Procrastination: Your language learning enemy and how to get past it

by guest author Lizzie Davey

We’re all guilty of procrastinating every once in a while – some more than others. We often find ourselves putting an important task off or filling our time with small, inconsequential ‘missions’ that we try to convince ourselves we need to do. Then suddenly, an hour or a whole day has passed and our to-do list remains un-ticked and disapproving.

DistractionsThese days, the internet is a hearty source of procrastination; it’s easier to get distracted by pictures of sleeping cats or trivial Facebook statuses than it is to do what we actually need (and want) to do. And then we try to convince ourselves that it was essential to scroll through those Reddit posts for hours, or to end up in the depths of the funny animals section of YouTube to momentarily make ourselves feel better.

The truth is, procrastination isn’t too difficult to overcome, particularly if you know why you are doing it and the steps you can take to remove yourself from its clutches.

Learning a language is prime time for procrastination to rear its ugly head. We should be doing those grammar exercises, memorising those flashcards, or reading that difficult passage of text, but we don’t because they seem unappealing and, let’s face it, there’s always something better to do.

Or is there?

There are actually three reasons why people procrastinate. It’s not because there are better things to do; it’s because there are other issues that once mastered and dealt with, can mark the end of procrastination for good.

Firstly, there’s the notion of low expectancy. When people expect to fail at the task in hand, they are less likely to feel inclined to do it. This is perhaps the most common reason for procrastination; it’s why people don’t stick to diets, why students find it difficult to write term papers, and why people give up learning a language.

Learning a language is a huge task to set your hand to and, at the start, it’s difficult to imagine that you will ever be fluent (if that’s your aim). If you start out with the idea that you’re going to fail, prepare to procrastinate with the best of them! There are ways to get past this, though, which I will discuss later.

Next, there’s the small problem of tasks being low value; basically a task we don’t want to do. Life’s short, so why would we want to spend it doing something we don’t like? Well, sometimes we have to and, anyway, do we really enjoy looking at page after page of small dogs wearing hats? Actually, don’t answer that.

When you start to learn a language, it should be something you want to do. However, there’s always going to be something within that – revising grammar, doing homework – that isn’t going to be as much fun, but it’s something that needs to be done to progress. Sometimes it’s just best to force yourself to knuckle down and do it, though this is much easier said than done.

Procrastination3The final cause of procrastination is impulsiveness. This is where we keep getting distracted by something more fun or interesting, particularly if the task we need to carry out has an indeterminate deadline or is way ahead in the future. A lot of language students fall foul of this issue because language learning is a long, drawn out process that isn’t going to happen instantly. When something seems so far away, it’s easy to keep putting the things that you need to do to reach it off in favour of other more pressing matters.

This ties in with George Akerlof’s theory that the rewards of doing something right now, otherwise known as instant gratification, are much more appealing than the rewards of something long-term (like language learning), meaning we are more likely to watch the parody video of Justin Beiber on YouTube than practice our verb conjugation because it offers us instant pleasure. Basically, the longer it is before we reap the benefits of a task, the less likely we are to do it and will instead for other things to fill the time with.

So, how can you overcome procrastination?

Now you know what procrastination is and its causes, you can start making steps to break away from it.

Success Spirals are a great way to get past the black hole of procrastination, and are particularly useful when carrying out a long-term task like language learning.

Instead of thinking about the huge daunting task of becoming fluent in your chosen language, break it up into easy to digest chunks. When you start completing small challenge after small challenge, your confidence grows and the end point doesn’t seem like a dark, looming mountain in the distance. After a while you’ll find yourself more excited to complete the next task, and the next, and so on.

Don’t make the small tasks too challenging though, or you’ll fall foul of low expectancy. Make sure they are things you can succeed at, and use them as stepping stones to lever yourself off to the next stage.

Perhaps the most powerful way to overcome procrastination, though, is to be passionate about what you are doing. If you love learning a language you will have no problem staying focused because the distractions begin to fade into the background. There’s no point forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do if you don’t have to do it because, well, you just won’t do it.

There will always be aspects of language learning that you might not enjoy and procrastination might begin to surface, but just remember to keep tasks small and manageable and you’ll soon find yourself flourishing without the shackles of  it.

Author bio: Lizzie writes for Teenagers Abroad and other language school sites. Last year she went to learn Spanish in Spain where she realized that language learning has to become a part of everyday life if you want to succeed. In her spare time you can find her exploring Europe and further afield, watching nature documentaries, and drinking an obscene amount of tea.

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