How to Set Up a Successful Language-Learning Schedule (Even if You’re a Screw Up Like Me)

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language-learning-scheduleSome people are like robots.

They set out to do goal achieving activities every day, and they follow through on them without fail.

Day after day, they show up to get one day closer to whatever their end goal is.

They get things done….and they’re going places, while screw ups like you and me (yeah, I’m talking to you ;-)) can’t get adelante.

Don’t those people make you sick?

They used to make my stomach feel like a bag of bricks, and me like a total screw up.

Not anymore.

I stick to my schedule now. Even though it’s a very flexible one.

Here’s how I do it:

Note: This article deals with how to set up a schedule that you can actually stick to, not necessarily the activities you should do within that time frame.

 

To actually execute on what you set out to do, you need Willpower

Research now suggest willpower is like a muscle.

And just like a muscle, the more you use it on a given day, the more tired it gets. Willpower is a depletable resource. And making decisions is what fatigues the willpower muscle.

If you’re convincing yourself to try and learn 10 new words today, you set yourself up to make a decision: will you do it, or not? Same goes for what language course to buy or whether to wash the dishes today or tomorrow.

Every decision you make drains your willpower a little more, until later on the day, you are left with a low supply of willpower.

When this happens, you’re much more likely to make decisions that are easiest for you to make — I.e.: you take the easy way out.

  • Learning 10 new words? Much easier to keep watching my favorite TV series.
  • A new language course? I’d rather wait and think about it a little more before I buy.
  • The dishes? Lol. See you tomorrow.

Not gonna work, right?

What does work, though, is making these decisions beforehand.

Preserve your willpower by limiting the decisions you make

One great way to lift some of the burden from your willpower to is to systemize your decisions.

If you start your language-learning day without knowing what to do, you’re already draining the discipline you’ll need so much for the sessions ahead.

But if you can automate your most common decisions, you preserve more of your willpower for what really matters.

If you decide to focus on your vocab memory palaces on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, that decision will already be made and you’ll have just freed up some of your willpower, which actually helps you learn and memorize the words better.

If you decide to always catch up on missed sessions (that are not your fault) at weekends, you’ll not only have preserved some of your willpower, but also some of your sanity should you miss one.

All these little — but oh so important — systemized decisions help keep your language train going.

Believe me: it’s really powerful stuff.

There’s just one problem

Now after having read the above you may think the most logical solution for preserving willpower is a fixed schedule.

With a fixed schedule, you keep unnecessary decision-making to a minimum. Every day the same routine is what would preserve will power to its max.

So a fixed schedule is what’s best then, right?

Not so fast, ranger.

Yes, for some people it works like gangbusters.

But not for all people. We are different. We’re screw ups, remember?

Well, I got some good news for you.

But let’s keep it our little secret, shall we?

Psssst. Come a little closer:

We’re not really screw ups. That’s just how we think of ourselves.

Really, we’re just rebels.

As soon as we smell a schedule that’s too tight, we rebel against it.

We want to be able to watch important sport events, attend birthday parties, or go outside on a sunny day without our fixed schedule being like a strict father.

A neat fixed schedule probably wouldn’t last long in our hands.

We need our freedom!

but, on the other hand….

….not TOO much freedom.

Because left to our own devices we would probably drown ourselves in leisure activities all day long.

So while a fixed schedule is best because it minimize unnecessary decisions, we also need a fair dose of freedom.

Therefore, I propose that the best solution to preserve Willpower for screw ups rebels is:

The Fixed-Fluid Schedule

The Fixed-Fluid Schedule is the rebel’s version of the fixed schedule.

It’s quite similar to the fixed one, except that you have multiple daily fixed schedules to choose from.

Each schedule starts at a different time but has all other times (pauses, lunch or dinner time etc.) already planned out.

You can have as much different schedules as you want.

Let’s say you have schedules starting at:

  • 9 AM
  • 13 PM
  • 16 PM
  • 20 PM
  • 22 PM

….the only decision you have to make is what schedule to pick for today.

The rest is already planned out.

And…..

You get to keep a good slice of the freedom you need so much.

With the Fixed-Fluid Schedule you can basically let your day, or your family, or some party or sporting event determine when you do your language-learning activities without that nagging feeling of being a loser because you didn’t start at the exact time you set out to.

 

With various schedules, you don’t have to be so obedient. You decide when you start.

You can be the rebel you really are.

While it may seem like a cop-out, I promise you that it isn’t. It’s perfect for people like you and me!

The 6 Steps to Setting Up a Fixed-Fluid Schedule

STEP 1: Create a list of what you’re already doing every day

The first thing you should do when setting a Fixed-Fluid Schedule is determine your current important time blocks of the day.

These are things and tasks you would do every day regardless of your language-learning activities.

Some examples:

Lunch    12 PM- 12.30 PM
Dinner    6 PM – 6.30 PM
Your day job 9.00 AM – 17.00 PM
School    9.00 AM – 15.00 PM

Ideally, you want the activities to occur at a similar time every day, but if not, don’t worry. It’s the Fixed-FLUID Schedule we’re talking about, remember?

STEP 2: create your ideal schedule

The next step is to create the schedule you would most like to work with every day. Don’t forget to take into account the list from step 1 to create the best working schedule for you.

For some, the best time to work on their target language is in the early morning. If that’s you, start your schedule there.

Like this:

5.00 AM – 5.30 AM Vocab
5.30 AM – 5.40 AM Breakfast
5.40 AM – 6.10 AM Listening Practice
6.10 AM – 6.25 AM Shower
6.25 AM – 6.55 AM Reading
6.55 AM – 7.05 AM Break
7.05 AM – 7.35 AM Pimsleur

But if this is your ideal schedule, some questions immediately pop up:

What if you can’t get your ass out of bed by that time every day? What if other early day activities require your attention? What if, on a given day, you simply can’t get yourself to work on your target language at that hour of the day?

With a fixed schedule you would lose a precious day on your path toward fluency.

Luckily for you, that’s exactly where the Fixed-Fluid Schedule shines.

STEP 3: make your schedule fluid, baby

Now you have an ideal schedule, it’s time to adapt that schedule so that it’ll work for different times of the day.

Again, consult your list of everyday activities so that they work WITH, instead of AGAINST your schedule.

If you work from 9 to 5, those hours are already taken. Still you could get out of bed an hour later than in your ideal schedule:

The 6AM Version

6.00 AM – 6.30 AM Vocab
6.30 AM – 6.40 AM Breakfast
6.40 AM – 7.10 AM Listening Practice
7.10 AM – 7.25 AM Shower
7.25 AM – 7.55 AM Reading
7.55 AM – 8.05 AM Break
8.05 AM – 8.35 AM Pimsleur

Another version of your Fixed-Fluid Schedule could start at 5.30 PM, right after you get home from work:

The 5.30 PM Version

5.30 PM – 6.00 PM Vocab
6.00 PM – 6.30 PM Dinner
6.30 PM – 7.00 PM Listening Practice
7.00 PM – 7.10 PM Break
7.10 PM – 7.40 PM Reading
7.40 PM – 8.00 PM Break
8.30 PM – 9.00 PM Pimsleur

Now, you may work only part-time. In that case, a version of your schedule can be split up, like this:

The 7 AM Split Version

7.00 AM – 7.30 AM Vocab
7.30 AM – 7.40 AM Break
7.40 AM – 8.10 AM Listening Practice

14.00 PM – 14.30 PM Reading
14.30 PM – 14.40 PM Break
14.40 PM – 15.10 PM Pimsleur

These schedules are just a few examples. You should try to create at least five different schedules to allow for enough personal freedom.

STEP 4: set up rules for interruptions

The next step is to create rules for interruptions.

Don’t skip this step!

In an ideal world your Fixed-Fluid Schedule would be perfect as it is and you’d live happily ever after.

But reality isn’t theory. Reality is bad-ass:

Just as you get into a flow and you really feel you’re progressing, you get stomach cramps. No choice but to visit the bathroom. Must be that spicy food you ate for lunch.

And what about those everyday activities from step 1? Do you really think you eat every day at the exact same time? Of course not, and it could be considered an interruption to your schedule.

So you have to set simple rules that deal with these interruptions.

I have just two:

1. If an everyday activity doesn’t occur at a pre-set time, I simply keep working until it does. If my lunch is taken care of and it isn’t ready at 1 PM, I simply put an asterisks in front of the lunch time block and continue with the next one until I CAN eat. When I return 30 minutes later I adjust the times of my schedule for that day.

2. For every other SERIOUS interruption*, I simply re-plan the schedule for the rest of the day. Ideally, directly before I give my attention to the interruption, but some situations don’t allow for that. In that case I rewrite it when I’ve dealt with the inescapable interruption.

*It must be a serious interruption. You’re not going to leave your work for a non-issue. But in some cases the situation justifies you dropping your language stuff for a little while.

Both rules work fine.

Already figured out why these rules are so important?

Again, to minimize the decisions you have to make.

Without rules for interruptions, they could drag you all over the place. Some days you won’t even go back to your language-learning activities!

With the rules in place, there’s little chance for that to happen.

Step 5: respect your schedule

Once you’ve set your five+ daily schedules to pick from, it’s best not to deviate from them unless you see new patterns.

You may for example note that you could use an extra evening schedule while your morning schedules only gather dust. If that’s the case, go ahead and adjust your schedules.

However the Golden rule is: Unless you see a pattern, never invent a schedule where there isn’t one.

That is: don’t start doing your language stuff at a time that isn’t covered by your schedules.

If your schedules start at 1 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM, 5 PM, 7 PM and 9 PM, your can’t start at 2.30 PM just because you feel like it. That would be a violation of your Fixed-Fluid Schedule.

And it will blur the boundaries of your schedules. When that happens, you’re not respecting your schedules and, soon, you will likely ignore them completely.

With several schedules to choose from you have the freedom you need.

Don’t abuse it!

You will see how easy it is to stick to a Fixed-Fluid Schedule rather than a fixed one, but only if you take it seriously.

STEP 6

Do you know the joke of the sixth step?

There’s no sixth step!

It never existed.

I lied.

Or maybe not…..

I guess the sixth step is taking action. But that’s up to you.

I’m not going to beg you to use the Fixed-Fluid Schedule. Been there, done that.

I think, however, if you have trouble with authority and you consider yourself a rebel like me, then you should definitely try it out.

A fixed schedule may work best for “normal” people because it minimizes unnecessary decision-making, which helps preserve Willpower.

But we’re not “normal”.

We need the possibility to disobey just a little bit. We need some freedom. Without it we won’t stick to a schedule.

Then again, having too much freedom is fatal to our language dreams as well.

God bless the Fixed-Fluid Schedule, then!

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Comments

  1. Yogesh Verma says:

    very helpful, first time i read true advise on language learning Schedule. many thanks and also keep it up on this topic in more depth.

    also could you suggest is it possible to reduce learning time 30 mint to 15-20 mint. i heard reduce learning time helpful. pls suggest

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks, Yogesh.

      I used time blocks of 30 mins. because I think that’s about the maximum amount of time you should spend on stuff that’s either difficult or boring without taking breaks. 15 mins is perfect as well. You can stand almost anything as long as the time blocks are short and you take breaks.

      It’s about what works for you. You can make the time blocks as long or as short as you like.

  2. Nice idea, will give it a try!

  3. Loved the blog!!!! Very helpful and inspiring <3

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