When Habits Are Not Enough: The Need for Goals

posted in: Language Learning Habits | 1

[Image: Vector created by Dooder on Freepik.com]

Earlier this year, I was trying to understand my lack of progress with all my languages in the preceding months.

I didn’t feel successful, although I had been keeping to my daily planned schedule.

Everything was according to plan. But something felt… off.

What was wrong? I was determined to find out.

Habits Are Essential

For achieving any measure of success, I would stress the importance of habits. Habits that things we do every single day, every week, every month.

It is a constant in our lives.

I have had habits bring me good results long before I set any goals on what I want to achieve. (I managed to lose 10 kilos by sticking to a routine of exercise and food, without an ideal weight in mind.)

But to go even further, and to achieve stellar results, I have had to finally accept that habits are not enough. I found that I needed goals as well.

Direction Determined by Habits

Without any goals, my habits determined my direction. I was clearly moving somewhere, but the destination was a mystery.

“You are like a boat that has not started its engine yet. For now, you’re following the current of the river.”

This was what my interviewer had to say during my job interview last year. It was what he had gathered from our exchange prior to that, where I had told him about myself, my interests (including language learning), and why I was applying for the job.

At the time, I didn’t agree with him. I knew I had a lack of focus because I was distracted by my varied interests, but direction? I had decided to apply for the job, hadn’t I?

Now, almost a year later, I can see that he was right.

I had chosen a job as a software developer since it followed naturally from my major, which was Computer Science.

I did not consciously decide that I wanted to be a developer, not really. By my final year in university, I wasn’t very interested in any class that was part of my major. (I loved my German and French classes, though.)

I had come to the conclusion that the best course was to simply find a job in the software industry.

This job wasn’t and isn’t horrible. In fact, it suits me perfectly. Personally, I thank God for that.

But because I started working full-time, the amount of free time I had every day significantly decreased. Every minute was precious.

And I realised I was wasting much of my day on activities that were somewhat valuable, but did not necessarily bring me the most value. I had been content to start taking on any activity that brought some value, no matter how little.

A new podcast? Sounds good. Oh, a video? Why not add that as well.

And I did make these activities into a habit.

My daily schedule, late last year, involved the following daily tasks for languages:

  • Duolingo – 70 XP (1 exercise for 7 different trees) – about 20 minutes
  • Memrise – more than 20 different courses for different languages – about1 ½ hours
  • BliuBliu – 5 minutes, rotating between Italian and German
  • Mondly
  • Clozemaster
  • Drops
  • Various Graded Readers (depending on what I managed to get from the library)
  • Various Podcasts

My weekly plan looked like this (for weekdays, these were meant for after work):

  • Sunday – Rest
  • Monday – Choir
  • Tuesday – Koine Greek; German
  • Wednesday – Harp practice; Drawing practice
  • Thursday – Choir
  • Friday – French; Software development (video)
  • Saturday – Harp practice; Drawing practice; Italian; Writing

See what I mean when I say I have a focus problem? I feel exhausted just typing that out now!

This wasn’t an obvious problem when I had more free time. It would eventually have become one even if I had not started working, but working full-time only made it worse that much faster.

I kept at it all until it all became too much.

Direction (Should Be) Determined by Goals

And, with the value of hindsight, I discovered the real problem: Goals. Rather, the lack of them.

When it came down to it, I didn’t know where I wanted to go, and so there was no basis to evaluate each new activity that came my way. It wasn’t a lack of direction, but not knowing what the right direction is in the first place.

I had indeed set a direction for myself, but without an end goal in mind, there was no way to know whether the path I had chosen was even the right one!

If you don’t have a goal, then how do you know when you have arrived at the destination, if you arrive at all?

Where Goals and Habits Meet

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was the one who said, “A goal without a plan is only a wish.”

(When I went hunting for the French original, I found two versions: “Tout objectif sans plan n’est qu’un souhait” and “Un objectif sans plan s’appelle un voeu.”)

My interpretation of a plan was all the daily habits that one decides to do. Clearly, if all you do is set goals but never start to work towards them, they remain in the realm of the imaginary.

But I think the other half of the equation is important as well. You need a goal. A plan without a goal may very well bring you somewhere you don’t want to go. In fact, it almost certainly will.

What is your experience with goals and habits? Do you use both of them to help you when you learn a new language?

  1. Juangui Jordán

    Very interesting reflection WL.

    I actually think that there is a missing element in the equation: measurements, mid-term goals or probes.

    So you have the idea that you want to get better at something or achieve certain thing. You set a goal, like “I want to run 5K in less than 20 minutes”. Then you move in the direction of that goal by setting and practicing some habits, like doing some training, perhaps some 3-5 workouts per week, including some track workouts where you run speed series and some field longer workouts. But how do you know if you are approaching your goal, how do you even know if your habits are the proper ones to achieve that goal? You need to do some measurements. Your track workouts will give you some information -like how fast your 100, 400 or 1K series are. You can also test from time to time how fast you can run a 3K, or even the 5K itself.

    For really demanding goals, you don’t get to test against the actual goal. For instance, you can’t do an examination until the day it takes place, and it’s not wise to run a marathon in order to train for a marathon, it’s just to exhausting and not beneficial. But you can still do some measurements. These will tell you if you are in the good direction or you perhaps need to modify your habits.

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