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Stop Planning to Learn a Language and Just Do It | Why To Do Lists are Counterproductive

Stop Planning to Learn a Language and Just Do It | Why To Do Lists are Counterproductive

I’m always the first two write things down, make lists, plan projects out and wait to start until I feel I’m organized enough to get going. I often write down my goals because there’s something about the process that makes them more tangible and I use a variety of apps and systems to track what I’m doing when I’m doing it and how.

Writing down your goals or listing out your things-to-do is supposed to help you complete them. Inspire you to cross them off and feel accomplished. And even I have to admit, seeing a large list of to-dos checked off is incredibly rewarding. But sometimes, when I’m neck-deep in the planning process or behind on tasks, I’m can’t help but wonder whether or not my to-do lists actually help me “do.” 

Or if they’re just another form of procrastinating. 

Planning out a project – like learning a language – feels like you’re being productive.

It creates a sense of forward momentum, of creating direction, and of getting it done.

Planning Isn’t Doing

In the past, I spent a lot of time planning to learn languages. I’d scour review to determine which resources were the best, how much time I needed to spend doing listening versus reading, whether or not I really needed to work with a tutor, how to find the best tutors, or which articles seemed to explain complex grammar topics in the clearest way. 

Then, with everything I needed to do planned out, I’d think, “Okay, I have these five things I should do today! I’ll write them down so I don’t forget I need to do them.” The next thing I knew, I had a fifty-plus item list and an overwhelming feeling of “I’m not getting anything accomplished! Look at all these things on my list! I must not be learning my language.”

And I was right.

I was using planning to avoid actually doing any learning. I knew that I needed to work out how to use cases or particles or build my vocabulary, but rather than actually doing any of those things, I’d tried to plan how I would do them, creating to-do lists and resource lists because if it was on my list, it meant something.

It’s all about intention. Right? If I intend to do it, that’s just as good as actually doing it. 

But planning isn’t doing.

Putting a Limit On The Planning Stage

Sometimes, I find, you don’t even know exactly what you should be doing until you’re already in the middle of doing it. There’s really only so much you can plan for.

The solution?

Just start. 

When I think of something I need to do, I do it. Right then and there. That way, I get it done and out of the way. But taking action immediately, rather than putting it off until later, I don’t have the time to come up with extra steps or projects I need to do before I can do that thing. The task is done, over, and out of the way so I can keep going on with my day. By doing this, my to-do lists are reserved just for big projects that really do need to be broken down.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.

There are times where I can’t stop what I’m doing to complete that other task that came up, and sometimes doing this interrupts my flow and I waste time switching tasks too often.

When this is the case, I do jot the other thing I think I need to do down. But not on my to-do list. Instead, I keep a running list of things that come up like this during the day (or during my studies). They’re my “what to get started on” the next time I sit down to study list. That way, whenever I feel stuck or unsure of what I need to do next, this list gives me direction. 

I can take a quick look at it and go, “ah yes, that’s right, I needed to go back and spend more time with that particular case because I still can’t use it comfortably.”

Stop Planning, Start Doing

Here are a few tips to help you stop planning your language learning, and start learning.

1. When you write down a task, try to keep it small. 

Your goal may be to one day “speak Korean fluently”, but writing this down on your to-do list won’t give you any direction. Instead, take a moment to figure out what you need to do to get there, break it down into tasks that can be achieved in a day, and go from there. 

I talk about this in detail in my goal setting post and in my post on how I learned a ton of words in Chinese within two weeks, but it’s worth breaking down again here.

So let’s say your goal really is to speak Korean fluently. What exactly does this mean?

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For many people, it probably means that they want to be able to converse in the language comfortably. Already, that gives us a little more detail. 

Now think about conversation. What do you do when you converse? You listen and you speak. So again, we’re getting a little more specific. In order to be able to listen and speak, you need to develop those skills. So giving yourself tasks each day that require listening to Korean (watching dramas, listening to lessons) and that require speaking Korean (doing a one-minute video on Instagram, meeting with an exchange partner, etc.) are better “doing” goals.

2.  If you feel the need to plan, limit how much time you spend on it.

Some planning is unavoidable. So the next best thing you can do is limit yourself to how much time you can spend on it. For example, I might allocate about 45 minutes every Monday to plan out what I need to do for each of my languages during that particular week to keep moving forward. Once that 45 minutes is up, I start doing action tasks and don’t allow myself to plan anymore.

3. Build habits.

If you make certain parts of your language learning routine (a series of habits), then you don’t need to plan. Instead, what you need to do just because a normal part of your schedule that you just sit down and do because it’s a habit. Here are a few examples of my language learning habits:

  • When I get in my car, I listen to language learning podcasts and audio lessons. I’ve tied those two activities together, so I never need to think about what I’ll listen to in the car or when I’ll get my listening practice in.
  • I have language lessons the same time each week during my lunch breaks at work. I schedule them in advance so that all I have to do is show up.
  • At the end of every week, I take all of my notes from my lessons and put them into my flashcards. I do this all in one batch on the same day each week so that it’s just something that I do on Saturday afternoons while my little one naps.
  • I read with LingQ each day before bed. I already had the habit of reading each night, now I just do part of it in my languages instead.

To Sum Up

Is planning useless? 

Absolutely not. 

But it’s important not to get carried away. It may feel productive to read advice on learning languages, to spend time looking for the best resources, or to plan how you’ll learn the language, but be careful not to spend so much time doing those things that you don’t spend any time with the language itself.

What about you?

What are your thoughts on planning? Have you ever realized that you were using planning as a way to avoid doing the work?

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

© 2020 Shannon Kennedy & Eurolinguiste. All Rights Reserved.

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