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?
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
people have a goal to be conversational or
fluent in Spanish.
these goals are nice to shoot for, they really aren’t THAT concrete.
will you know you’re fluent? Who will
you be conversational with? Everyone who
speaks Spanish? In what environments and situations?
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.
“When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left after you achieve it?”
James Clear, Atomic Habits
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
you ever reached a goal, and then thought, “now what?”
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?
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.
this can rob you of your happiness.
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.
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?”
can definitely relate to this one.
few years ago, I was planning a trip to Rio de Janeiro for carnival. The trip was in 6 weeks and I knew zero
a departure date quickly motivated me to meet a short-term goal: get by
somewhat conversationally in Brazilian Portuguese.
without a system in place, I came back home and didn’t have any motivation to
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…
happens if you achieve your goal of becoming conversational in Spanish?
no system to use Spanish in your daily life, you’ll eventually forget what you
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.
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.
don’t have a start or an end date, they are your “new normal.”
have to make your habits clear, as easy as possible, straightforward, and
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
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
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
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.
it interesting and fun. Challenge
yourself. Don’t be afraid to change your
activity, as long as you do SOMETHING in Spanish.
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
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
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.