mocked, rejected, shut down, or even shunned for not waiting until their ability in a language is perfect. So you procrastinate and avoid putting yourself in situations where you think this will happen.

Something you should know though, is that the other people you meet, particularly those that are a part of the language learning community, are too busy doing their own thing to make you feel embarrassed about your language skills. In fact, they’re probably just as preoccupied with their own faults to really notice yours. And as long as you show that you’re making a sincere effort to do your best, grow, learn, improve, connect, and share what you’re doing, then native speakers and other learners will support your efforts. (Or at the very least, not make you feel bad about them.)

Enthusiasm and hard work are far more essential to your success than perfectionism. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, much like Benny Lewis, I would even argue that we need to make more mistakes. We need to feel a bit embarrassed or a bit frustrated and sometimes we even need to feel a little bit angry with ourselves because that’s what motivates us to get better.

It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever be the best. There will almost always be someone just a little bit better than you. Accepting that along with the fact there is no such thing as perfect can be one of the most liberating experiences you’ll ever have.

See Also

At some point in your life, you may get weighed down with self-doubt, wondering if we’ll ever be good enough. These thoughts can be overwhelming, and more often than not, lead us to putting things on the backburner. We tell ourselves that we’ll be ready later and that we just need more time.

But by waiting for later, by waiting for things to be perfect, you’ll find you’re only setting yourself up to wait, well, forever.

Over-analyzing where you’re at and where you think you should be will only prevent you from achieving success.

Putting Yourself Out There is Worth the Risk

Why would you put yourself out there and make mistakes when you can just do a lot of preparation and avoid the embarrassment of mistakes altogether?

Again, good question.

Although you can technically argue that it’s better to do more preparation before you put yourself out there (one form of this is called the “silent period”), I’d counter argue that by not using all of that material you’re learning, you have a greater risk of losing it and of making even more mistakes when you finally have that conversation you’ve prepared so long and hard for. And this, more so than those little, regular mistakes (which actually help you build up a thick skin against the embarrassment of making them), can be detrimental to your language learning endeavors. It will be far more discouraging than those little, regular mistakes could ever be.

So remember this. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to get out there and use the language that you’re learning.

Here are a few things that you can do to overcome any hurdles related to procrastination:

1) Set deadlines

Have you noticed that you’ve mastered the skill of avoiding learning a certain skill in your target language? Maybe it’s really understanding the honorific system or particles, or maybe it’s conversations in general because you’re worried that you won’t understand.

If there’s a specific task you’ve been avoiding, it’s time to set a deadline.

Think about just how big the actual task is. Is it one grammar point? One of the four core skills – speaking, listening, reading, writing – that you don’t want to tackle? Or is it just remembering which words are feminine and which are masculine?

Once you have identified just what it is you’ve been skipping over, see if there’s a way to break it down.

We’ll take learning noun genders, for instance.

You can break it up into:

* Finding resources that explain the rules in a way that makes sense to you
* Reading through those resources
* Memorizing the rules
* Reading about the exceptions
* Memorizing the most common exceptions
* Doing exercises to internalize the rules and exceptions
* Asking your tutor to correct you specifically when you use the incorrect gender during your lessons

Now that you have the task broken up into manageable assignments, you can stick dates on each one so that you can check them off your list.

2) Treat yo’self

You do something because you expect results, consequences, or rewards. With language learning, results and consequences aren’t necessarily things you see immediately, so if you need that motivation, you can find it by rewarding yourself. Finished that Duolingo module on the future tense? Treat yourself. Had a 15 minute conversation in Spanish with your tutor? Treat yourself. Managed to make it through a 25-30 minute study session with checking your phone once? Treat yourself.

It can be something as small as having a box of candy on your desk and eating a couple of them each time you check off an item in your to-do list or as big as going out to dinner or a movie or a binge on Netflix. Whatever keeps you going.

3) Accept mistakes

Even if that mistake happens to be that you’ve procrastinated – again.

Forgive yourself for making them, and move forward.

By forgiving yourself for making them, you’ll steadily become less intimidated by them. In result, you’re less likely to avoid situations where they’ll happen in the future.

It’s all about doing a little better than the day before.

Did you enjoy this post? Great! There’s tons more where it came from. Why? Because it’s a sample of a lesson from my course Language Learning Accelerator. If you’re looking for more tips on becoming better at managing your time or energy as a language learner, I’d love for you to take a moment to check it out!

And now I’ll turn it over to you.

Do you ever procrastinate when it comes to studying your language?

What holds you back? What do you do to overcome it?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

© 2020 Shannon Kennedy & Eurolinguiste. All Rights Reserved.

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