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“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” ~ Peter Drucker
I have a collection of quotes that I use as motivation for language learning, and also as guiding principles on how to manage my life so that I have time to do what matters to me.
This is one of them.
I really like this one because it I first came across it at a time when I was hitting a wall with my language learning. This was at a time where I was not doing nothing.
Quite the opposite: I was spending my time – every spare minute I could find before and after work, even on the commute – doing something productive: listening to a podcast, reading, using apps like Duolingo and Memrise…
But not only did it feel like I was making zero progress with my languages, I was feeling very unsatisfied with my life in general (though there were also good things that were going on in other areas).
I was so unhappy and stressed that I wanted to turn my back on anything and everything. I was doing so much, yet everything felt so meaningless.
At one point, I broke down and cried. But I didn’t stop the madness, because I thought that by doing so would be giving up. If I’m doing so much and I’m getting nowhere, I thought, how could doing less make this any better?
So I kept going. And going. And going.
Then I fell sick, with the cough and flu. The sickness didn’t go away completely until a month later.
I took a total of 7 days of medical leave over that month, which has never happened to me before in my life.
It was during this time that I found this quote.
And I finally, finally did what I should have done the moment everything started to become too much to handle.
The problem started because I didn’t have any more time to spare.
When I started taking language learning more seriously, and taking life in general more seriously, I had a lot of free time.
More accurately, I had a lot of wasted time that I could turn into free time, and use that free time productively.
I wasn’t doing anything productive before that, so every new activity I added was helping.
Day by day, and week by week, I started to get into the habit of using my time to do productive things. A little new habit here, something else there.
Life was good, until the day I ran out of spare time and found that there were still new activities that I wanted to do. It took a few months to reach that point.
We are all given only 24 hours a day, and I had reached the limit of spare time I had for a day.
With no extra time, I started to squeeze my activities to get more done. I would speed through this task, and minimise breaks.
It was a big mistake.
Unfortunately, at the time, I was too foolish, or too stubborn (quite likely both) to see.
I had been adding and adding and adding new activities, but I had not been removing those that were least effective. It did not help that I have a… shall we say, rather large set of interests.
In other words, I was easily distracted by new things, and lacked focus.
I had accumulated many things to do, but because they were all for different languages, and also different things outside of languages, my progress ground to a halt.
When I fell sick, I was forced to stop some of the things I was doing. And I finally did what I should have done from the start: Stop doing the things that should not be done.
Eventually, I cut my Memrise time by half. I used to spend a hour and a half each day doing vocabulary revision. Can you imagine that?
It was a big problem because half of the sessions were in languages that I barely knew or studied, and were in the category of “I shall learn this language one day.”
Arabic, Korean, Japanese were the main culprits; there was also Marshallese, the Hebrew alphabet, and non-language related country maps and flags.)
Then there was also HSK 5 Chinese which wasn’t useful for me – most of the words were too simple for me, and my problem with Chinese is with writing and recognising words. But to input Chinese you use pinyin, which doesn’t require you to memorise the characters at all, just how they sound.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because I had to give up my streaks. I had 300+ day streaks in some of them.
But this high number also made me realise that I had already spent almost a year not learning anything truly useful, and it was pure folly to continue.
For my languages, I stopped the daily podcasts and videos in X different languages.
I stopped using apps that didn’t really help.
I cut Duolingo practise to only one language, instead of five (I did Esperanto as well, and there was more than simply four, because I did the reverse trees and also used French as a base for Italian and German).
For the other things, I stopped with practising my harp, the drawing and design exercises, and the MOOC I had been taking at the time. And I stopped trying to read so many books at once.
Eventually, I decided to focus and do Italian every day for the next three months.
Out of all the languages, Italian was the first foreign language that I had a desire to learn on my own, so it was a natural place to start, even though it wasn’t – and still isn’t – my best non-native language.
The relief I felt the the next day was immense.
The three months ended some time ago, in April of 2017. I felt that my Italian improved more than it had in the past one year before I started.
Of course, I didn’t do everything perfectly. I’m still learning and figuring things out as I go along. Life’s really about balance, and there’s always a need to constantly adjust.
One thing I know I should have done but I held back from doing those three months was to practise speaking with people. This is why for German – my current focus – I decided to finally get Skype lessons through a teacher on iTalki.
This way, I have no choice but to speak. (I decided to try with a teacher because I felt I couldn’t manage a language exchange with a partner.)
My takeaway is this: It’s not so much saying no, but saying yes to one thing. And the no isn’t a no forever, but more like a wait.
It’s far easier to take one thing and give it your all, than to try to do everything and learn nothing at all.
If you’re learning a language and feeling like you’re doing some things which are useless but you keep doing them anyway – for whatever reason – listen to your instincts. If they’re screaming at you to stop, then stop, because they’re probably right.
Efficiency is not effectiveness.
There really is nothing worse than doing efficiently the things which should be done at all.