Posted on Thu 30 June 2016

How I built a habit of learning French that lasted 132 days

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Every morning I practise French. I've been trying to teach myself French on and off for the last five years or so, but in the last year I've been more serious about making this a daily habit that I stick with.

A couple of weeks ago I got sick, and I didn't feel up to much more than lying in bed watching football game replays for days. My brain felt foggy and I couldn't imagine wading through even a five-minute French lesson. This is when my 132-day streak of French lessons ended.

I'm still learning French, but after taking a break while I was sick I've started a new streak.

132 days may be the longest I've ever kept up any habit continuously. I'd like to keep learning French and build an even longer streak, but over 100 days seems long enough to be worth celebrating. I also want to examine how I got to that point.

There are plenty of factors that affect the habits we build, but these three are the ones that made the biggest difference to my ability to keep practising French every day for more than four months.

Start small

If there's one thing I always say when I talk about building habits, it's to start small. When you first build a new habit, it's tempting to go straight for something significant, like running for 30 minutes every weekday.

But if you're starting from zero it's going to be very hard to maintain such a huge change over time.

When you start small, you make it easier to complete your habit every day, which achieves two things:

  1. You build the actual habit, regardless of how big it is. You get used to doing that behaviour, even in a small way, every single day. This is how it eventually becomes automatic.
  2. You clock up small wins early. Each win motivates you to get another one, because it tells you that you can do this thing.

With French, I started by doing just one Duolingo lesson per day. That takes roughly 5 minutes of my time. It's not enough to really learn the language, but it keeps my hand in and gets me into the habit of doing some amount of French every single day.

Once that was sticking, I started doing two or three lessons every day. Then I added Babbel lessons. Then flashcards to increase my vocabulary. Now I've even got workbooks in the mix, because I'm trying to improve my French a lot faster by taking in more every day.

But no matter what, I still keep my absolute minimum very low. To keep my streak going, I still only have to do one Duolingo lesson, or run through my flashcard deck once. Those actions are small, but they count. They keep my habit alive. They keep me in the practice of learning French so I can do even more on the days I have more time or motivation.

Make it easy

Combined with making the habit small to start with, making it easy is a great way to encourage yourself to do it. I had a lot of trouble sticking with flossing every night when I first started because I found it incredibly difficult (my teeth are very crowded so it's hard to get into all the gaps). After some instruction from my dentist, switching to a different type of floss, and experimenting a lot, it became much easier, which made me more likely to do it regularly.

For French, I started with Duolingo because it's an easy way to learn. I have the app on my phone and iPad, and there's a website I can use at my computer, so it's never hard to pick it up and do a lesson. I can choose any lesson I want (now that I've finished the whole series and unlocked them all, that is) or I can choose a practice session where the app picks what it thinks I need to work on.

The barrier to getting started is so small it's easy to do it with my coffee in the morning, and easy to slip in later in the day if I miss it during my morning routine.

Schedule it

The main thing I've learned about my own behaviour over the past few years of focusing on building new habits is that I won't do something every day if it's not part of my schedule.

If I want to build a daily habit, I have to carve out a particular time for that habit to occur, or it won't get done. I'll forget, or I'll get busy, or I'll just never find the perfect time to do it.

Scheduling a habit means not just choosing a time to do it, but also thinking about where and how I'll do it. This is part of the true commitment that helps me build habits I stick to, because if I don't go through this process, or I do it half-heartedly, I know from experience that makes me likely to fail.

So when I choose a new habit to work on (I usually do this monthly as part of my review process ), I think about how I'll do it: what equipment I'll need, what it will look like to be engaging in that habit. For French, that means I'll need my phone, I'll probably be sitting down, and I'll need to be able to focus.

Then I think about when I'll do it. I want to do it every day, so it needs to be a time I can rely on having five minutes free. For me, morning works best for almost any habit, because my days are so unpredictable. Anything I want to do in the evening or afternoon will often get thrown off by a change of plans, but in the morning I can do things I care about before my workday really starts so they don't get interrupted.

So for French I decided to include it in my morning routine. One thing I do in the mornings is get up, make a cup of coffee, and take it back to bed. What I do while I drink my coffee isn't always the same, so it's a perfect time to slide in five minutes of French before I do anything else.

All this thinking helps me visualise what I'm getting myself in for. I enjoy my French lessons, and they're easy to do one-handed, so I can enjoy my coffee at the same time. Planning out how, where, and when I'd complete this habit helped me understand what I was committing to so I could confidently jump in.

And it worked. This is how the habit has worked for over 100 days. Occasionally I'll forget to do a French lesson in the morning because I slept in or something else threw off my normal routine, but I just make sure to slip in five minutes later in the day to keep on track. For the most part, coffee and French are a stable part of my mornings.


P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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