The case against goal-setting and how to learn Spanish on autopilot with atomic habits
Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of trying to get yourself to study, you were naturally motivated to learn Spanish?
What if instead of telling people “I don’t have time to learn Spanish,” you had systems in place that made Spanish a part of your daily life, so that you learn on autopilot?
Many people have a goal to be conversational or fluent in Spanish.
While these goals are nice to shoot for, they really aren’t THAT concrete.
When will you know you’re fluent? Who will you be conversational with? Everyone who speaks Spanish? In what environments and situations?
Aside from being vague, there may be another downside to setting these types of language learning goals.
James Clear, in his new book Atomic Habits, argues that instead of focusing on a goal, you should focus on your systems.
James Clear, Atomic Habits
“When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left after you achieve it?”
Clear explains 4 main problems with focusing on goals over systems. I’ll break down each one and how it relates to learning Spanish (or any other language).
Problem 1: Winners and losers have the same goals
There are millions of people that want to be fluent in Spanish. Many of them have already downloaded Duolingo but, alas…
All of them are NOT fluent.
In fact, most of them are not.
This is why just focusing on the goal without developing a system for learning is not ideal.
The bottom line: without an effective system in place, simply setting the goal doesn’t guarantee success.
Problem 2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change
Have you ever reached a goal, and then thought, “now what?”
Let’s say you download the newest, sexiest Spanish app to your phone and you go through the first 5 lessons.
Congrats. *single clap*
But what happens next?
Goal setting alone can leave you short of success if you don’t have a concrete, long-term strategy for language acquisition.
Problem 3: Goals restrict your happiness
This one is, in my view, the most important. I’m a firm believer that you have to enjoy the process of anything you’re learning.
If you’re sitting around waiting for the fluency fairy to visit you before you can be content, you'll just end up feeling like a failure instead of being happy simply because you’re in the learning process.
And this can rob you of your happiness.
Instead of being engaged in conversation and thrilled that you learned something new, you’ll be internally beating yourself up for not speaking perfect Spanish or understanding EVERY word that’s said to you.
You’ll think, “Dang, I must not be fluent yet. I still didn’t understand every word in that Spanish news broadcast. I’ll never get this!”
Problem 4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress
In Atomic Habits, Clear states “When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left after you achieve it?”
I can definitely relate to this one.
A few years ago, I was planning a trip to Rio de Janeiro for carnival. The trip was in 6 weeks and I knew zero Portuguese.
Having a departure date quickly motivated me to meet a short-term goal: get by somewhat conversationally in Brazilian Portuguese.
Which I did.
But without a system in place, I came back home and didn’t have any motivation to continue.
I soon stopped learning Portuguese at all, because I had already met my goal and wasn’t in it for the long haul.
Think about it…
What happens if you achieve your goal of becoming conversational in Spanish?
With no system to use Spanish in your daily life, you'll eventually forget what you learned.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that you need to set goals. They provide a target to shoot for, and can help you raise your expectations and motivate you.
You also need to have effective systems in place that you can do consistently so you’ll make continuous progress.
Too often, we’re focused on the outcome and neglect designing a system that will get us there.
You need to establish atomic habits–small routines that you do no matter what.
These don’t have a start or an end date, they are your “new normal.”
You have to make your habits clear, as easy as possible, straightforward, and satisfying.
Here are some tips for setting your own Spanish habit so you can get fluent on autopilot.
1) Block off 15 minutes in your schedule exclusively for Spanish
This can be every day, every weekday, or 3 times per week. Make sure it’s something you can stick to, and set a reminder so you don’t forget.
2) Learn one thing at a time
Pick what you want to learn, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Don’t try to learn everything all at once, just pick one thing to do at a time. You can always try something else later.
3) Pick an activity you like and do it
If you like variety, you may want to brainstorm a list of activities you like so you can have it on-hand. Otherwise, you’ll waste your 15 minutes trying to figure out what to do.
Also, do any prep ahead of time. If you want to read a book, make sure you've purchased it and put it on your nightstand. If you want to watch a video, make sure it’s already bookmarked or in an easily accessible playlist.
Keep it interesting and fun. Challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to change your activity, as long as you do SOMETHING in Spanish.
Here are some examples if you’re not sure where to start:
- Listen to an episode of your favorite Spanish podcast
- Read an article in Spanish
- Review a lesson from Pimsleur Latin American Spanish
- Watch the evening news in Spanish
- Write grocery lists in Spanish
- Complete a lesson on Mango
- Read a Spanish novel (with audiobook) for 20 minutes before bedtime
- Look up 5 new words or phrases you don’t know
- Review flash cards for words you’ve previously looked up
- Write to-do lists in Spanish
- Chat with someone on HelloTalk or Tandem
- Listen to a song in Spanish and review the lyrics
- Listen to an episode of Spanish Pod 101
It really is simple, you just have to do it. If you identify as BEING a Spanish speaker instead of just a person that’s learning Spanish, you can easily find ways to make the language part of your daily life.
In the next article, I'll tell you about the different tendencies we have when it comes to setting habits, and review some strategies that work best for your tendency so you can implement your new Spanish habit successfully.
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¡Hola! My name is Tamara Marie. I'm a language coach specializing in brain-friendly methods to learn foreign languages faster. I speak English (US native), Spanish (advanced), and Brazilian Portuguese (beginner). I'm a Latin music & dance addict and passionate about helping people learn languages.