Do you ever crawl into bed at the end of a hard day feeling annoyed with yourself?
You promised yourself you would stick to a learning routine. You told yourself that you would study English for 2 hours but only managed a few minutes. You make a mental promise to study extra hard tomorrow.
Do you think you’ll keep this promise to yourself?
The problem with learning a set of skills like a language is that is takes time and effort. Anybody who tells you that they learned English in 3 months is either delusional, a liar or someone who thinks being able to order a coffee and a sandwich means they are fluent.
The other problem with learning a language is that our degree of motivation rises and falls, depending on the difficulty level of the activity. If the challenge is too easy, we relax and feel bored. If it’s too difficult, we feel discouraged and lose motivation.
One way many people try to deal with these problems is by setting themselves unrealistic learning goals. Like somebody who decides to get fit by entering a marathon, they train too hard and wear themselves out.
Many studies support the view that successful learners (not just of languages) are able to focus on single tasks. They are also able to maintain that focus on a regular basis. In other words, they are consistent.
Many of my students seem to believe that time is the key factor in learning something. You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule, which states that you need to practise something for this length of time in order to become an expert.
However, the problem with this rule is that it equates quality with quantity. Just studying something for 10,000 hours will not make you an expert unless you really focus on developing your skills. I have seen this many times with language learners. They attend an English language course for a set amount of hours and then feel disappointed when they have not achieved the results they expected.
Sitting in a lesson for 3 hours may have less effect on your English than spending half an hour on focused learning. You could:
study how to use a grammar form you have always found difficult
spend 30 minutes working on your pronunciation of vowel sounds
listen to a short podcast / watch a YouTube video and make some notes. Listen again and check the transcript (if there is one)
read a short article and identify how the writer uses past tenses to tell a story
write the first draft of an email you are planning to send
learn 7 new phrasal verbs and never forget them
When we spend a long time doing one thing, our energy levels diminish. We start off well but our energy and motivation levels drop as time goes on. This can also be seen at work. German workers seem to be more productive than British workers despite working for fewer hours so they do as much in one hour as we do in two.
Learning a language is the same and forcing yourself to continue studying when you are tired and disinterested may have a long-term negative effect on your learning development.
Learning English becomes an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed.
The Pomodoro Technique
One technique that may help you stay focused and motivated is the Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro means tomato in Italian. The inventor of the technique used a timer in the form of a tomato to develop the technique.
The technique is simple and you don’t need any special equipment – except a timer with an alarm. You could use your mobile or an app on your computer but I’d suggest getting a physical one, for reasons I’ll explain later.
The Pomodoro Process
1. Write down something you want to study or work on.
2. Remove as many distractions as you can. Turn off your Facebook, Twitter alerts etc. Put some headphones on if you don’t want people to talk to you (this works!).
3. Set your timer for 25 minutes.
4. Start working or studying and don’t stop until you hear the alarm.
5. When the alarm rings, stop what you’re doing and walk around the room. The advantage of using a physical timer is that you can place it at a distance from where you’re working. This forces you to stop what you’re doing and physically get up to turn it off.
6. Take a 3-4 minute break and try to think or do something else, such as washing the dishes. Your mind needs to have a short rest.
7. Set the timer again for 25 minutes and do another ‘Pomodoro’.
8. If your task takes a long time (more than 4 Pomodoros), take a 20 minute break after the fourth round.
The Pomodoro technique works for several reasons:
a) It helps you focus on your goals
b) It trains you to avoid distractions. You can even check your Facebook, Twitter feed during the 3 minute break.
c) 25 minutes is long enough to get things done and short enough so you won’t get bored or tired.
d) You can break long tasks into shorter ones. This means you feel a sense of achievement after each Pomodoro.
e) You can train your brain to focus on single tasks. If you think you can multi-task, look at the evidence.
f) The 3 minute break is long enough to give your brain time to recharge. This really helps with problem-solving because you return to your work after the break with a fresh perspective.
g) It’s ideal if you are preparing for an exam.
Well, why not give the Pomodoro technique a try.
Here is your homework challenge.
Write down 5 English learning goals. These could be skill-based (speaking, listening, reading, writing) or related to specific language (vocabulary, grammar forms, pronunciation) and make them as specific as possible.
Set your timer and see if you can focus on your learning goals. Let me know how it goes and if you have any other ideas.