Language learning success is built on creating the right habits.
Habits, in turn, are built on regularly taking the right actions that lead you efficiently and effectively in the direction of your language learning goals.
Once you’ve decided what the right habits and the right actions are for you, how regularly should you do them in order to further your language skills?
In an ideal world, where we all have infinite time and energy, the answer would be as often as possible. In the real world, the safest answer is to learn and act every single day, over as long a period of time as you can manage.
But that’s hard to do. Motivation is not a steady cruise-controlled ride on the Autobahn; instead, it’s a malfunctioning rollercoaster, prone to fast starts, quick stops, and endless highs and lows.
There are, of course, ways to adjust for this. The most effective of these include outsourcing your motivation to external accountability groups, partners, or coaches, whose mere presence will dissuade you from breaking your language learning commitments.
If you’re not willing or able to get others involved in your goal-setting and productivity, however, what can you do? Are you doomed to forever make and break your goal commitments?
With a goal in mind and a few simple tools in hand, anyone can create a simple and effective accountability system that will build and maintain successful language learning habits.
This system is known as “Don’t Break the Chain”
What is ‘Don’t Break the Chain’?
“Don’t Break the Chain” is a productivity system informally developed by world-renowned comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
In the early 1990s, when his eponymous sitcom Seinfeld was still on the air, Jerry Seinfeld shared some productivity advice with future writer and software developer Brad Isaac.
At the time, Isaac wanted tips for how to be a better comic.
Seinfeld’s tips (explained in detail here) were essentially two-fold:
- If you want to tell better jokes (and therefore be a better comic) you need to write jokes every day.
- If you want to write jokes every day, then “don’t break the chain”.
The “chain”, Seinfeld explained, was a simple visual aid that he himself used to motivate himself to keep writing every day.The visual aid was created by using a full-year wall calendar and a red magic marker.
For each day that Seinfeld completed his goal of writing jokes, he would take the red magic marker and draw a large X over the corresponding date on the calendar.
One successful day would lead to one X on the calendar. Two days, two Xs. Three days, three Xs. So on and so forth.
The power of the method, according to Seinfeld, was that as the chain grew longer, so did his sense of accomplishment. A lengthy “chain” of Xs on the calendar meant that he had been continually successful in accomplishing his daily goals. As time went on, he would become more protective of his “chain”, and so be more motivated to not miss a day and “break it”, requiring him to start again with one single X.
As a visual representation of your language learning productivity, the “Don’t Break the Chain” system can go a long way towards building the daily consistency that’s essential for long-term language learning success. All you need to do is implement such a system in your daily life and use it to hold yourself accountable to your goals.
How to Build Your Language Learning ‘Chain’
The “Don’t Break the Chain” system is extremely simple to put into practice. In fact, it can be summarized in three steps:
- Set a daily language learning goal – Come up with a daily language learning goal that you can complete to move you in the direction of your long-term language goals. The best goals in this regard are both task- and time-specific (i.e. speak with a Danish native speaker (task) for 30 minutes every day (time) )
- Keep a visual record of successful days – For each day you complete your goal, record your success using a visual aid that can be prominently seen throughout your home, work, or study area. Wall calendars work best for this, but you can also use desktop or mobile applications for a similar effect. This record will be your “chain.”
- Don’t break the chain! – Care for your chain as you would a pet or loved one. As you meet your daily goals, watch it grow with pride and satisfaction. Do your best to nurture it and help it grow with each passing day. If it breaks, start the process again, and aim to build as long a chain as possible.
It’s not easy to build the everyday habits that lead to long-term language fluency. As you move along your learning path, you will have to contend with dips in motivation, scheduling snafus, and other unpredictable elements that fight against any sense of consistency and progress.
Accountability is one of the most powerful ways to protect against unpredictability and build that consistency that will lead you to your goals. The best kinds of accountability, however are social in nature, and require others involved in your productivity.
If that’s simply not a good fit for you, there are simple strategies that you can use to turn typically unreliable personal accountability into something significantly more powerful. Don’t Break the Chain is one of those strategies.
Armed with a goal, a calendar, and a marker, you can build a prominent visual tool that shows you just how much progress you’re making, motivates you to make even more progress, and demotivates you from doing anything that will break your productive streak.
Find your calendar, and place it somewhere in your life where you’ll see it early and often every day. With each day’s goal met, be sure to build your chain to be as long and as strong as you can make it. A strong chain means a strong habit, and with strong habits, any language learner can find the fluency they seek.