Learning Languages Through a Systems-Oriented Process

I read this article on Inc a few weeks ago and it has completely changed my life. I would highly recommend that you read it in its entirety (don’t worry, it’s not very long), but I’m still going to talk about it in great detail anyway.

The author, James Clear, writing as a guest columnist for regular Inc writer Jeff Haden, describes an innovative way of accomplishing goals: don’t think about them at all. Instead, think about the systems you have in place on a day-to-day basis rather than the actual accomplishment of the goal. It sounds paradoxical, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

So what’s the difference between a goal and a system?

James describes it this way: if you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is building a business, while your system is the process you have for generating sales, marketing your product, etc. Another example he gives–I like this one because it is near and dear to my heart–is if you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is your writing schedule (in my case, writing at least 500 words a day).

What’s the advantage to focusing on systems?

James lists three reasons why you should focus on systems, not goals. First, goals make us unhappy. As long as they’re not accomplished, we’re not “good enough” yet. And if we don’t accomplish them, then we’re failures. (It sounds extreme, but I’ve definitely had both of those thoughts before.) He says we should instead stick to a schedule. Don’t stress about writing a whole book. Instead, get a writing schedule and stick to it.

Second, he says goals are “strangely at odds with long-term progress.” As in, you don’t stay motivated for a long time. For example, a person finishes and sells a book manuscript, but then stops writing. If you instead focused on a system (your writing schedule), you would get a lot more writing done in the long term.

I confess I didn’t completely understand his third reason, so I’m not going to talk about it here. (If you read the article and understand it, feel free to let me know what you think.) Besides, the first two reasons are more than enough to convince me to try this idea out.

How does this relate to language learning?

Here’s how I plan to apply this to my language learning. No matter what language you’re working on, no matter what level you are at, I think everyone could benefit from thinking like this.

  • Instead of saying that my goal is to improve my Russian vocabulary, I am going to focus on learning one—just one—Russian verb a day. (Okay, technically it will be two verbs a day, since Russian verbs come in pairs, but that’s beside the point.) My weakness right now is vocabulary, especially verbs, so I need a system in place to learn more words.
  • Instead of setting a goal to read a certain amount of books in Russian, I am going to have a system in which I read a chapter or two of a Russian book every day. Right now I’m working on a nonfiction history book about Polish-Russian relations in the twentieth century.
  • I’m not going to worry about my goal of understanding the spoken Russian in movies and TV shows (excluding news programs—I’m pretty good at those right now!). Instead, I am going to watch Russian movies and TV on a regular basis.

Honestly, I feel better already just having written this. What language learning goals (or other goals) do you have that you could reframe using this idea of systems?


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