What To Do Instead of Nootropics In Order To Maximize Your Brain Power Permanently

What To Do Instead of Nootropics

 

Nootropics are certainly one of those things that capture your imagination. You pop a pill and everything becomes clear. You are more vigilant, more observant.

Sure, three months down the road you start resembling a patient with a full-blown neurological disorder. You catch yourself scratching your arms nervously while your eyes twitch.

And if your pill is nowhere to be found you drop on the floor and start rhythmically convulsing.

But hey man! Those moments of clarity!

In all seriousness – nootropics have definitely become a thing in the last couple of years. The appeal is understandable.

At the price of a pack of pills, you can become a better version of yourself.

Is it really the case? Nope.

If you ask me, it’s definitely more of a fantasy for the naive. Let me explain step-by-step why it is so and what you can do instead to become this sexy learning-machine.

WHAT ARE NOOTROPICS?

 

Not everyone is familiar with this notion. Since I don’t want to risk keeping you in the dark, let’s delve into it.

Nootropics are natural and synthetic compounds that can improve your general cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, focus, and motivation.

As a rule of thumb, natural nootropics are much safer and can actually improve the brain’s health (see Suliman et al. 2016).

As you can see the definition is very far from being precise.

Let’s suppose you go into the panic mode before an important meeting and your colleague bitch-slaps you. You suddenly become more focused and sharper.

Can this backhander be treated as a nootropic?

Once again, the definition is unclear. What is clear is that, even though you might not realize it, you probably take some of them already.

SOME OF THE AVAILABLE NOOTROPICs

 

What To Do Instead of Nootropics

 

Our civilization can pride itself on having a long, rich history of drugging ourselves to feel better and smarter. Here are some of the weapons of the mass enlightening:

 

Caffeine

If your head bobs like a crazy pigeon if you don’t get your daily fix, you are probably not surprised to see it here.

These days, it can be found almost everywhere. Especially in soft drinks, dark chocolate and, of course, in coffee.

Effects: 
At normal doses, caffeine has variable effects on learning and memory, but it generally improves reaction time, wakefulness, concentration, and motor coordination. – Nehlig A (2010). “Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer?”. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

L-Theanine

L-Theanine, or simply theanine, can generally be found in tea.

The amount is dependent on the kind you drink but generally, you can get more in black tea than in green tea.

Effects:
Increases BDNF and attenuates cortisol-to-DHEAS, also has low affinity for AMPA, kainate, and NMDA receptors.

 

Curcumin

Great news for any enthusiast of Indian cuisine.

Effect:
Produces neuroprotective effects via activating BDNF/TrkB-dependent MAPK and PI-3K cascades in rodent cortical neurons.
Lithium

Elevates BDNF by inhibition of GSK-3, which also increases skeletal muscle growth.

 

Asian Ginseng

One of the most famous herbs which can boast such effects.

Effects:
Improved memory, enhanced focus/attention (similar to caffeine), enhanced mood through reduced anxiety, enhanced performance: reaction time, endurance, memory retention.

What about real nootropics?

 

I know that you probably want to learn more about “real” nootropics. Here is a short list of some of them.

Effects:
Enhanced brain metabolism, better communication between the right and left brain hemispheres

Effects:
Offers neuroprotection via stimulation of PKC phosphorylation; upregulation of PKCepsilon mRNA; induction of Bcl-X(L), Bcl-w, and BDNF mRNAs; and downregulation of PKCgamma, Bad, and Bax mRNAs.

Effects:
An antioxidant that also stimulates NGF. Found to be a potent enhancer for the regeneration of peripheral nerves.

Effects:
Elevates NGF, BDNF, and GDNF.

Effects:
Stimulates NGF

Effects:
Elevates BDNF by inhibition of GSK-3, which also increases skeletal muscle growth.

Elevation of brain magnesium increased NMDA receptors (NMDARs) signaling, BDNF expression, density of presynaptic puncta, and synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex.

The list goes on and on. As exciting as it all sounds, I would advise against taking most of them. Especially the ones which are intended for the patients with neurological disorders.

Why You Should Stay Away From Most Nootropics

 

Caffeine is still one of the best nootropics around

 

If you take caffeine in any form, it might be more than enough for you. Last year, a famous study compared the effectiveness of the CAF+ nootropic to caffeine.

The CAF+ contains a combination of ingredients that have separately shown to boost cognitive performance, including caffeine, l-theanine, vinpocetine, l-tyrosine, and vitamin B6/B12.

It was supposed to be the next big thing in the world of nootropics. Alas, it turned out to be a flop.

Here is the conclusion:
We found that after 90 min, the delayed recall performance on the VLT after caffeine was better than after CAF+ treatment.
Further, caffeine, but not CAF+, improved the performance in a working memory task. In a complex choice reaction task caffeine improved the speed of responding.

Subjective alertness was increased as a result of CAF+ at 30 min after administration. Only caffeine increased diastolic blood pressure.

We conclude that in healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas CAF+ does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested.

And that’s exactly my point. A lot of those compounds which are being plugged shamelessly by different fancy-sounding brain websites are close to useless.

Do yourself a favor and stick to the devil you know.

 

It’s expensive

It’s not uncommon to find comments on a Reddit about Nootropics saying that

“500$ for nootropics is not that much. This is just the price of admission for finding the one which is right for you.”

It doesn’t sound alarming at all. No sir. Don’t think of yourself as a cowardly version of a heroin addict. You’re a brave brain-explorer! On a more serious note – a lot of these nootropics are not only shady but expensive as well. Keep that in mind, if you decide to try them out.

 

Unkown long-term effects

Even though natural nootropics are potentially safe, or even very safe, it definitely can’t be said about synthetic nootropics. By taking them you automatically volunteer to become a guinea pig.

Many of the nootropics change your levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamineserotoninGABA and many others.

The thing is that so do many drugs like cocaine.

The long-term effect is usually a strong imbalance of transmitter levels in order to compensate those extremes.

It reminds a lot of enthusiasts of brain-zapping couple of years ago. Even though there were almost no double-blind studies confirming its effectiveness, people glibly jumped on this bandwagon.

Of course, you didn’t have to wait long for the first papers showing that brain-zapping might not be as great as we once thought.

As Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir explain in the journal Nature, we don’t know how extended use might change your brain chemistry in the long run.

 

It’s a short-term fix

Call me old-fashioned but if somebody needs a pill every time they want to feel smart or sharp, maybe they are not that smart or sharp? After every use, it’s time for a cold and lonely wake-up call.

 

It’s a lazy solution

The important question to ask here is:

what kind of people would like to take such pills in the first place?

There are two groups

a) lazy-ass slackers and loafers

These are people who have probably never put effort into any of the things they have been doing in their life. I know that you’re not one of them because you can read. That takes us to the second group.

b) high-achievers

You know much, you’ve achieved much but you want more. That’s great. That’s admirable.

But as a high-achiever, you know that there is no such thing as a lunch for free. Things which are worth your time come with a price.

There are a lot of better, and more permanent, solutions to becoming a person with an extraordinary mind.

What to do instead of nootropics?

 

What To Do Instead of Nootropics In Order To Maximize Your Brain Power Permanently

 

1) improve short-term memory

Your short-term memory is the bottleneck of your ability to acquire knowledge. By improving it, you can greatly accelerate your learning rate.

Mnemonics are definitely one of the best ways to do it. Read more about improving your short-term memory here.

2) improve your diet

If you eat like crap (e.g. a lot of processed foods) and you look at a cucumber as if it touched you in your childhood, you should definitely take care of this problem.

3) fix your dietary indeficiencies

If you have problems with brain fog, concentration, and mental sharpness, there is a very good chance that your diet caused a lot of deficiencies. No nootropics will fix that for you.

Get your blood checked to see what minerals and vitamins you’re lacking.

Not sure if you lack anything? Check your nails.

Healthy nails should be smooth and have consistent (pinkish) coloring.

Any spots, discoloration and so on should be alarming.

What’s more, most of the time, you can basically assume that you lack Vitamin D3. Especially if you have an office job or don’t live in a sunny climate. You probably also lack magnesium unless you’re a health buff.

4) improve your lifestyle

More sport and more physical interactions with people. Both these things will give you a nice dopamine and serotonin kick. If you suspect that nobody loves you, try hugging stray dogs. Even this will do.

5) learn how to learn faster

Call me biased but no pill will substitute this kind of knowledge. Let’s assume that you want to learn a language and you gobbled up a magical tablet. If you use bad learning strategies, you will still get nowhere. This time, however, a little bit faster than before.

Knowing how to learn is a permanent power.

6) learn how to be more productive and how to focus

If you don’t know how to prioritize, nootropics will only make you browse all the cat pictures faster. Here is a good place to start.

7) learn how to take meaningful breaks

Doing something all the time is definitely one of the worst learning strategies ever. Breaks and a good night sleep are a part of the job.

I should know. I consistently ignore and rediscover this piece of advice.

8) learn how to make better decisions and how to think

There are dozens of mental models and biases which invisibly shape the decisions you make. Get to know them in order to reason more efficiently.

9) be consistent and build your knowledge over time

This is probably the best piece of advice I can offer anyone. You need a lot of facts in order to think efficiently and recognize patterns.

Their accumulation won’t happen overnight. It can be most aptly explained by one of my all-time favorite anecdotes.

How geniuses are made

Knowledge builds on knowledge; one is not learning independent bits of trivia.

Richard Hamming recalls in You and Your Research:

You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive.

One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not.

Well, I went storming into Bode’s office and said, How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does? 

He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said,

You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years. I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.

Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.

The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest.

I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate.

Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done.

Final words

 

As enticing as nootropics might seem, I would strongly advise against using them. There are literally dozens of other, more permanent solutions, which you should try out first.

And I can tell you this – once you try most of them, you won’t even remember why you wanted to give them a try in the first place.

Would you ever consider trying nootropics? Let me know in the comments!

 

The Impossible Tuesday – Your Day To Overcome All The Excuses and Prove How Tough You Are

The Impossible Tuesday

We are certainly walking paradoxes. We all want to do something big and be successful. Unfortunately, very often we get stuck in the rut or in the mode of learned helplessness.

We just lie there in a puddle of our tears and weakness. Every now and then when someone passes us by, we cast them a most imploring look with a silent request “help”. But the help never comes.

It’s time to change it. It’s time to act and kick yourself in a butt. And the Impossible Tuesday will show you how.

Two Typical Strategies To Make Progress

 

I believe that maybe 0,001 percent of all the people have this natural, inner motivation that allows them to always work at full capacity. No matter what they do, they always do their best.

But what about the rest of us, mere mortals?

We are royally screwed. Usually, we are doomed to use two compensatory strategies:

  1. building habits
  2. using external motivation (i.e. forcing ourselves to do something)

Building habits

Building habits is the best way to guarantee the long-term success. Having a habit means that your brain doesn’t have to spend much energy to perform a given activity. What’s more, the activity itself is usually the source of constant satisfaction. After all, you are doing something productive every day!

Normally, this is the best possible way to do something. You don’t huff and puff every day to achieve your goals. You are consistent and methodical. As great as this strategy is, it has one big disadvantage – it takes time. Not everyone has enough patience to do it. Not everyone wants to wait a couple of years to be great at something. That leads us to the second strategy.

Using external motivation

Even though the consistency is the key, a short sprint every now and then might help your progress skyrocket. This is what allows you to grow and develop fast – short spurts of concentrated focus.

Think about a physical development, for instance. If you do 20 push-ups per day, you will get bigger and fitter only for some time and then hit the wall. However, if you force yourself to put some more effort once per week, you will keep on growing and developing.

If you learn 5 words per day, then pushing yourself to do 50 words on just one day will more than double your learning pace. Will it frazzle you at the same time? Hell no. That’s just short sprint. You do it and then you’re back to your usual pace.
The thing is that usually it’s difficult to get a grip on yourself and actually do something.

That’s why you need a gentle reminder to get off your butt. A gentle kick, if you will. Actually, the truth is that you probably need a boot so far up your ass that it will act as a pacemaker.

And I am here to deliver this kick.

The Impossible Tuesday – What Is it All About?

 

The Impossible Tuesday
The idea for the Impossible Tuesdays came to me over two years ago. I knew that I was doing a lot but I felt that I could much more. I just needed some reason. Something to force myself. This is how the idea of the Impossible Tuesdays came to be.
I decided that on this very day, I will always try to push myself to do something impossible. Something I would never do normally because it’s too tiring and uncomfortable.
Here are some of the things I managed to pull off on this day:
  • learning 800 words during one day
  • talking to myself for 6 hours in Russian
  • doing 400 push-ups
Unfortunately, somewhere in the turmoil of life I neglected this idea and stopped celebrating this day. Recently, however, I decided to revive it and to share it with you. The Impossible Tuesdays are our chance to claw our way through all the bullshit excuses straight to the finish line. This is one day per week when we will prove that we are not a weak, disgusting, spongy blob and
we can do things we have never thought we could.
We are damn tough and we will prove it. It can be one day a week which makes all the difference.

Bets as the primary tools of The Impossible Tuesdays

 

If you decide that you’re in. You should know how to properly push yourself to do the impossible. Bets are the perfect tool for this purpose. It doesn’t matter how much you love doing something, there is always some border which you won’t cross. It’s uncomfortable, after all. I sure love learning new words but usually, after getting to one hundred I call it quits.

If, on the other hand, you dislike doing something, you need a whip over your head to make you act. In other words, you need to put something at stake.

Here is how bets work:

  1. Choose a GOAL you want to achieve
  2. Determine your TIME HORIZON (1 day in our case)
  3. BET with someone that you’ll achieve
  4. Choose your PUNISHMENT in case you fail to deliver (20$ for example)
  5. Send evidence to your bet buddy
Even though what you have just read is more than enough to act, you can read more about this method here – how to triple your productivity overnight.

Keep in mind that bets are fully flexible. You can mold them and twist them as much as you like to fit your goals.

Now that you know how to flail yourself properly, it’s good to familiarize yourself with a couple of extra guidelines.
They will allow you to maximize your effort.

How To Make Your Effort Count

The Impossible Tuesday - Your day to overcome all the excuses

If you already do something, do 4-5 times as much as you usually do

Remember that the Impossible Tuesdays are all about doing the impossible. Demand from yourself.
If you normally do 10 pushups, do 40.
If you noramlly read 20 pages of a book, read one hundred. Make yourself sweat and squeal.

If you want to take up a new activity – just do it

If you have always wanted to do something but have been delaying it indefinitely – this is your day.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge as long as you start. Always wanted to learn Chinese but life got in the way? Do as little as 1 unit from a textbook.

Break it down into many sessions

Doing a lot of repetitions of any activity is straining.
That’s why make sure you always break the entire process into many chunks.
Don’t even think about knocking out 200 flashcards in one sitting. Try to do it in at least a couple of sessions.

Identify “the dead time” and use it

Dead time is the time spent doing activities which don’t absorb all of our attention.
Think about sitting on the subway or standing in line. These seemingly useless moments can usually be used to do some more productive stuff. Plan ahead and consider how you can incorporate dead time into your Impossible Tuesday.

What can you be on?

 

I can’t tell you what you should concentrate on. Only you know what’s important to you and what’s worth your blood and sweat and tears. I can tell you this – usually you should be doing the things you are actively avoiding. Brainstorm what that thing is for you.
Regardless of that, here are some proposals of the things you can bet on:

Working out:

  • running
  • push-ups
  • sit-ups
  • crunches

Learning:

Creativity

  • Brainstorm a problem you have
  • Come up with X ideas to improve some aspect of your life
  • Come up with a new product you can sell
  • Write X pages of something

Big projects

If you have any other suggestions, let me know in the comment.

The Final Words + The Invitation

 

Every idea needs a critical mass to gain motion. I don’t know if this will work out or maybe I will have to bury the hatchet in this idea. It’s up to you. However, if you decide to take part in, post your goals in the comments together with your bet.

If you can’t think of anything right now, think about it and post it later. On Wednesday come back and post your result as a reply to your original comment.

Who knows? Maybe this is the sign you have been waiting for!

If, however, you decide to bury this idea, know that you will have dirt on your hands.  The dirt that is soaked in guilt and shame. The stains left by it will taint your soul permanently and they will never go away. They will keep growing until they spill onto your very existence polluting everyone you love. It will …

Ok, ok. No more guilt-tripping! Join me in the comments! We will see how it goes and hopefully, we will make it a permanent thing.

P.S. You can increase your chances of sticking to your plan even more by making yourself accountable. Tell somebody about the challenge or tweet #ImpossibleTuesday together with your goal!

The Magnet Theory – Why Deep Understanding and Problem-Solving Starts with Memorization

The quality of your life depends mostly on your ability to make the right decisions and to solve problems.
One could think that in the world of almost unlimited access to information our decision-making abilities should be getting better and better.

Is it really the case?

I don’t think so. There are many explanations for why it is so.

However, instead of delving into them, I would like you to show you how to improve the quality of your thinking and problem-solving skills with the concept of my own devising – The Magnet Theory.

But first things first. Let’s start with a structure of knowledge.

Bloom’s Taxonomy – The hierarchy of knowledge

Not a week goes by when I hear someone say – if you don’t understand something, don’t learn it.
And some part of me crumbles away every time when I hear it.

Why?

Because nothing could be further from the truth.

Understanding is very often the by-product of all the information at your disposal.

Let me explain why.

Let’s start with fundamentals i.e. Bloom’s taxonomy.
The Bloom’s taxonomy depicts the structure of knowledge and how it is organized.

 

The magnet theory

Take a look at the foundation of this pyramid. Can you see it?
That’s right. Understanding doesn’t seem to be the most important element of knowledge.

Why do you think it is so?

I will tell you why – because you can’t think without facts.

Facts are frequently the foundation of the good solutions and thinking.

Why understanding is overrated

My guess is that most of the time, on the surface, it is easier to understand something than to memorize dozens of different facts.

We like to assume that if A leads to D then it surely happens in a nice progression – A causes B. B causes C. C causes D.

The reality is that most of the time progression looks more like this.

A -> L -> B -> G -> C -> K ->  X -> E -> D

It’s an interaction of dozens of different elements which we very often don’t see because of our limited knowledge. This phenomenon is called “The illusion of explanatory depth“.

“People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe.

The real reason why understanding starts with memorization

Why understanding start with memorization

As you probably know, your short-term memory is the bottleneck in the learning process.
It can only accommodate a couple of pieces of information at the same time.

That doesn’t inspire much confidence comprehension-wise, does it?

How many concepts do you know that can be understood by knowing just 3-5 facts?
I can tell you right away, that there are not many of them. And even if you find any, they probably won’t be worth your while.

In order to see the big picture, you need a lot of facts. Which, truth be told, can be problematic.

Why?

Because you don’t know how many puzzle pieces are needed to create it.  That leaves you just one choice – you have to keep on memorizing things even if they don’t make any sense at the moment. You need to memorize facts before you understand what they mean.

If you memorize just the things you understand, you will never be able to look beyond the obvious.

The problem nowadays is that almost nobody is willing to do it. Why bother if all the knowledge you need is at your fingertips?

This phenomenon is known as the Google effect or digital amnesia.

It is the tendency to forget information that can be found readily online by using Internet search engines such as Google. According to the first study about the Google effect, people are less likely to remember certain details they believe will be accessible online.

The thing is that if you want to be the best at something, you need all those pesky details.

My acquisition of knowledge

 

Throughout the years of running this website, I have received tons of questions about my process of writing and thinking (e.g. The truth about effectiveness and usefulness of mnemonics in learning).

My answer has always been the same and possibly disappointing to others – I try to memorize everything.

I don’t care how abstract or vague a given piece of information seems. I will commit it to my memory.
I do it because I can’t possibly know which fact will tip the scale and raise the curtain to reveal the magnificence of understanding.

That’s why I can’t be picky.

At some point, the facts always come together to form a clear answer. Sometimes, you just have to wait for it.

For example, right now I can tell you quite exactly what science currently has to say about the process of working-memory consolidation. This knowledge includes even tiny facts about frequencies of different brain waves.

And I will be honest with you. I don’t know right now the purpose of this information. I am more than clueless. But I am pretty sure it will come handy one day. Maybe in one year, maybe in ten. Whenever it might be, I know that I will be ready.

It might not be the most pleasant way to acquire expertise. However, it’s sure as hell the fastest and the most certain way to do it.

The Magnet Theory – how to understand the process of effective thinking

Effective thinking

Years ago, I was obsessing over the question – how come two smart individuals can arrive at the completely different conclusions?

I knew that asking good questions was important in that process. I also understood that you couldn’t think effectively without facts.

The effect of these cogitations turned into something I dubbed The Magnet Theory.

It’s a very elegant way of understanding the process of problem-solving and effective thinking.

Think of any question or problem you might have as a powerful magnet. The minute you encounter some riddle, the magnet starts doing its magic. It starts scouring your mind and attracting everything which might be useful in the process of cracking a given problem.

And I really do mean everything – anecdotes, scientific facts, your personal experiences and so on.

The whole comes together and creates a solution to the problem.

There is one more component of the magnet theory – your ego. It filters and potentially distorts all the potential conclusions you may reach. Even if all the facts are in favor of one solution, your ego might nudge you to reject them all.

The consequences of the magnet theory

1. Almost everyone has an opinion

How many people do you know who don’t have an opinion on some matter?
Not many, right?

That’s the thing. Any question you ask or problem you state is a potential magnet for the mind of your interlocutor. The magnet will scrape up every little bit piece of information. As a consequence, this motley clue of assorted facts and anecdotes will form an opinion on a given topic.

Are these opinions worth much? You can answer this question yourself.

2. Your thinking is as good as the information you remember

 

Remember that you will always have an answer to almost every question.
That doesn’t mean that the answer you come up with is any good. As the great and late Richard Feynman used to say –

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Don’t rush to the conclusions. Before you make a decision ask yourself this – how many good facts do I have at my disposal? Not opinions, not anecdotes but the cold scientific facts.

If the answer is “not many” then do your research to give your magnet some “better food”.

I routinely distrust anyone and double-check any kind of information myself. Maybe I am paranoid but my behavior is driven by one simple question – how many people appreciate the importance of memorization and treat it as an indispensable part of their expertise acquisition?

The answer is – close to zero.

That automatically renders the most of the opinions you will ever hear in your life invalid. Or at best they might be classified as half-truths. Sounds callous but it’s definitely true.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. – Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker

3. Your ego can be the end of you

Thinking and problem-solving

It’s worth keeping in mind that the more somebody holds himself in high esteem, the slimmer the chances that they will be swayed by facts that contradict their opinions.

 

What’s worse, everyone is affected by this bias. Especially all the people who think of themselves as experts or have fancy titles like Ph.D. or a professor.

Alas, the titles don’t mean diddly-squat if you don’t have vast knowledge.

If I invited you to a blind taste test of a $12 wine versus a $1,200 wine, could you tell the difference? I bet you $20 you couldn’t. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, ran a study that sent shock waves through the wine industry. Determined to understand how wine drinkers decided which wines they liked, he invited fifty-seven recognized experts to evaluate two wines: one red, one white.
After tasting the two wines, the experts described the red wine as intense, deep, and spicy—words commonly used to describe red wines. The white was described in equally standard terms: lively, fresh, and floral. But what none of these experts picked up on was that the two wines were exactly the same wine. Even more damning, the wines were actually both white wine—the “red wine” had been colored with food coloring. Think about that for a second. Fifty-seven wine experts couldn’t even tell they were drinking two identical wines. – I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi

Example 1 – Vitamin C

It reminds me of a great story. A couple of years ago, there was a lot of controversy in Poland around the man called Jerzy Zieba.
What did he do, you might ask?

He wrote the book called The Hidden Therapies – What your doctor won’t tell you. The books shook the medical world in Poland to its core as it exposed incompetence and rigidness of the Polish health care. In one of the chapters, he described wonderful qualities of Vitamin C which can be used among others to:

  • treat cancer and various diseases
  • lower cholesterol
  • lower blood sugar
  • substitute anti-allergic medicine

As a result, the real shitstorm ensued. He was publically flailed and tarred and feathered at the altar of science. There were literally thousands of medical professionals who mocked him to no end.

After all, he was not a doctor. So what that in his book he quoted hundreds of scientific studies from all over the world to back up his claims. He was no one and had no say in the matter.

I saw professors of medicine and oncologists saying straight to the camera that this is scientific tosh and they haven’t seen even one scientific paper who proved it.

So why I am telling you all this?

Because each one of these detractors was dead wrong. There are actually hundreds of scientific studies proving the efficacy of vitamin C in treating almost every possible malady.

This anecdote is especially important for me because I have been personally interested in medicine for a long time now as it’s definitely one of the main fields of knowledge where you are only as good as your memory. Throughout the years I have read, gathered and memorized dozens upon dozens of articles and studies about vitamin C which confirm its effectiveness.

In the end, the professors were wrong. The ego got the best of them.

It’s an important reminder for all of us to never get too cocky. In other words – be humble or be humbled.

Example 2 – Losing Weight

Let’s ponder over the following problem. Let’s say that your aunt Elma wants to lose weight.
She has been buying Vanity Fair for a long time so she knows that even though she accepts herself, she is fat and hideous, and needs to slim down.

The years of reading has equipped her with a truly powerful, intellectual toolkit.

She knows that she has to:

  1. move more
  2. eat less
  3. eat healthier
  4. stop chugging gin before she gets to work

Is losing weight really that simple?
It might seem so. After all, doing all those things takes us from point A to point B.

Before, I move on. ask yourself the same question. Be sure to follow the whirlwind of incoming thoughts.
Can you feel how they are trying to organize themselves? Or do you maybe feel like you have a ready answer?

I can bet that your first instinct is to start spewing out all the facts in your head. I know that it is typically my first reaction.

However, what’s on the surface might be merely a tip of the iceberg. But only once you take a peek “under the hood”, will you be able to see the real complexity of the issue at hand.

If you want to lose weight, you have to:

  1. increase lipolysis 
  2. improve fatty acid oxidation
  3. manage blood sugar levels
  4. Increase the breakdown of fat storage
  5. Improve fat burning capacity
  6. Increase insulin sensitivity

Of course, it would be just the beginning of your investigative journey.
Next, you would have to learn what is responsible for each of these functions.

Only then will you be able to truly understand what is required to lose weight.
And it would be a truly amazing journey because the truth is that there are thousands of possible solutions. If you dig long enough, I am sure you will be able to find the optimal one.

Do we have to understand all the things deeply?

I don’t mean to make you paranoid. Of course, you don’t have to possess a profound understanding of everything. Although I would suggest you do it for every area of knowledge which is of interest to you.

Final words

The Magnet Theory is an easy way to understand how the processes of thinking and problem-solving work. It can be summarized in the following way:

  • Problems and questions act as magnets
  • Those magnets attract every last scrap of information they can find to form an answer
  • The final answers can be potentially distorted by your ego

The theory leaves us with three conclusions which are applicable to every area of life.

  • (Almost) everyone has an opinion on anything. The magnet will always attract something which can be used to form a conclusion.
  • Your conclusions are only as good as the information at your disposal.
  • Your conclusions can be easily distorted by your biases and ego.

There you have it. I hope that you will be able to apply this theory to improve your quality of thinking.

Do you have anecdotes where some tiny piece of information helped you understand something? Please let me know in the comments.

Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell don’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.
Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word

 

Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to the common knowledge and the intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues

 

Whydifficult to recall vocabulary

 

Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me!
Mind your own business! Let’s get back to the science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in her book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

Memory principles governing recall

 

There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

This gives us our first rule:

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.
Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.

Example:

Let’s say that you memorized (actively) a word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.
If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.
However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,
you run into exactly this problem.

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.
I have a strange definition of “fun”.

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of a successful retrieval is how strong your associations are.
I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).

Example

Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of the sudden
some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and
then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation
the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues

 

 

Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues which anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).

 

Example

Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.
Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in
the capacity of our short-term memory.

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 

 

difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary

 

Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – a summary

 

Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.

High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.

As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.

Remember:

Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.

If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.

P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability

 

In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at all
or which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examples
of strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning

Mnemonics

As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.
However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

PHRASE YOU LEARN       PHRASE YOU RETRIEVE
encoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval.
The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items

Associations

Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association
for every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.
However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!

Teaching/learning styles

 

difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it

 

I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).
Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style
of learning will be more effective memory-wise.

Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence
on the students’ ability to recall information.

If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order
to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

Question for you

How often does it happen to you that you can’t recall vocab when needed? Let me know in the comments!

Why passive learning is an ineffective learning method

There is this persistent belief in the world of language learning that seeing a word a couple of times will allow the information to effortlessly sink in.

If you don’t know anything about memory it might seem like a logical and tempting concept.

After all, the repetition is the mother of all learning.

Laying your eyes on some piece of information time after time should make remembering easy, right?

Not really.

Not that learning can’t happen then. It can. It’s just excruciatingly slow (read more about passive learning).

I would like to show you a couple of experiments which, hopefully, will help you realize that a number of passive repetitions don’t have that much of influence on your ability to recall information actively.

Let’s start with a great experiment which went viral recently.

 


Drawing logos from memory

 

Signs.com has conducted a fascinating experiment, asking 156 Americans between the ages of 20 and 70, to draw 10 famous logos as accurately as possible. The only trick was, that they have to do it without any visual aids, simply from their memory (source – BoredPanda).

How did participants do?

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

The apple logo, which one could argue is very simple, was somewhat correctly drawn by 20% of participants. If you are having a bad day, here are some of the less successful attempts.

 

Passive learning is ineffective

 

The Adidas logo was correctly recalled only by 12% of participants.

passive learning is an ineffective learning method

 

Ok, I know that all this begs a question – what does it have to do with memory?


Implications of the experiment

 

The experiment’s original intent was very interesting on its own. However, if you take a good look and prick up your ears you will soon discover that there is more to it! The experiment is trying to tell us something!

What’s that, Mr. Experiment? What are you trying to tell us?  –passive learning sucks!

Come again, please? – passive learning sucks!!!!

Now, why would Mr. Experiment say such a thing?

How many times would you say that you have seen, so far, Apple’s or Starbuck’s logos?

50? Don’t think so.
100? Highly doubt it.
1000+ ? That’s more like it.

It’s a safe bet that an average participant in this experiments has seen each logo at least several thousand times. Several. Thousand. Times.

That’s a lot, to say the least.

Let’s look at their final results. Surely, with that many “reviews” they must have remembered logos quite well.

 

Don’t know how about you but it’s one of the sadder things I have seen in my life.
And I have seen a cute kitten getting soaked by the rain and crapped on by a pigeon.

But it’s all good because there is a lesson or two in all that doom and gloom.

1) Retention intention matters

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention this – one of the main reasons why people don’t remember information is that they are not even trying.

If you have a neighbor called Rick who you hate, you won’t care much if he is sick. Rick can eat a d*** as far as you are concerned. You don’t want to remember anything about the guy.

The chance of remembering anything if you have no intention of conserving that information is close to zero. It was clearly a case in that study.
Who is warped enough to deliberately memorize logos?

2) Number of passive repetitions has limited influence on our ability to remember

This is likely to be the most important lesson of all. Sometimes even dozens of repetitions of a given word won’t make you remember it!

3) Complexity of information matters

If you look at the table, you will notice another interesting, and logical, thing. The more complicated the logo the less accuracy we could observe.

Arguably, Starbucks’ logo is the most complex of them all. Not surprisingly it could only boast a recall rate of 6%.

It stands true for words as well.

The longer or the more difficult to pronounce a word is the harder it is to commit it to your memory.

Interestingly, some comments suggested that all those companies failed at marketing.
It is clearly not the case. Above all, companies aim at improving our recognition of their brands and products. And that we do without the slightest doubt.


Other experiments to test your ability to recall

 

test your ability to recall

 

The experiment conducted by sings.com had its charm. However, you don’t need to make inroads into other areas of knowledge in order to carry out a similar study.

It’s enough to look around.

1) A mobile phone test

According to comScore’s 2017 Cross Platform Future in Focus report, the average American adult (18+) spends 2 hours, 51 minutes on their smartphone every day.

Another study, conducted by Flurry, shows U.S. consumers actually spend over 5 hours a day on mobile devices! About 86% of that time was taken up by smartphones, meaning we spend about 4 hours, 15 minutes on our mobile phones every day.

It means that you take a peek at your mobile phone at least 40-50 times per day or over 10000 times per year.

Now a question for you – how confident are you that you would be able to draw your mobile phone without looking at it?

2) A watch test

It’s safe to assume that if you have a watch, you look at it dozens of times per day. Most people hold their watches dear and carry them around for years. That would make it quite plausible that you have seen your watch thousands of times.

The question stays the same – how confident are you that you would be able to precisely draw your watch without looking at it?

3) A coin test

Yet another object which we tend to see frequently.

Choose a coin of some common denomination and do your best to replicate it on a piece of paper. Results might be hilarious!

 

What’s that? Your curiosity is still not satiated?

Then you might design an experiment and run it to see how much you can remember after one hour of reading compared to one hour of learning actively some random words (i.e. using them in sentences),

Let me know in the comment about your results if you decide to run any of those tests!
Especially the last one!


Why is passive learning so ineffective?

1) You think your memory is extraordinary

This is an interesting assumption behind passive learning which you might do unconsciously.You see your brain like a humongous harvester of information.

Wham-bam! You reap them one by one. The assumption, as beautiful as it is, is plain wrong.

Your brain is more like a bedraggled peasant with two baskets. There is only so much crap he can pick up throughout the day,

2) Brains want to forget

 

 brain constantly works on forgetting

 

You see, your brain constantly works on forgetting most of the thing you come into contact with.
Reasons are simple

a) our brains are slimy and wrinkled assholes

b) the goal of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but to guide and optimize intelligent decision making by only holding on to valuable information.

Why should your brain care about some words if many of them don’t occur that often in everyday language?

3) No attention and no encoding

The simple memory model looks more less like this:

  1. Attention
  2. Encoding
  3. Storage
  4. Retrieval

The amount of attention you devote to a piece of information you want to acquire is almost non-existent. Just a glimpse and your roving eye is already elsewhere.

And since almost no attention is allocated to your learning, there can be no encoding as well (more about encoding here).


Passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

Did you know that research estimates that about 50% of the primate cerebral cortex is dedicated to processing visual information? That makes a vision the most important sensory system.

No wonder that our vision is the closest thing we have to the perfect memory.

In one of the most famous memory experiments of all times (1973), Lionel Standing proved that it is hard to rival vision in terms of capacity to retain information (Standing, L. (1973). Learning 10000 pictures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25(2), 207-222.)

Learning 10000 pictures

Impressive, right?

Not exactly.

The thing is that this information is not something you know actively. You can recognize it but cannot retrieve it most of the time.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing something passively has its advantages and can be a really powerful factor in creative and thinking processes. But if you want to speak a language you have to know vocabulary explicitly.

Energetic nodding and grumbling worthy of a winner of the one-chromosome lottery don’t count as a conversation.

Why passive learning makes us believe that we “know”?

 

passive learning and the illusion of knowledge

 

In another famous experiment, memory researcher Jennifer McCabe showed why students think that cramming and reading are superior to studying by recalling (which has been proven time and time again to be a better learning method).

In the said experiment, students from two different groups had to read the same one-page essay.

The first group was supposed to recall and write down as much information as they could upon finishing.

The second group was given a chance to restudy the passage after they finished.

One week later both groups were tested on their memory for the passage. Not surprisingly, the second group crashed and burned. Its performance was far worse than the one of the first group.

What’s more, students from the second group were actually quite confident that they would fare better.

“How could they be so wrong?”, you might ask.

Most likely, they based their answers on their own experience. They knew that when they finished reading material over and over, they felt confident in their memory. The facts seemed clear and fresh. They popped into mind quickly and easily as the students reviewed them. This is not always so when recalling facts in a self-test—more effort is often required to bring the facts to mind, so they don’t seem as solid. From a student’s point of view, it can seem obvious which method—restudying—produces better learning. Robert Bjork refers to this as an “illusion of competence” after restudying. The student concludes that she knows the material well based on the confident mastery she feels at that moment.

 

And she expects that the same mastery will be there several days later when the exam takes place. But this is unlikely. The same illusion of competence is at work during cramming, when the facts feel secure and firmly grasped. While that is indeed true at the time, it’s a mistake to assume that long-lasting memory strength has been created. – Robert Madigan – How Memory Works

 

Illusions of competence are certainly seductive. They can easily trick people into misjudging the strength of their memory as easily as they can encourage students to choose learning methods that undermine long-term retention.

The best defense is to use proven memory techniques and to be leery of making predictions about future memory strength based on how solid the memory seems right now!

Final thoughts

As a long-life learner, you should understand that passive learning is one of the slowest ways to acquire knowledge. Adopting such a learning style creates the illusion of knowledge which further perpetuates this vicious circle.

The best way to approach passive learning is to treat it as a complementary method to active learning. The rule is simple – once you are too tired to keep learning actively, you can switch to passive learning.


 

Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

“Just keep on talking” has to be one of the most worn-out phrases in the world of language learning.

Can’t learn a language? Talk.

Not making enough progress? You’re not talking enough. After all, a road to the mount fluency is paved with endless hours of conversation.

“But my progress has really stalled and … .”  MOOOOOOOOOOOOORE, you moron!

Sounds familiar? I bet it does.

If you are one of those people who at some point got stuck at the “intermediate plateau” this article is for you.

Although speaking is without any doubt very effective language learning tool, it’s not the optimal solution for every language learner.

What’s more, this advice can be actually detrimental to your learning

Let’s deconstruct this piece of advice so you understand where the rub lies!

As always, let’s start with basics.

Number of words and levels of understanding

 

Here is the general overview of the number of words and the level of understanding they warrant (for more information read how many words you should know for every language level)

1000 words (A2)1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as they are not fancy.

 

 

 3000 words (B1/B2)3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

 

 

 

5000 words (B2)5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

 

 

10000 words (C1 / C2)10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

 

 

 

 

 

Depending on a choice of words, you can deduct or add 20% of a given number.

Keep those numbers in mind. We will come back to them soon.
But for now, since nobody like party-poopers. let’s concentrate on positive aspects of speaking.

When is it a good idea to speak?

 

When Speaking is a good Language Learning Strategy

 

Speaking is certainly a GREAT idea, if not the best one, if you start learning a language.

Before I get to “why”, let’s look at other options.

Reading? Useless. Let’s be honest – what can you read at this point that has any deeper meaning or sense and resonates with you? “Judy likes potatoes. She eats potatoes. Potatoes are sweet and tasty”.

Ugh, shoot me in the face already.

Listening? Mostly useless. You don’t know enough words anyway to make head nor tail out of the constant stream of speech. “Dfsdfsdfs “I” ……..(wall of noise) …” says” ………. “hide the body”.

Speaking? Yes, please! In every possible amount.
Not reading, not listening – speaking is one of the best things you can do at the beginning of your learning.

Why?

  • Speaking is the ” Ultimate Integrator”

It’s breath-taking how complicated it is to utter even one correctish sentence. There are so many things to remember! The best thing about speaking is that it helps you integrate ALL of them.

1. It activates vocabulary.

2. It starts building your muscle memory.

3. It helps you understand the relationship between grammar and words.

4. It activates grammar and automates its use.

And so on.

 

  • Speaking is relatively easy.

It can be as simple as uttering short sentences over and over again. You don’t need to talk with anyone really. You can just talk to yourself.

What’s more. Your sentences don’t have to be correct every time. It’s enough that your language partner understands what you mean.

 

  • Speaking = active learning

Last but not least, the main rule which contributes to the rapid learning is using your knowledge actively.
So it happens that speaking is the pinnacle of active language use.

Of course, you can choose to ignore active learning but I can tell you right now what will happen:

a) you will succeed after a long time

b) your progress will be so slow that you will start backhanding old ladies at bus stops. Finally, you will give up and move on to another language. Inevitably, after some time you will arrive at the same crossroads with your new language.

So do yourself a favor and start talking as quickly as you can. Remember. You don’t have to talk to others. You can just start with uttering short sentences under your breath.

Other perks of self-talk include

  • a) not being judged by others
  • b) you can behave like a Tourette’s-ridden geezer. Bash people in your head all you want!

When it’s a bad idea to “just speak”

 

Just speaking is a bad idea

 

Nothing good lasts forever. Speaking has also its expiration date efficiency-wise.

So when does the fun-ride end? Around a B2 mark (i.e. 4000 / 5000 words.).

Why?

There are two very important reasons for that.

1) You are already (quite) fluent grammar-wise

By this level, you should have your basic grammar fluency. You have produced enough sentences to automate dozens of different grammar patterns and constructions. Uttering more sentences won’t bring you much closer to your goal of being fully fluent.

At this point, you need to expand your vocabulary more in order to achieve your goal.

2) You keep on repeating the same things over and over

Remember previously mentioned numbers? They will come handy now.

We established that knowing about 5 k words grants us the understanding of about 98% of all the things we hear on a daily basis.

What this number is trying to tell us is this:

If you just talk and don’t challenge yourself, you repeat things you already know  95-98% of the time.

Let me rephrase it – out of every 100 words you use only about 2-5  of them can be considered learning.

Even better! Think about like this.

Out of every hour, you only practise for 36 seconds to 3 minutes.
Let’s go crazy and say that it is 5 minutes.

How would you react if your buddy told you about a friend of his who is a little bit “special”. Jeff works as a car dealer and every day he calls the same 95 people, who already bought a car, to sell them the very same car.

I guess you would imagine that he is the kind of guy who gets his pay in sugar cubes and wears a bib instead of a tie. That’s how special he is.

Don’t be like Jeff.

Of course, if your goal is to learn just one language or have a lot of time, keep at it.
However, for any other goal, I would suggest you start fixing your learning schedule.

How do I know it applies to me?

There is a simple rule for that.

If you can already spend an hour or two talking without finding blood stains under your armpits and seeing black blobs in the corner of your eyes it means you’re not learning anymore.

You’re just repeating the same ol’ things over and over again and most of your time and effort is wasted.

I am willing to bet that you already know it deep inside. Try to tune your ears to conversations you typically have in your target language. Aren’t you using the same phrases all the time?

If yes, you need to step it up and stop wasting time on lessons that don’t contribute much to your language development.

The higher your level, the bigger the problem

It’s worth noting that the more advanced you get, the bigger the said problem becomes.

At a C1 level, you know about 99 % of all the words that can be encountered in everyday conversations. Speaking more is clearly not an effective solution here.

Solution – fixing your learning schedule

Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

Before I move on, keep in mind that all the advice in this article aims at improving your learning effectiveness regardless of whether you are learning on your own or by having privates lessons or language exchanges.

By no means am I suggesting that you should cut off your friends and leave them high and dry just because this kind of talking is not the most effective learning option out there.

“Sorry Suzie, this random dude on the internet helped me realize that you’re wasting my time. Good riddance and farewell!”.

If you are talking to your friends on a daily basis, there is no reason to give it up. You will learn something every day anyway.

Now that we’ve gotten this hurdle out of the way, let me repeat again – If you want to get out of this gruesome rut and fix your language learning schedule, you need to concentrate on words/phrases you don’t know well.

There are a couple of ways to do it but they all share one feature.

Preparation

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Making the best use out of your lesson is all about the proper preparation.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend most people at a B2 level or higher to put in 4-5 hours of preparation before each lesson.

Of course, if you learn on your own, feel free to use those techniques whenever your heart desires.

 

  • Discuss a topic beforehand 

If you use structured lessons, usually there is some subject or article that will be discussed. In that case, always make sure that you discuss it with yourself or your friends in advance.

Here is a great website with over 100 topics and thousands of questions which you might use to test yourself.

http://iteslj.org/questions/

Remember – if you catch yourself not knowing some word, always write it down and learn it.

Think about words like “bodkin”, “grovel” or “coppice”. Most people don’t use them that often in their native tongues, let alone in their target language.

That’s why you always should have a system in place to master such words. Otherwise, they quickly fall into oblivion.

As always I recommend ANKI as your go-to program for learning new vocab.

 

  • Look up new phrases/words

Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

While discussing a given subject beforehand is a foolproof method to quickly discover gaps in your knowledge, there is a method that’s much quicker – open a dictionary.

After all, there are potentially thousands of words there which you don’t know and use. Pick the ones you find useful, learn them and start using them during your next language learning session.

And don’t worry too much about using them incorrectly. If it happens, your teacher/language partner will quickly correct your mistake. Not a big deal, right?

 

  • Read a lot about a given subject

Another good idea, although much more time-consuming compared to the previous ones is to simply read a lot about a subject you’re going to discuss during your next lesson.

Find 5-10 articles and start slogging through them!

 

  • Make a conscious effort to use new words/phrases

Your brain is wired to use the most efficient neural pathways i.e. the words you already know very well. That’s why you need to put conscious effort into avoiding them.

It can be as simple as writing down a couple of new phrases on a piece of paper as a reminder of what you can say instead. That’s why Thesaurus is going to be your new best friend.

For example

“I think” = “I believe”

“She cried” = “She was crying her eyes out”

Read more about the word substitution technique – how to increase your vocabulary size considerably.

 

  • Speak about the same topic for a number of days

Why change a subject every 2-3 days? By discussing the same subject for a longer period of time, you will be able to activate your topical vocabulary much better and understand it much deeper.

Final words

Speaking is not the ultimate remedy for all your language problems. While it’s a great strategy at the beginning of your language journey, it gets progressively less effective the more advanced you become.

If you hope to keep on progressing fast, you need to start using some strategies for activating less frequent vocabulary. Once you incorporate them into your language learning schedule, you should see a huge difference.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

How to choose the best learning methods (and avoid the bad ones)

Scouring the internet to find the ultimate language learning method is no mean feat.

Around every corner, there is something new trying to seduce you. And most of the time you give in. “Why not”, you might think, “It sounds reasonable”.

You don’t even notice when this search turns into a bizarre blind-folded tasting.
One time it’s an acorn. Other time it is a piece of crap.

What’s even worse, almost every person swears by his own method. “Listen, I learned Japanese by yodeling. I am telling ya this is the way to go!”

It is all confusing and disheartening.

That’s why I want to show you how to evaluate learning methods.

Hopefully, upon reading this article you will learn how to navigate those murky waters and make more educated decisions about your learning.

But let’s start with a question I have heard many times.

Why bother with choosing the right method?

1) It saves time

 

choose the best learning methods

 

Nothing is our in this world but time – Seneca

You should treat the choice of a potential learning method as an investment.

Would you ever open a newspaper, close your eyes and just pick some stocks randomly?
I don’t think so.

That’s why I would suggest that you approach choosing a language learning strategy the same way.

Don’t behave like a happy-go-lucky hippie.
Spend an hour or two to think it through.

It will pay off, I promise.
It really makes a difference.

Very often 10 minutes of a good learning method might be worth an hour (or even more) of a crappy method. (* cough* Duolingo *cough*).

Imagine what you could do with all that saved time!

Of course, pondering over this decision for too long is no good either.
Don’t think too long.

Simply evaluate a couple of methods against the guidelines found in this article, choose the right one and move on.

2) It boosts motivation

I don’t believe in motivation. I believe in habits and systems.

But there is no denying that motivation is a force to be reckoned with.
Especially when you take up a new learning project.

However, there is one big problem. Motivation is a capricious mistress.

One day she is lovely and charming, while the other day she goes berserk and kicks you right in the nuts. That’s why relying on motivation is not a good long-term strategy.

Nevertheless, choosing a right strategy will help you notice results of your learning much quicker.
And in my experience, there is nothing better to fuel your motivation.

3) It solves most of other learning problems

Probably you already know it but just in case – most of your learning-related problems stem from the wrong choice of learning methods

Can’t keep more than two languages in your head at the same time?
Wrong learning methods.

Keep on forgetting words?
Wrong learning methods.

I hope that by now, I have convinced you that choosing the right learning method is not a waste of time.

The next thing on the agenda – learning fallacies.

The Most Widespread Learning Fallacies

 

There are a lot of people who offer you their advice in good faith, even though they themselves are ill-informed.

It’s equally important to know, not only what works, but also what doesn’t work and why. At least if you want to be a good “b*shit” detector learning-wise!

Here is the list of the most important learning fallacies you may fall subject to.

Fallacy #1 – My method works

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

There are not many people strolling around and saying, “My method sucks and guarantees no results whatsoever. Use it!”.

Everybody is convinced that their learning method is great and that the other guys suck (confirmation bias, anyone?). Here is a corker – they are all right.

Absolutely all learning methods work.

It comes as a shock, right?

Pick any method you want. If you stick to it long enough, you will see some effects.
If you just keep plugging away, eventually you will learn what you have set out to do.

Even the worst of the worst methods work.

I am the best possible example of this. My default method of learning English years ago was to

  • a) write down every word I didn’t know
  • b) rewrite it from a dictionary
  • c) read it 

In other words, I was rewriting a dictionary.

I really do hope that I was fed with a lead spoon as a child.
At least I would be able to justify myself just a little bit.

I have managed to write away 12 A4 notebooks this way. Pure madness and the hands down the crappiest method I have ever heard of.

Yet, I managed to learn English fluently and get all the Cambridge Certificates.
The miracle?

No.

I just kept plugging away at it. Many hours per day. Until I succeeded.

You can see learning as rolling a big ball from point A to point B.

Your learning methods decide how heavy the ball is and thus how much time it will take to get it to the finish line.

The heaviness of the ball doesn’t make it impossible for you to achieve your goal. It just takes longer to do it and it is more difficult.

Main takeaway just because a method works doesn’t really prove anything unless you measure the average results which it gves you.

Fallacy # 2 – I like it (aka personal preferences or learning styles)

 

how to choose the best learning methods

 

Months ago I wrote in one of the articles that learning styles don’t exist. The hell ensued.

I got plenty of angry e-mails. Some people started behaving like an upset stereotypical Brit, “Iconoclastic heresies, my good chum!”. Others would gladly spit into my cereal if they got a chance.

No wonder. I have found a lot of statistics saying that over 80 or even 90% of teachers believe it to be true. Thor only knows how many students have been infected with this idea.

And this is why so many people have a very strong opinion about it.

However, let me repeat for dramatic effect.

Learning styles don’t exist*

* You can read more about it here. It’s not perfect but it should dispel most of your doubts.

Most of the time when people use this term, they mean “personal preferences“.

They prefer to see information visually, orally or in some other way.

PREFER is the key word here.

It doesn’t mean that learning this way is more effective. It means you like it more.

An author who enjoys music the most will think that the music is the best way to learn.
Another one will try to convince you that spending more time outside is the ultimate solution.

But there is some silver lining here.

Liking a given method makes it more sustainable. You can use it longer than some other methods without feeling fatigued.

It certainly counts for something and you should always have such enjoyable learning methods in your arsenal.

Main takeawayjust because you like a method doesn’t make it effective memory- and time-wise. It does, however, make it more sustainable.

Fallacy #3 – Everybody learns differently

 

how to choose the right learning methods

 

Everybody learns differently is just a special case of the snowflake syndrome.

I get it, you are without the slightest doubt special in your own way. However, don’t make a mistake of thinking that

learning differently =/ learning effectively.

Let me explain why we are not so special and so different when it comes to learning.

We are the product of the evolution. Our brains are in many ways very similar.

  • Your working memory capacity is probably the same as mine. Surpass it and you can say goodbye to remembering things.
  • You learn most of the things better by doing.
  • Your attention is very limited. 
  • Your brain needs regular breaks during learning.
  • You learn better when you space your learning.

The list goes on and on.

So yes, you are special in many ways. But not in the ways your brain acquires knowledge.

Main takeawayour brains absorb information in a very similar way. 

Fallacy #4 – It’s based on science

I know what you are thinking. How the hell is this a learning fallacy?
Is it not important for a method to be based on science?

Yes, it is crucial.

However, there is one problem with that.
People love numbers, statistics and quoting research papers.

It makes everything more believable. You can come up with any crappy theory and method, back it up with some research paper and people will buy it.

There are a lot of companies which do exactly that.
They apply flaky results of some fishy research paper(s) to their learning method and sell it for big bucks.

At least twice per month, I get requests to write a review of some “revolutionary” software.
Most of the time the only revolutionary thing about it is spaced repetition.

Obviously, spaced repetition algorithms are amazing. But it doesn’t justify paying for it 20-50$ per month (you know who you are!). You can go ahead and just download ANKI for free.

That’s why this is the trickiest fallacy of them all. Don’t buy into some method just because it sounds sciency. I can guarantee you that almost every method is based on some research paper. Whether its creator knows it or not.

Main takeaway – just because a method is based on a research paper it doesn’t make it effective.

Fallacy #5 – There is one method

 

choose the best learning methods

There is no perfect learning method. 

You can’t build a house with only a hammer. You need other tools as well.

Learning is too complicated to approach it from only one side. It doesn’t matter how good this method seems, be it mnemonics or anything else.

That’s why you should always aim at creating your own personal toolbox.

Main takeaway – there is no perfect method. You should always have at least a couple of them in order to learn effectively.

Important factors in choosing right learning methods

 

Although I would love to give you a perfect recipe for success in learning, I don’t think it is possible. What’s more, I will restrain myself from suggesting the methods I use personally or teach my clients.

Instead, I will show you which criteria you can use to evaluate the general effectiveness of different methods.

A good method should

a) be based on science

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learn how your memory operates. Once you master this basic information it will be much easier for you to assess different learning methods. (read more about it here and here).

As Aristotle once said

“The fact is our starting point.” 

The more “science boxes” your learning method checks, the better.

b) sustainable (easy to use)

Although not every learning method has to be sustainable, it is good when at least one of them is something that you can do for a long time and you find it pleasant.

But remember – first, do the real work and then have fun.

c) be engaging

The Marines have a great motto

Learn how you fight

Make sure that your learning method resembles real-life situations as much as it is only possible.

d) be tested

Whenever it is possible you should test a strategy you are planning to use long term. Don’t trust somebody just because he says that his method works.

Most people don’t challenge their assumptions.

I get requests to consult or collaborate on some language course all the time. The email exchanges usually end when I ask

“So how exactly have you tested your learning system/method and what is it based on?”.

And then crickets. There has been just one exception to this day.

That’s why design your own experiment to prove a method right or wrong.

Want to switch to another method? Test them against each other.

e) give you feedback

You don’t want to do something without knowing whether it is right or not. A good method should always provide you with some amount of feedback.

Final Words

Choosing the best learning methods is definitely not easy. It might take some time and experience in order to tell the chaff from the wheat.

Nevertheless, it is always worth the effort. The amount of time and frustration you can potentially save is really gigantic.

Good luck!

Question for you – are there any methods you are currently using that you would like me to analyze? Let me know in the comments. Feel free to include your own analysis.

How To Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading (Which Sucks Anyway)

Reading fast is certainly an amazing skill. And the very tempting one.

Can you feel the thrill of endless possibilities? If you just knew how to do it, you could read, like, 10 books per week!

No wonder speed reading is a huge business.

There are probably thousands of books written on the subject.
And 99% percent are crap. Promises-flavored crap.

Sure, everyone would like to be the guy who picks up a thick book, thumbs it through in two minutes just to say, “Do they have to dumb down everything these days?”.

Can you become such a person? Definitely no.

Can you become a person who reads very fast? Yes.

However, if you are looking for a quick and easy solution, you will get severely disappointed.
Let’s start with some basic fact to help you read books fast without speed-reading.

0) Speed Reading Is Bullshit

 

Read Books Quickly Without Speed-Reading

 

I know that some might take this statements very personally, or even be offended.
“How dare you smear the good name of the speed-reading community?!”

However, it has to be said as it frustrates me endlessly.

Almost anywhere I go, I encounter opinions that it is perfectly possible.
From Tony Buzan’s classic to Tim Ferris’ article, everyone claims that reading with a speed of 1000 words/min is perfectly achievable.

Some even go a step further. Comments under any article on speed-reading usually spiral into some bizarre contest.

“800 wpm (words per minute)? That’s laughable, man.
Try getting to 2000 wpm, like me, to see what REAL speed reading is!”

Sounds great, right? Doesn’t work.

Before we get to the specific methods, I think you should know a thing or two about …

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH SPEED-READING

I started my speed reading journey about 12 years ago.
I have always been a great believer in capabilities of a human mind.

No wonder, I quickly got sucked into the speed-reading world.

Initially, I thought that I was a very fast reader
It quickly turned out that my typical reading speed of >300 wpm was pitiful.

Wouldn’t you feel that way?

You start reading about people who underwent a special kind of speed-reading training.
About some sort of super-geniuses, or so I thought, who can read with 3000 wpm or even 8000 wpm?

I felt inadequate.

I started reading every speed reading book I could ferret out.
There were good books and there were terrible books.

Ok, mostly they were terrible.

Some titles sound as if they were concocted by a shitfaced magician.

Here are some of them. But just a word of warning. Don’t buy them.
They are crap. Go get yourself drunk instead. Or buy your horse a three-piece suit, It will be better use of your money

  • A Course in Light Speed Reading A Return to Natural Intuitive Reading
  • The Alpha-Netics Rapid Reading Program
  • The PhotoReading Whole Mind System

Did I get better?

Yep. At least in some way.

FIRST RESULTS

After a couple of weeks of training, I could read with a speed of 1000 words per minute.
Then I pushed myself even more and I got to 1400 wpm.

There was just one problem, I couldn’t spot back then. The speed was there but I understood almost nothing

I guess Woody Allen summarized it quite brilliantly when he said, ” I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

It was a very disappointing experience, I needed some time to digest the burden of this conclusion.

When I did, it became clear that

1) Nothing worth reading can/should be read fast.

and

2) You can read fast but you can’t understand and analyze information fast.

That’s why, as far as I am concerned, anyone who is selling “photographic reading courses” should be pilloried while a fat dude named Stanley sticks a tongue in his ear (so-called “seashell”).

Ok, we got this covered.
Let’s move on to the things which can actually help you read faster.

1) Know Thy Goal

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

    Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
    and some few to be chewed and digested. –

FRANCIS BACON (1561–1626)

When in doubt, trust in Bacon.
He was definitely onto something.

The very first thing you should do before you open a book, and a waft of paper hits your nostrils, is to decide why you want to read it.

It doesn’t sound sexy. I know. You are a bad boy and you’d rather slap that book open right away. However, you need to restrain yourself as it is an extremely important step.

You might not feel it, but your decision, subconscious or not, will weigh heavily on what your mind concentrates on. And on what you extract from the text.

You usually read for

  • knowledge
  • inspiration
  • relax

So try to choose one of the said purposes.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact purpose of reading.
Nevertheless, you always do your best to determine it as precisely as you only can

2) Separate learning from reading

 

You are ambitious. That’s great. That’s admirable.

And very likely it is an invisible burden which hovers over your head and stops you from reading faster.

Why?

Let me guess.
You are trying to read and analyze information at the same time?

You see something thought-provoking, adjust your monocle and say, “Oh my, utterly marvelous. Let’s ponder over it for a while.”

Do you?

Then if your goal is to read faster, you are setting yourself up for failure.
There is one crucial lesson here, you need to understand.

Reading is not learning. Learning is not reading.*

*it’s a good tattoo idea if you ever need one

Your brain is not a computer.
It can’t switch effectively between two absolutely different activities.

Do it for a short period and you will burn through all the glucose stashed in your brain.

Result?

A headache, the feeling of general fatigue, malaise and so on.
After a while, your brain becomes impervious to new information.

This method of reading is simply not very sustainable.

Mind you that I am not saying that you can’t read and learn at the same time.
I am just stating a simple fact that it is not a very effective method of reading.

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

SOLUTION

To be honest, I have struggled with this problem for quite some time until the two beautiful words dawned on me.

*whispers sensually”

Batch working.

I am sure you are familiar with the term but just to be sure.

Batch working is a process of grouping items because they are similar, or because we plan to do something similar to them.

For instance, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a huge omelet without preparing products beforehand. Can you imagine how ineffective it would be?!

“I need twenty eggs to make this omelet”

*takes two and cracks them open into a bowl*

“I need two more”

*opens a fridge and takes another two*

Doesn’t it sound frustrating?

This is why you should always try to group similar tasks together.

This is what you should do – this is the method which, I am pretty sure, saved my sanity.

1) First mark/highlight

Whenever you stumble across something that is

  • interesting
  • thought-provoking
  • vague
  • incomprehensible
  • you don’t agree with

mark/highlight it in some way.

Jot it down on a margin or copy it into some file.

Don’t try to dismantle any of the concepts you have read about.
The time for that will come.

Done?
Good. Keep on reading.

Marked another fragment?
Good. Keep on reading.

2) Learn/analyze

After reading a certain number of pages, set aside some time for a more detailed analysis.
Go crazy, analyze the heck out of everything.

Refute, digest, criticize to your heart’s content.

Learning is demanding enough on its own.
Don’t mix it additionally with reading.

3) Learn what you read

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

This one comes from a very frustrating experience.

About two years ago I was binge reading even 3-4 books per week.
Of course, being a sensible learner, I took notes and scribbled my remarks about everything even mildly interesting.

In quite a short period, I amassed notes from over 40 books.
The bad luck had it that I hit a rough patch and didn’t have so much time anymore.

After everything settled, I came back to reading.

I didn’t do anything with the notes, mind you. They just sat soused in my notebook.

Fast forward year and a half, I was reading some interesting excerpt from a book on the cognitive neuroscience. My eyes lay on a particular sentence which solved one of the biggest obstacles I had at the time concerning my memory experiments.

I was freaking ecstatic!

The worst part?

A couple of months ago, I finally strapped myself to a chair and started going through the aforementioned notes.

A couple of minutes into the reading, I saw it. There it was. Guffawing blatantly at my helplessness.

The same damn fact.

The miracle solution was there all along. I just didn’t learn it.
In the process, I wasted myriads of hours on useless experimenting.

Lesson learned:

Before you move to the next book, learn what you read before.

It makes perfect sense. Even more so if you want to specialize in some area.
Your average author spends hundreds of hours researching his book or summarizing his knowledge.

Without notes, you will spend dozens of hours reading it and end up with almost no knowledge.
You will remember just a couple of main things. Nothing more.

And it would be a damn shame.

Thanks to this strategy, your ever-growing knowledge will help you go quickly through most of the books.

How quickly?

It’s not unusual for me to read a 400-page book in less than two days.
There is simply not enough new information for me to absorb.

Sometimes you have to do the hard things first so it gets easier.

4) Skim

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

You don’t have to read everything.

You can skim through some paragraphs or descriptions. Nobody will judge you.

I am yet to hear, “John is such a filthy, primitive animal, I have heard he skips paragraphs. He sickens me!”

What is important for an author might be meaningless to you.

Take this article as an example. I thought it was important to include my personal experiences.

But maybe you don’t care. That’s ok, skim through such passages until you catch a glimpse of something more interesting.

5) Learn core vocabulary

 

Every industry and area of specialization is permeated by a specific lingo.
Love it or hate it, it’s still something you must learn.

My main area of specialization is learning/memory and everything in-between, like productivity.

Not knowing what the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus or the Premack’s principle is, would have the paralyzing influence on my reading ability.

It would be tantamount to kneecapping myself and expecting to run.

If you care about being good in the area of your choice, always try to master every word you encounter.

6) Build Core Knowledge

 

In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. – MORTIMER J. ADLER

I can safely assume that whatever you read, you read because you want to learn more about.
Or you want to master a given field of knowledge.

In any case, you should know that initially, your pace of reading will always be slow.
But that’s good.

Slow is new fast. This deceptive sluggishness is the speed of light in disguise.

Look at this excerpt.

In an imagery study by Okado and Stark (2003), increased PFC activity for false memories was localized to the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Given the role of the anterior cingulate in response competition and conflict (Kerns et al., 2004), the authors concluded that this reflects the increased effort involved in incorrectly endorsing an imagined item as “seen.” ERP studies also support the conclusion that frontal regions may distinguish between true and false memories, and be engaged in greater monitoring and evaluation associated with false retrieval (Curran et al., 2001; Fabiani, Stadler, and Wessels, 2000; Goldmann et al., 2003; Nessler, Mecklinger, and Penney, 2001; Wiese and Daum, 2006).

This is a typical excerpt from a book on neuroscience. If you have no scientific foundation, it can be hard for you to read even a couple of pages from such a book. Let alone an entire book.

This is precisely where building core vocabulary and knowledge comes together.

It’s one thing to get familiar with the nomenclature. But do you really understand how these terms interrelate?

Do you understand, at least superficially, what is their function?

If not, you have to analyze it. Only then can you move on.

It’s not fast. it takes time.
But there is not even one discipline in this world where you can skip basics

7) Read a lot

 

Read Books Fast Without Speed-Reading

 

The more you read, the more efficient reader you become. The reader who knows ins and outs of different styles of writing. The one who knows when to skim and when to read deep into a text.

These benefits alone explain well why you should try to read as much as possible,
But there is one more reason.

The spiral theory of knowledge.

But what is it?

The spiral theory of knowledge describes a fascinating phenomenon.

First, when you encounter a certain idea, you might not notice or comprehend it. Not fully anyway. Then you move on to something else. You learn other subjects, read other books. Then, after some time, you encounter the same idea again and only then can you get your Eureka moment.

“How could I not understand it before?! That was so easy. The answer was there all along!”

And that’s a great question.

How come you didn’t understand this concept before?

Your knowledge was to blame.
At the time, it was patchy and full of gaps.

You were simply not ready to comprehend the full scope of the idea then.

The potential answer to whatever questions that might be bugging you, consciously or subconsciously, lies in yet another book.

Yes, there is a door behind the door.
But you will never know if it has the answer written on it until you open it.

8) Use the knowledge you learn

 

Many people love to brag about the number of books they read every month. They are like beautiful shiny badges. The phenomenon is so well-known that Issac Watts wrote about it in his book “The Improvement Of The Mind” in 1821!

Such persons are under a great temptation to practice these two follies. (1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their understanding. And (2.) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom. At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors. And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.

Don’t be one of those people.

Try to find even the slightest use, if it is only possible, for whatever that is you’re reading. 

Impress someone. Help a friend with some problem. Find a better job. Anything will do.

Just don’t let it go to waste,

As I did for such a long time.

Years ago I used to learn every single fact about anything. Literally anything. And I am sad to inform you that it was mostly wasted effort.

I don’t remember almost anything I learned.

Why would I?

My brain didn’t find this knowledge useful. I didn’t find it useful. And so it had to go.

Final Words

We are wired to follow the path of the least resistance. No wonder. We are drawn to, seemingly, easy solutions such as speed-reading.

But you already know the truth, don’t you? There are no easy fixes. There are no easy solutions.

And yet it is still possible to read fast. Even very fast.

But first, you have to put effort into building a foundation.

The very same effort which will make your newly acquired skill taste so sweet.

Enjoy it.

How Much Time It Takes To Maintain (And Improve) Many Languages

Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it? Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.

All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.

Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.

But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.

They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.

I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.

That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.

And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.

Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.

How many?

It’s time to unveil the mystery.

For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,

My Current Language Levels

Here are my current levels:

  • English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
  • Swedish: C1/C2
  • German: C1/C2
  • Russian: C1
  • Esperanto: C1
  • Czech: B2/C1
  • Spanish: B2
  • French: A2/B1

As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,

No one would go to an interview claiming that they know JavaScript but “not right now”.
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.

C1 level

You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.

Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.

Time Breakdown

 

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

WORK

Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.

Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.

Main languages I teach are:

  • Swedish – 8-10 hours
  • German – 8-10 hours
  • English – 8-10 hours

These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.

That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.

 

If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.

Total time: 24-35 hours

SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART

I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.

I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.

Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.

It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.

Quite a side-effect, huh?

Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.

Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.

Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.

The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.

English – 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.

About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.

And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.

Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.

Russian – 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!

Esperanto – 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.

Swedish – 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Cool channel, if you are learning Swedish).

French – 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.

German – 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.

Spanish – 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.

And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.

Total time: 34-40 hours per week.

SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Now it really gets weird!

I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.

That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.

And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?

As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.

“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.

I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonics on the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.

Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?

Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.

Total time: 5-15 hours

The Final Result

The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!

Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.

Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.

Total time: 63-90 hours per week

Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.

ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING

Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)

CHALLENGES

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

 

Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.

Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.

At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.

And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.

There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.

CREATING HABITS

Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.

The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.

Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.

Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.

Read more about creating durable habits here.

ALTERNATING LANGUAGES

You can’t just choose one or two and toss the rest into some musty pit. They would rust away in the blink of an eye.

You need to introduce and invite every language you’re learning to your life. You have to make conscious effort to use them all constantly.

Beginnings are ugly and weird. It seems your guest is hammered and shits on your carpet and you don’t know what to do with him.

But once the dust settles, using a given language should become your second nature.

Here are more tips about juggling many languages.

SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LANGUAGES

Use every possible moment you get to learn a word or two. The chances to do it are everywhere around you:

And so on. Every little bit counts

AUTOMATING INPUT

The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.

Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?

It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.

The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.

Me?

I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.

That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.

In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.

I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.

And yet, as you can clearly seem  I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.

WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON

how much time to maintain and improve many languages

People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.

I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.

No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.

The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.

And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.

I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.

The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.

And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.

However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.

Languages vs other branches of knowledge

I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.

How come?

Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.

But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.

And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMO syndrome?

So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.

The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.

The latter is infinitely less exciting and practical.

So what’s next?

Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.

But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.

CONCLUSION

Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.

The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.

But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:

You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.

Question for you:

What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”

I would love to hear your opinion.

 

Active and Passive Learning – How To Create The Winning Combination (Optimize Your Language Learning – Part 3)

I zealously advocate active language learning. This is definitely the most-effective and easily available remedy for frustratingly slow learning progress (read more about active learning here).

But advising you to only learn actively, or claiming that I do so, would be nothing more than denying our human nature.

Sometimes you are sick. Sometimes you feel down for no particular reason.
Sometimes, you would rather get wasted than learn.

That’s why you should accept that you won’t be able to learn actively all the time.
Not that you shouldn’t try, of course! It’s simply not sustainable for longer periods of time.

The perfect solution is to combine active and passive learning. But first things first.

The (Only) Problem With Active Learning

 

We like to believe that the time we spend doing something is the main indicator of our progress.
It’s not. It’s the intensity of your training.

The more hard work you are able to condense into one hour of learning, the better.

That’s what makes active learning so highly efficient.

But there is just one problem.

The deep, active learning is tiring as hell.

Not time-consuming, mind you. Just energy-devouring. That’s why we love to avoid it.
We don’t want anyone meddling with our energy deposits.

“F*ck off brain, will ya?! I need my glucose to come up with sarcastic retorts to situations that will never happen”.

Active and passive learningOnce you realize it, it should be easier to incorporate active learning into your daily learning schedule.
Simply find the time of the day when you are still energetic enough to do the hard work.

Always tired after work?
Wake up earlier and do the work.

Too sleepy in the morning?
Come back from, take a nap and do the work.

You get it. Just do the damn work.

Ok, so that one is clear.

So how does the passive learning fit into the “big picture?”

The Role Of Passive Learning

 

I will stress it one more time – active learning should be the foundation of your learning.

But the thing is that this foundation is never perfect.
It is scarred by cracks and blemishes.

But you can still smuggle quite a bit of sand between the cracks.

Active and passive learning

This is the role of passive learning – it should fill all the voids throughout your day and complete your learning.

After all, each day consists of a considerable amount of “dead-time”.
Like standing in a line or going for a walk.

Why not listen to some podcasts or music in your target language?

Of course, I am not suggesting that you go mental.
Don’t try to fill every moment of your day with some learning (unless you really want to!).

Remember that we all need some downtime to remember information better.

Optimize Your Day For Passive Learning

 

There are four categories of things you can optimize for language learning

  1. People
  2. Surroundings
  3. Tools
  4. Things you do

1) People

“Optimizing” people sounds more than bad. I know.
But you talk to people anyway.

Why not find some language partners to talk to throughout the day?

After all, they are only a click away from you in this wireless era.

Here are some places to get you started:

– Facebook groups
meetup.com
Craig’s List
Italki. com
Hello Talk

2) Surroundings

Any place where you spend quite some time can be optimized for language learning.

Simple stick-it notes can transform any dusty desk into a learning battle station.

But don’t make them boring!. You know what I mean.

Don’t just write “desk = der Tisch” and stick it in its respective place.
Make it memorable. Make it fun!

Write “Ich lecke meinen Tisch, wenn ich blau bin” (I lick my desk when I am sloshed).
That’s something to remember!

Or even better – make yourself a poster while we’re at it.
Here is a quick example:

Active and passive learning

3) Tools

Even though you might not fully realize it, you use at least dozens of tools every day.
A fair share of them is electronic – search engines,  mobile phones, browsers, Windows, Excel, etc. – you name it.

But why on Earth would you want to use them in your native tongue?!

Make a list of all the most important software / websites / etc. you use and change the language to your target language!

4) Things you do

Our days are marked by myriads of repetitive activities – commuting, cleaning a flat, going to a gym.
Once again, this is something you might use to your advantage.

You can prepare a playlist beforehand and listen to your favorite bands / podcasts / videos during that time.

I hope that these ideas will set you on the right path.

Now, let’s take a look at how the hypothetical “optimized” day might look like!

How Active and Passive Learning Fit Together – The Perfect Learning Day

Ordinary Morning

You wake up at 7 am sharp.

Your alarm clock starts blaring.
Beep, beEP, BEEP!!!

“It’s another shitty today”, you think to yourself as you step into the bathroom.

You look at your comatose self in the mirror, sigh heavily, brush your teeth and try to shape yourself into something which resembles the human form.

Then breakfast, dull as Kristen Stewart’s acting, and you kiss your wife. Your eyes utter mute “help me” as you pass her by and leave.

Ugh! Boring!
But it could look like this:

Morning On Language Learning Steroids

Your alarm clock gently jars you out of sleep.
You open your eyes and light an entire room with your beaming smile.

No wonder.
This time you haven’t been ear-raped by some mechanical rattle.

No. This time you wake up to the sounds of your favorite song in your target language.
You graciously jump out of bed and leap towards the bathroom.

You look at yourself and think, “Gee, I really do look amazing today!”, as the next song in your target language starts playing.

You dig into your breakfast.

It tastes like a nectar made by Zeus himself.

What to do:

Prepare in advance the playlist of songs in your target language.
Delete all the other songs in your mother tongue.

Leave yourself no other choice but to listen to the language you want to improve.

Of course, if a part of your morning routine is to listen to the news or the radio, you don’t have to change it.
Find radio stations in your target language on my other website and simply listen to them instead.

Ordinary Commute

You slowly drag your feet toward the train station. “It’s funny”, you notice. The pavement tiles strangely resemble your life. They are gray and shattered.

 

Active and passive learning

 

Once you take a sit, you try to pass the time by rating the miserableness of your co-passengers. But there are no winners in this game.

Pretty bad, right? But it could look like this:

Commute On Language Learning Steroids

You maniacally run towards your train station. You can’t wait to hop on the train! This is one of your favorite parts of the day.

You take a seat and fire off your favorite YT channel. The fascinating interview about … completely pulls you in. “Already my station?”, you think to yourself. “I completely lost track of time!”.

What to do:

Always have some resources handy on your mobile/tablet/notebook. Not too many of them – it leads to decision fatigue. Ideally, it should be something that really interests you.

You should aim at energizing yourself before you start work. If you wear yourself off mentally, you will send a signal to your brain to actually start avoiding this activity in the future.

Aim at interviews or some funny, easily digestible shows. Unless you are really into politics or some “heavier” topics – then go ahead and listen to them as well.

Ordinary Day At The Office

You enter the office and gaze absently at your coworkers.
Then you head toward the kitchen to fix yourself a cup of instant enthusiasm.
Not that it helps. It’s just a thing you do to pull yourself faster through the day.

All the breaks and conversations turn into one big blur.
Even some breaks in-between don’t deliver any relief.

Nightmare, ain’t it? But what about this:

Day At The Office On Language Learning Steroids

You rush into a kitchen and pour yourself a delicious cup of caffeine goodness.
You sit comfortably in your cubicle.

Not an ordinary cubicle mind you but a language optimized cubicle.
All around you, there are stick-it notes with interesting quotes or jokes in your target language.

After you dig yourself up out of the weekend’s backlog, you start reading newspapers in your target language.

What to do:
It’s a very good habit to change the interface of every possible app or website you use to your target language. However don’t feel pressured to do so right away, If you are a beginner.

You might dip your toes first.

Write down where to change language settings and then switch interface to your target language.

Start translating any useful words you might need and switch the language back on.
After a couple of such sessions, you should be able to comfortably navigate through any website/app.

What’s more, you can always put some stick-it knows with useful phrases or quotes around you.

Why phrases or quotes?

Because learning is always more efficient when there is context.

Why only put a note on your plant called “plant”, when you can write “a green and beautiful plant!”.
Or “watering plants causes diarrhea”.

I know, I know – it sounds absolutely childish.

The thing is that the absurd information is absorbed more effectively.
So why don’t you help your brain a little bit?

Come-Back Home

That was one hell of the day!
You’re absolutely ecstatic! You finish your job, catch the train back and come back home.

You open the door to your flat and suddenly everything goes totally silent.
You know what you have to do now.
The damn work.

5 Fun Ways of Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation


Today we have a fantastic post from Sean Hopwood, MBA – founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and Spanish translation services. Check out his website, and enjoy the post!

As one of the most spoken languages in the world, Spanish deserves a place on your list of languages to master.

Many a native English speaker, however, has struggled with the Spanish tongue because it requires a greater level of flexibility than English. You’ll have to work hard at polishing your pronunciation if you want to be able to speak with a solidly good Spanish accent.

It also means not despairing or quitting on your dream of speaking Spanish like a native when yet another Spanish speaker fails to understand you.

If you’re aiming to take your Spanish skills to a higher level, read the following 5 fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation to find out innovative ways of speaking more like a local.

1. Pick Your Accent

 

If you’re just starting to learn Spanish, you may be having problems distinguishing between different Spanish accents. Argentina, Spain, Mexico, Cuba and all other Spanish speaking countries in the world speak their own version of Spanish.

Some are so dramatically different, they may not even sound like Spanish to you.

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation
However, don’t feel overwhelmed. The first step in improving your accent is to pick a Spanish speaking country whose accent and dialect you want to focus on.

Does Spain resonate with you because it is in Europe? Or Mexico due to the dominance of Mexican Spanish in the United States? Simply listen to the dialects that are out there and choose one that works for you and stick with it.

Once you adopt the following fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation and perfect your accent, adapting it to the Spanish speaking country you are in will not be so difficult.

2. Monitor Your “B’s” and “V’s”

 

Many students of Spanish tend to have problems differentiating the Spanish ‘b’ from ‘v’. To the untrained ear, these two letters can sound very similar – so similar you might think someone asked you for a ‘beso‘ (kiss) when what they really said is ‘vaso‘ (glass).

Let’s take this step by step: to emit the perfect Spanish pronunciation of ‘v’, for a second let your teeth rest on your bottom lip as if you are going to say the word ‘vest‘ and practice pairing this ‘v’ with the Spanish vowels of ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’.

The Spanish ‘b’ is similar to the English ‘b’, as in ‘break’ or ‘berries’ and you may also practice pairing the Spanish ‘b’ with the language’s vowels.

Switch back and forth between these mouth positions when you pronounce words like ‘viento‘ (wind) and ‘bella‘ (pretty). If the two sounds sound similar, then you are doing something right.

3. Pronounce those Accents

 

Amongst the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation is emphasizing Spanish accents. It may be all right for someone who is new to the Spanish language to ignore the little dashes written above a certain syllable in a Spanish word, but if you really want to perfect your Spanish pronunciation, it’s time you paid attention.

Word accents are especially important in Spanish because not only do they alter the meaning of the word, they can make all the difference on whether or not you’ll be understood.

For example, the word for ‘father’ is written as ‘papá’ with the accent on the last letter meaning you should emphasize the last bit of the word more. When you miss the accent, you have the evenly pronounced word ‘papa,’ which means ‘potato.’

Don’t make the mistake of calling someone’s father a potato by paying attention to word accents! One of the best ways to practice your accented words is to read out loud a lot. With practice, you will visually recall the words in your head as you hear yourself and others speak the accented words.

4. Tongue Twist Your Way to Good Pronunciation

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation
Tongue twisters or ‘trabalenguas‘ is a wonderful way to improve your Spanish accent and pronunciation. The repetitive aspect of tongue twisters may make it hard for you to say the tongue twisting phrase quickly but they are relatively easy to commit to memory.

Each tongue twister gives your tongue a good workout and helps loosen it up so that it can easily adapt to Spanish pronunciation. Online, you can find a good many ‘trabalenguas’ that you can say daily to practice your pronunciation. Not only that, you will also be adding to your vocabulary. Here’s an example:

Tres tigres tragaban trigo, tres tigres en un tribal. ¿Que tigre tragaba mas..? Los tres igual.

Do you want to give it a try? Here are some websites with challenging ‘trabalenguas’:

5. Link Your Words

 

When you’ve been around Spanish speakers long enough, you’ll notice they tend to occasionally link or blend words together.

When will they do this?

When the last letter of a certain word matches the first letter of the following word. For instance, the phrase ‘dos sacos’ (two coats) would sound like ‘dosacos.’

 

Improving Your Spanish Pronunciation

 

Spanish speakers also link words when the last letter of a certain word is a consonant and the first letter of the following word is a vowel. The question “¿Estás enamorado?” (Are you in love?) would sound linked, as in “¿Estásenamorado?”

Another instance of linking words happens when the last letter of a word and the first letter of the following word are both vowels, such as in the sentence: “Ella está enfadada.” (She’s angry.) The untrained ear would hear it as one long word: “ellaestáenfadada.”

Learning how to link words is one of the fun ways of improving your Spanish pronunciation. Developing an ear for linked words also improves your listening skills and better prepares you as you practice linking and blending your words.

In the end, the goal is to comprehend what Spanish speakers are saying when they blend words.

Conclusion

These 5 tips are certain to help you perfect your accent so that you can communicate more clearly with your fellow Spanish speakers.

While focusing on your pronunciation is one aspect of improving your command of the language, don’t forget to keep up with the other aspects of language learning such as grammar, reading, vocabulary, and speaking.

Focusing your full attention on Spanish learning while tackling all aspects of the language will gradually help you achieve your dream of speaking the language fluently.

Author Bio:


Sean Hopwood

 

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, Inc., an online localization and Spanish translation services provider, dedicated to the improvement of global communications. By helping both corporations and the individual, Day Translations provides a necessary service at the same time as developing opportunities for greater sympathy and understanding worldwide.


 

How To Build Durable Habits In 4 Easy Steps Even If Your Motivation Is At An All Time Low

If you ask almost anyone, he will tell you this – “Building durable habits is damn hard”.

I find it really fascinating!
We have literally dozens of automated routines which we carry out throughout the day.

You wake up – you brush your teeth.
You hear your mobile buzzing – you reach for it to check a new text message.
You pass the confectionery, start drooling, run inside and shove your head into the nearest cake.

Yet, just a few of them are truly positive and life-changing.
I mean, it is understandable if you really think about it.

Our default mode is energy conservation.
My brain, your brain, every brain is the same.

It doesn’t give a flying f* about coming up with new ideas or creating new learning systems.
You have to trick it into doing it.

What Habits Really Are

 

Once again – your brain couldn’t be bothered less to learn Swahili or another language which you don’t have any contact with. That requires energy. And energy is in short supply.

Basically, any new activity which you take up is very energy-consuming.
There are no established, efficient neural networks which are able to diminish the energy costs.

Because this is exactly how you should start thinking about habits.

Habits are simply neural pathways. The more you strain them, the thicker they becomeIf they become thick enough, carrying out a giving activity goes into an autopilot mode.

It’s true for any kind of activity. Lick your foot every time you have a glass of water and soon enough you will find yourself doing it in the most unusual places.

How To Build Durable Habits

 

One of the frameworks which I teach my students is this (interested in other super-effective ways of creating habits? – click here):

  • 0) Be brutally honest with yourself
  • 1) Decrease activation energy of an activity
  • 2) Remove / minimize distractions
  • 3) Set goals at the absolute minimal level
  • 4) Tie a new habit to the preexisting routine / habit

Let’s see how these elements come together.

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

 

 Build Durable Habits

 

Although it is not really a part of the framework, it is definitely a prerequisite.

You know that feeling when a person close to you regularly does something stupid?

You try to beg, plead and bargain to prevent him from doing it.
You appeal to his common sense. All in vain.

Usually, you get lackluster, “sure, I think I will try it”, in return.
Which, of course, is just another way of saying, “no way in hell I am doing that”.

But it’s easy to notice such a headstrong attitude in others.

But what about you and me?
Isn’t that just the typical the-pot-calling-the-cattle-black attitude?

It is. It always is.

We are masters of rationalizations. 

Warlocks of bullshit excuses.

I know I am.
I consider myself very good at creating habits.

Still, every now and then I discover that I am feeding myself beautifully packed lies and excuses.

Example?

My writing. In last 3 months, I wrote 3 articles

3 articles. This is a joke.
And the joke is definitely on me.

I have tried to justify it in dozens of ways.
And they all sound so right.

“I would like to write more but I …

  • have to concentrate on my learning
  • on my composing
  • go out more often and meet people
  • concentrate on reading more
  • concentrate on my company
  • don’t have enough time.

The list goes on and on.
I feel sick when I just look at it.

Only recently did I grab the hammer of truth and tear down this wall of mendacity.
In the last few weeks, I have been writing at least 4-5 times per week.
And it feels great!

How did I do it?

I followed my own advice!

It doesn’t matter what problem you have. The following framework should help you solve it. As long as you are honest, that is.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of them require some planning in advance.
But you know – it’s well worth it.

Decrease Activation Energy Of An Activity

 

Would you jump 5 times right now if you wanted to, or if there was some reward involved?
No doubt you would.

And one of the reasons why it would be so easy is the low activation energy of this activity.

The activation energy is the energy you need to start carrying out a given activity.
The lower the energy, the easier it is to start doing it.

But how does it exactly work?

Imagine that you live on the fifth floor and you would like to start running 4 times per week.
There is just one problem – your running shoes are in the basement.

Would you go up and down the stairs 4 times per week just to have a run?
Highly unlikely.

That’s why, your first task is to eliminate superfluous obstacles which prevent you from taking up your desired activity.

Would you like to read a book in your target language 4 times per week?
Great. Then always keep it handy.

Would you like to listen to songs in your target language every day?

Great, then download a truckload of songs on your mobile.
It’s much easier to play them if they are just one click away.

Remove Distractions

 

Durable Habits

 

Decreasing the activation energy of your future habits is a good start.
But it is not enough.

You also have to make sure that you either eliminate all the distractions or increase their activation energy.

I know. It sounds very basic and you have heard about it 3472 times before.
But this time, don’t just nod and do the things the old way.

This time, be a bit more strategic.
Plan ahead the plan of actions.

Distractions usually fall into one of 3 categories:

1) Technological distractions

 

The main culprits which pull you away from your work are mobile phones and the internet.
Shock, surprise, and astonishment! I know. It was hard to envision.

Turn off your mobile phone.

Block the time-devouring websites or temporarily disconnect your internet.
If it happens that you zone out and suddenly find yourself looking at the writing:

“Check your internet connection”

You will know that you tried to visit Facebook or other websites of this kind.

2) People

 

It always sounds wrong and cold but, anyway, here it is: people should also be classified and treated as distractions.

I know you love your wife/girlfriend very much but if she can’t help but interrupt you every couple of minutes, you should have a talk with her.

Negotiate some distraction-free time so you can learn peacefully.

3) Environment

 

How To Build Durable Habits

 

It is definitely good to learn in as many places as it is possible – it is beneficial for your memory, after all.
Just make sure that they aren’t too noisy so you concentrate on the task at hand.

How Effective Is Increasing of The Activation Energy?

 

I get it – you probably still have some doubts.

Is increasing the activation energy of activities really that effective?
Can it really help me eliminate the pesky habits?

Yes and yes!

Just take a look at the results of this research:

Walking one-third of a mile longer from home to the nearest tobacco shop to buy cigarettes was associated with increased odds that smokers would quit the habit in an analysis of data in Finnish studies, according to an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Another great example of increasing activation energy to get rid of the unwanted behaviors is … donating organs.

Here is the excerpt from Money – Master The Game by Tony Robbins:

If you are in Germany, there’s about a one-in-eight chance you’ll donate your organs—about 12% of the population does. Whereas in Austria, Germany’s next-door neighbor, 99% of people donate their organs. In Sweden, 89% donate, but in Denmark, the rate is only 4%. What gives? Why such a disparity?

If you expect to hear some Jedi mind tricks which are used to manipulate the minds of Swedish and Austrian citizens, think again!
The secret lies in the wording on the form.

In countries with the lowest donor rates, like Denmark, there is a small box that says, “Check here if you want to participate in the organ donor program.” In countries with the highest rates, like Sweden, the form says, “Check here if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.”
That’s the secret! Nobody likes to check boxes. It’s not that we don’t want to donate our organs. That little bit of inertia makes all the difference in the world!

I hope you are convinced by now!
Let’s move on!

Set goals at the absolute minimal level

 

Being ambitious is good. No, it’s great!

But here is the uncomfortable truth which we all have to face – we suck at predicting pretty much anything.

We can’t reliably fathom how much time we will spend doing something.
We have no idea how much money we will spend the next month.

And we are terrible at predicting how difficult our goals are.

Example?

At the turn of each year, the flock of uber motivated people hit the gym.

Goal?
Work out at least 2…, no! 4 Times per week!

It doesn’t matter that the last time they worked out was about 4 years ago.
There is simply no time to f*ck around!

Of course, after about 1-3 months, depending on their motivation, they run out of steam.
Going to the gym becomes a thing of the past.

It happens to the best of us.
But why exactly?

Setting goals is, without any doubt, useful.

But goal-oriented productivity has one, gigantic flaw – It rarely acknowledges that you and I are human beings.

You have bad days. Days when just a mere thought of doing anything productive revolts you.

So you come back from work.

Instead of starting your language learning session, you put on your I-am-a-lazy-and-disgusting-slob pants and start watching The Game of Thrones with a bag of chips.

 

Building Durable Habits

 

And, needless to say, you feel like “sh*t”.

Repeat the above scenario a couple of times and you will find yourself ditching any budding habit.

Even though I have nothing against SMART goals, I don’t believe that the productivity based on ambitious goals will get you far.

The most effective learners rely on systems.

Systems, on the other hand, are built of habits.

In order to create a durable habit, you should start with being consistent.
And there is no easier way to become consistent than choosing absolutely minimal goals.

How To Choose Your Minimal Goal

 

What I would suggest is:

1) Choose the frequency of your habit
2) Carefully examine your resistance to a potential intensity of your soon-to-be habit

Do you know that overwhelming feeling of resistance when you think about some very ambitious goals?
That’s your brain saying, “Nah, thanks. We need energy – let’s pulverize some chocolate pretzels and snort them!”.

It’s really easy to evoke this feeling. Test it yourself!

Imagine that your goal is to run 4 km 5 times per week.
Or learn 150 new words every day.

Try to analyze incoming feelings and thoughts.

If these activities are beyond your current reach, you will experience the overall feeling of anxiety. The more ambitious the goal, the more resistance you feel.

That’s why, first of all, you should concentrate on being consistent in order to create durable habits
The rest will come.

Here are some practical examples.

1) I want to learn a foreign language regularly

 

Building Durable Habits
Depending on your current needs, you may choose one of the following goals:

Read one page of a book of your choice per day.
Learn 3 new words per day.
Listen to 5 minutes of radio.

If you feel the slightest prickle of anxiety, lower the bar even more.

2) If you want to run 3 times per week

 

Put on your shoes and walk at least 300 m away from your home.
Don’t run. Just walk

If you still feel like running after covering this distance – go for it. If not, just call it a day. You did your job for today.

How Minimal Goals Turn Into Durable Habits

 

As you can see, these are not ambitious goals.
You don’t set a bar. You basically put it on the damn ground.

That’s why your brain is really ok with it.

After all, such activities require almost no energy – hence the lack of resistance.

And this is where the gist of this method lies.
You should choose your goals so that they don’t trigger “No way in hell” response.

But am I really suggesting that you only do these tiny things throughout the day?
Of course not.

I love pushing the boundaries.

800 words per day? Hell yeah!
Getting headaches because of overlearning? Yes, please.

The thing is that the secret about doing anything regularly is showing up.

You have to let your neural networks strengthen enough so you don’t have to even think about doing something anymore.

Happen what may – just don’t break the chain.

Because this one day break is not a separate point in time, nor is it an unconnected incident. It actually affects the person you are trying to become.

Here is the amazing thing about being consistent – you build your endurance over time.

Even if you do as little as learning 3 words per day. Even if you run just 60 meters.

After some time, you get used to the intensity of your actions. And with the same amount of effort you can actually learn 6 words. And then 10. And then 50!

I still remember vividly the feeling of terror I felt when I thought about learning 20 words per day! It seemed like an impossible thing to do.

Many years have passed and these days, I consider myself lazy if I do less than 40-50 words per day.

Here is the quote to ponder:

‘We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training” – Archilochus

I will repeat once again. We suck at predicting almost everything.

Most of the time you might be convinced that you will perform some action. However, when push comes to the shove you fall flat like a hockey puck.

But if you do just a tiny bit day by day, you will create the system.

And make no mistake – having a learning system based on habits makes you a truly unstoppable human being.

Why?

Because systems are, most of the time, immune to any internal and external obstacles.

Years ago when I used to spend a lot of time at work.

You know the scenario. 10 hours at work, 2-hour commute.

You come home angry because the public transport sucks and a bunch of semi-retarded teenagers were blasting music through their mobile phones.

What’s fascinating is that even then, I grabbed a quick bite and started poring over books.

I didn’t really think about it. It was an impulse.
As if a little geek inside me was telling me to do it.

It’s admirable but it’s not as difficult as you might think. It’s just a habit.

The one which took some time, of course. The habit nonetheless.

In fact, according to a Duke University study, 45 percent of a person’s behavior stems from habit alone. And it’s difficult to change a habit if you don’t even think about it any more! – The Coaching Habit – Michael Bungay Stanier

The beautiful part of forming durable habits is that you actually learn to love whatever you do. The habit actually becomes a part of your self-concept!

Tie a new habit to preexisting routine/habit

Here is not so complicated logical loop:

Building a habit takes some time. And until a given activity becomes a habit, it’s not automatic. And if it’s not automatic, there is no certainty that you will remember to do it.

The solution?

Tie your new habit to preexisting routines.

Of course, you can try to rely on your willpower but such a strategy is rarely successful.
You don’t want to drive yourself to the point of decision fatigue.

Example?

Let’s say that you drink a cup of tea when you go back from work.
It might be a trigger for your new habit.

Learn a couple of words every time you grab your cup of tea. In no time, you will discover that learning new vocabulary has become an indispensable part of your tea-drinking ritual.

 

Building Durable Habits

 

Once you get used to learning new words every day, you can expand this mini-habit and tie it to other routines.

Although most of the time it won’t be necessary. Usually, after a couple of weeks, you will discover that your mini-habit turned into a durable habit!

You might actually start feeling anxious when you can’t indulge yourself in performing a habit of your choice!

Back To You

So what about you?

Are there any habits you are trying to build?

Let me know!

 

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning: 5 Reasons Why You Should Try To Take On Crazy Learning Tasks

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning

Setting big goals in language learning doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, right?

Especially learning, say, over 85o words per day!

After all, common sense tells you to do things step by step. Set small goals which are perfectly achievable. And learn systematically.

And I agree, at least at the beginning of the learning process.

But in past two years, I have begun appreciating tasks which are so demanding that they require all my focus and energy.

I believe that you have to go through your own baptism of fire to understand yourself and your learning strategies better.

Such tasks are part of my personal learning project – Impossible Tuesdays.

Every Tuesday I am trying to choose tasks which I feel really uncomfortable with and which take me to the limits of my mental abilities and endurance.

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning – What Are “Crazy” Tasks?

 

When I come up with a new crazy task I would like to take on, I use the following rule of thumb:

I multiply my usual learning tasks by at least 8-10 (I will get to “why” in a minute).

Sounds scary?

Good.

Your goals should be big enough to scare you.

For example, some of my previous challenges included:

Of course, we all start from different levels so you have to take it into consideration.

If you learn 5 words per day right now, go for 40 or 50.

Ok, so what is the logic behind becoming certifiably nuts?

5 Reasons Why You Should Take On Crazy Learning Tasks

 

1) They make you come up with new ideas/strategies

 

Coming up with original ideas is very difficult.
No. Scratch that.

Here is a novel idea – you should write a diary in a foreign language using a cucumber.

Original, right?
Effective? Not really.

So…coming up with GOOD original ideas is very difficult.

Cognitive resources are limited so it makes sense to use them wisely.
In everyday situations, there is no necessity to stimulate our brain to be “original”.

Let’s be honest – how challenging is learning 5 new words per day?

Not very.

You can use any learning method and you will still succeed.

However, the situation changes when you don’t have much of a choice and you have to go beyond your comfort zone.

When you have to learn more than you have ever done before.

Interestingly, even if you fail, you can still learn a lot by analyzing what went wrong.

2) They make you reevaluate strategies you have used so far

 

Setting Big Goals In Language Learning

 

When the push comes to shove, it shows which strategies suck and should be replaced.

If you are used to cramming vocabulary, such a number of words might seem overwhelming.

You might hear your inner voice saying, “I can’t do it this way!”
You’re right. You can’t.

Not by cramming anyway.

And only then you truly realize that you have to change your learning strategy.

Let’s take a look at the first of my challenges – learning over 850 words during one day,

If you had to learn just 20 or 30 words on a given day, would it change the way you approach learning vocabulary?

I highly doubt it.

It would be just another task which you can squeeze between checking your e-mail and watching a movie on Netflix.

However, learning 800 words is an absolutely different beast.
It poses a series of very interesting questions.

Such questions can really make your brain sweat and question the effectiveness of strategies you’ve been using so far.

3) They make you use the strategies you have heard of but couldn’t be bothered to use

 

Be honest with yourself. How many articles about productivity and learning strategies have you read so far?

20, 50, 100?

And how many pieces of advice have you used practically? I guess that this ratio doesn’t look favorably, right? I know it all too well. I tend to hoard hundreds of articles about different learning strategies. And then I struggle to use even just a few of them.

Because why bother?

After all, we are all set in our ways.

That’s why the period of preparation for such tasks gives me the opportunity to dust off the long list of mental tools I have gathered throughout the years.

Tools which I haven’t had the motivation to use before or simply didn’t need at the time.

4) They push the borders of what you previously thought is possible

 

Challenge breeds inspiration.

If you force yourself to do things which are seemingly impossible or you have no skills for, you give yourself an opportunity to push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

And more often than not, you will find the way to accomplish your goals

Choose one thing you´d like to try but are afraid to do wrong, and go for it!

5) They Boost Your General Life Satisfaction And Confidence

 

It’s time to be frank here. I didn’t enjoy these challenges. Want to know what was the result of learning over 850 during one day? A terrible headache. I have never had a migraine in my life but I assume that it’s exactly what it feels like.

Just the slightest sound at the end of this day was sending surges of pain throughout my head and made me feel as if my brain was screwed by a nail-pawed hedgehog.

Did I hate it? You betcha.
Did I feel damn proud the next day? Hell yeah!

You see, normally I am very self-conscious and critical about myself.

But I doubt that I’ll ever forget the pride I felt the next day after “over-850- words-per-day challenge”.
It was verging on unhealthy Johny Bravo-style self-love.

But I’ll be damned if I didn’t deserve it.

Conclusion

As weird as setting big goals in language learning might seem, I have found them time and time again to be one of the most reliable catalysts for self-improvement.

Sure, it´s comfy to do the same ol’, same ol’ day in and day out.

But if you don´t challenge yourself and try new things, how will you realize your true potential?

Now I would love to get to know your thought on this subject.

What do you think about using big goals as a way to optimize your learning strategies?

Is it a “hell yeah” or “a little bit over-the-top”?

 

A Simple Learning Plan To Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time

You know that feeling, don’t you?

You have finally mustered the motivation to sit down and learn. It’s better than that – you actually know what you want to learn! But somehow, you can’t get in the “right mood.”

There are so many things to do. Where should you start? The clock keeps ticking, but you still gaze emptily at your book (or screen).

Another tick of the clock. You start getting anxious. Your initial excitement starts dwindling. Another tick. “UMM, maybe today is not the best day to learn.” A few ticks later, you find yourself spiraling down into the blame and shame of watching dozens of silly cat videos on YT.

The thing is – it’s not your fault.

You didn’t even notice that Chaos and his buddy Disorganization had snuck right behind you and silently strangled your will to learn.

The truth is that in order to learn effectively you need a learning plan.

And no – it doesn’t need to be overly sophisticated.

Here is the simple learning plan I like to use to explain how effective learning looks like.

How to Create a Simple Learning Plan

 

1. Elimination of distractions

 

Let’s be honest for a second – you’re not a 17th-century hermit. Learning a language for 3 hours might not be as tempting as watching another “7 reasons why you should learn a foreign language” video on YT.

It’s perfectly understandable. It’s within our defective nature to be distracted. If you’re delusional, you will try to rely only on your strong will.

For all the others – I would suggest that you turn off your mobile phone and block distracting websites with software.

Done? Great.

There is one more thing to take care of. Eliminate the human factor. The true work is always done in solitude.

Take it from Franz Kafka. As much as he loved his lovely fiancée, he couldn’t stand her presence while he was working.

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case, I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind.… That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.

 

2. Allocation of attention

 

Blocking or at least limiting the number of distractions allows you to focus more deeply on your learning task. On just one task. Not four or two – one is the number.
“But why? What about multitasking? I am good at it!”
First of all, no, you are not.
Secondly, let me ask you a question. Do you remember when you were little, and you believed in Santa and elves?

Only when you grew up, it turned out that your toys weren’t produced in a magic factory. It was a filthy sweat house somewhere in Asia. Being able to multitask is just another myth we like to believe in.

The Math Of Attention

Let’s say that your attention equals 1. What if you divide it between two tasks?
It seems reasonable to believe that each one of them would have an assigned value of 0,5, right?

RINGDINGINGING. Wrong.

It would be more like 0,3, at the very best. We weren’t born to multitask. Especially when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks. The sooner you come to terms with it, the better.

 

3. Encoding strategies

 

Simple Learning Plan

 

The next step is to define your preferred encoding strategies. If the only encoding strategy you have used so far is mindless cramming – please stop. A small panda dies somewhere in the world every time you do that.

The choice might be difficult. There are myriads of strategies to choose from. You should start experimenting with as many of them as you can to find the ones you prefer.

It might seem like a daunting task.

However, taking into consideration that you have 3-4 decades of professional learning ahead of you, I would strongly suggest that you at least get familiar with them.

You can use:

  • mnemonics
  • associations
  • metaphors
  • Mind Maps
  • distributed practice
  • stories
  • practice testing
  • visualization
  • acronyms
  • deep processing
  • visceralization
  • self-talk
  • chunking

And dozens of others.

They are not equally useful, and their choice may depend on the subject you learn. But one thing is clear – the more methods you master, the more effective (and fun) your learning gets.

4. Evaluation

 

Good learners always evaluate their learning effectiveness. The common mistake many people do is saying, “This method works for me.”

But how can you tell?

Do you track your effectiveness?

Pay attention to how much you remember after a certain period of time after your studying session. Examine how this result is correlated to your encoding strategy.

Creating a Simple Learning Plan – Summary

 

Learning is not just about finding motivation and merely sitting down. You and I live in a world that is hell-bent on distracting us. And it does that amazingly well.

What’s more, without reflecting on the effectiveness of the methods you use, you might find yourself spinning your wheels and making the same silly mistakes time after time.

Having a solid plan, however simple it is, is a step in the right direction.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Block Distracting Websites And Regain Control Over Your Time With These 5 Apps

Checking your e-mail doesn’t seem very harmful, right?
Or any other site for that matter. I mean, it’s only like 2 minutes and you’re back in the saddle.

Ok, maybe after next 10 minutes you’ll check another website. Just one quick article and you get back to work.

After 4 hours it turns out that you haven’t done anything. You also don’t know how you ended up watching a YT on how to cook dinakdakan.

You don’t cook. And what the hell is dinakdakan?!

Take a look at this quote:

We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine

23 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s a scary number if you ask me. Of course, this is just one of the statistics. I have seen plenty of other research indicating different numbers. But usually, it takes between 5-25 minutes to regain your focus. Having that number in mind, interrupting your workflow check a website or to send a text message doesn’t seem so harmless anymore.

It’s not our fault though. I believe that the technology is the true culprit. We are almost conditioned to check our phones or e-mail every couple of minutes.

We do so because we can’t allow ourselves to miss out on…what?

That’s the question! What possibly could we miss that is so important?

Nothing. Nothing will happen if we don’t check this one website. There is a really easy solution to eliminate this kind of distractions – block the websites which steal your time and distract you!

Don’t Give Yourself a Chance To Fail

 

Before I move to the list of my recommendations, I would like to warn you about the crappy argument I have heard so many times.

“Yeah, theoretically it sounds good but I actually want to do it ON MY OWN, with help of my strong will. I don’t want to rely on any stupid software!” (read more about forcing yourself to learn).

Ugh, BS alert activated. I feel sick every time I hear it. How has it been working out for you so far? We can rationalize basically everything. However, most of the times this is not logic talking. It’s fear.

I am scared. It’s cold and lonely here without the cordial, digital touch of the internet.
If you acknowledge this fear, your battle with distractions is already half-won.

You can also look at it from a different perspective.

If you wanted to lose weight, would you place candies and cookies all over your flat? Would you sniff them every now and then and lick the glazing to reassure yourself about how great your willpower is?

Hell, if you were a junkie would you put a syringe in front of your face and try to “wait it out”.
Don’t think so. It’s pointless to rely on your strong will in this case.

You can force yourself to be more productive.

Here is the list of the most popular apps you can use to block the websites. I have used all of them personally (maybe besides Mac ones!) and I can wholeheartedly recommend all of them.

They definitely stand out from the mass of other apps of this kind.

Freedom

Block Distracting Websites
Freedom is one of the oldest apps of this kind. It’s currently used by more than 1 million users.
Throughout the years it has gained the support of, among others, Nick Hornby and Seth Godin.

It works on: Macs, Windows, Android (beta), and iOS (beta), Iphone, Ipad

It allows you to:

  • Block distracting websites
  • Plan out sessions that recur at the same time every week
  • Go cold turkey and block the entire internet when you really need to get work done

Highlights: It’s worth mentioning that it is currently the only distraction management solution for iPad and iPhone. It’s also the only app which can cut off your internet access.

Cost: Basic version is free. The premium version (which allows you to cut off the entire internet is 10$). Well worth the price and my absolute favorite.

LeechBlock

Block Distracting Websites

LeechBlock is a simple free productivity tool designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day.”

This is the add-on I use the most. It has saved me countless hours and helped me overcome my meme websites addiction.

It is also very easy to use – all you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them.

It works on: Mozilla Firefox

It allows you to:

  • specify up to six sets of sites to block, with different times and days for each set.
  • block sites within fixed time periods (e.g., between 7 am and 2 pm), after a time limit (e.g., 14 minutes in every hour), or with a combination of time periods and time limit (e.g., 10 minutes in every hour between 9 am and 5 pm).
  • set a password for access to the extension options, just to slow you down in moments of weakness!
  • block entire sites
  • block specific subdomains / paths / pages
  • block websites using wildcards (e.g., *.somesite.com) and exceptions (e.g., +allowme.somesite.com).
  • track of the total amount of time you have spent browsing the sites in each block set.

Cost: Free

My routine is to block the most distracting websites (in my case: YT, my own websites, FB, e-mail, Wikipedia, meme websites) from 8 am till 10 pm.

The only website I block only from time to time is my Gmail account. Sometimes I simply need to send an e-mail in the middle of the day.

RescueTime

Block Distracting Websites

Rescue Time is a great app for everyone who is really serious about their productivity. It is definitely the most advanced of all the apps mentioned in this article. Especially tracking-wise.

The bad news is that most of the cool features are a part of Rescue Time Premium. However, it’s money well-spent if you ask me!

LiteVersion allows you to:

  • Track time in websites and applications
  • Set goals
  • Get a weekly email report
  • 3-month report history

With Rescue Time Premium you can:

  • Track time away from the computer (meetings, phone calls, etc…)
  • Get alerts when you achieve your daily goals
  • Block distracting websites to stay focused
  • Keep a log of your daily accomplishments
  • Get access to more detailed reports and filters and unlimited report history

Cost: Basic version is free. The premium version is  $9 a month.

Self-Control

Block Distracting Websites

Self-Control is definitely not one of those flashy, packed with features apps. It only blocks distracting websites but it does it well and it’s reliable.

It works on: Mac

It allows you to:

  • block entire sites
  • block specific subdomains / paths / pages
  • specify a period of time to block for

Highlight: It works on Mac. That’s something, I guess!

Cost: free

StayFcsd

Block Distracting Websites

StayFcsd should be your no 1 choice if you are a Chrome user.

It works on: Chrome

It allows you to:

  • block entire sites
  • block specific subdomains / paths / pages
  • block specific in-page content (videos, games, images, forms, etc).

Highlights: The Nuclear Option. Probably the best feature of this add-on. It allows you to block all the websites on the internet for a given amount of time. Only for the desperate!

Cost: free

I hope these recommendations will help you save some time!

 

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