At the beginning of 2022, I decided I wanted to try to learn a little bit of Spanish. I have long held the self limiting belief that I am “not good with languages,” and I felt it was time to put that belief to the test. I downloaded the Doulingo app and got stuck in.
At the time, I was taking a break from social media, which lasted about five months, so I had plenty of spare phone time. I raced through those initial lessons. They were easy. Juan and his apples featured heavily. I would often spend large chunks of time completing lesson after lesson.
After a while, things started to get trickier. Grammar snuck in, and I would get tripped up forgetting that a cup is feminine and a glass is masculine. I would find myself getting frustrated at how little progress I was making, compared to those beginner gains.
But I didn’t want to quit. So I thought to myself, what is the smallest denomination I can break this into and still keeping moving forward? The answer was simple. A single lesson. 3-5 minutes a day, depending on how many mistakes I made, was all it would take to keep my streak going. I am now 199 days in, which Dou tells me is 83% earlier than all learners (whatever that means.)
Will this get me to fluency in record time? Absolutely not. But it will allow me to continue to improve in a way that is sustainable and enjoyable. I have a trip to Spain coming up in November and I feel confident that I will at least be able to order a round of drinks. We will call that progress.
It occurred to me that this is probably a good approach to take when starting any new habit. All too often we go out hot. We try to completely overhaul our lives/careers/bodies and within a couple of weeks find ourselves stressed, over committed and burnt out.
How many times have you told yourself “that’s it, I am going to get up at 6am every day next week and run for an hour.” Even though you haven’t exercised in ages and don’t even know where your trainers are. With the best will in the world, you are setting yourself up for failure. We try to go from zero to sixty in seconds and it just doesn’t work.
Okay so maybe the first day is good. You get up to your alarm, throw on the gym gear and you’re out the door. Day two, your body is sore from the new exercise routine and getting up is more of a struggle. You fall asleep in front of the TV at 9pm. Day three rolls around and you’re scrambling through the laundry basket because your one and only sports bra is definitely in there somewhere. Day four, it’s raining, you feel guilty because you haven’t had the energy to walk the dog all week, your body is aching from head to toe and you just say “F**k it.” You admit defeat and don’t even try to train again for another six months.
It’s such a familiar pattern.
Wouldn’t it be better to take the Doulingo approach when trying to bring in a new habit. Ask ourselves, what’s the smallest denomination I can do and still make progress. If you never drink water, deciding to chug 2-3 litres every day will be a shock to the system, the bladder especially. Could you decide instead to have 1 glass when you wake up in the morning this week. Next week you can add in a second, and gradually build up to where you’d ideally like to be.
In James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, he sets out four Laws of Behaviour Change. I will get an example of each from my adventures with Spanish!
- Make it Obvious: Duolingo is one of only about 4 apps on my phone that I allow to notify me. It pops up periodically throughout the day to remind me if I haven’t done a lesson yet. Another habit I want to make sure I achieve is to take my vitamin supplements. So I keep them out on the counter along with the neon pink shaker I use to mix it. If I ignore these reminders, it’s because I am choosing to do so, not because I forgot!
- Make it attractive: I really enjoy the lessons. If it was a complete drag, I would have given up long ago. The little characters are cute, and every so often your progress is rewarded by unlocking sweet little stories. If you were trying to up your steps, choose a route that takes in some nice scenery, instead of doing laps of the industrial estate
- Make it Easy: Make it so easy it’s almost impossible to fail. Remove as much friction as you can. Phil and I want to try get into cycling, and the bikes are now serviced and accessible. If I had to wrestle garden furniture and lawnmowers out of my way every time I wanted to get on my bike it would NEVER happen. Similarly, I have plenty of training gear so I don’t have to skip my workout for the sake of a missing sock.
- Make it Satisfying: With Doulingo this is actually built in. You want to keep going because you don’t want to lose your streak. Even though there are zero consequences for doing so. With other habits we have to get a bit more creative. I am currently training for Hyrox, so I have my training sessions all planned out and written up on the planner. I love getting to tick that sucker off when I have the workout done. It is literally all the reward I need. For bigger goals, like running my first Park Run next month I will come up with a more substantial reward for myself.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you break your goals down into bite size pieces, you will be amazed at how quickly they add up.
Be well and go crush those goals xxx