Envision your goal, plan your strategy,
and go for it!
There was man in Japan of about 60 years of age, who for many
years had not engaged in much physical activity. Not only couldn't he
bend over and touch his toes, he could just barely reach down to his
knees. He decided that he was going to gain the flexibility that had
been lost since his youth, without putting undue stress on his body. He
put together a stack of paper, thousands of sheets, that reached up to
his knees. Then, he bent over and touched the top of the stack with his
fingertips, holding the position for a little while, which wasn't at
all hard to do. The next day, he removed two sheets from the stack, and
did the same thing.
Yes, you guessed it: every day from then on, he
removed two more sheets of paper from the stack. The difference from
one day to the next was so slight as to be practically imperceptible,
so he never had any problem bending over, touching the top sheet, and
holding the position for a minute or two. Of course, after many months
of doing this, the stack was considerably lower, until eventually,
there was no paper at all left, and he could easily touch his toes. He
had achieved his goal, with no strain, no pain, no stress on his
system. All it took was patience and perseverance.
Now perhaps you have no problem touching your toes,
or if you can't, maybe this doesn't bother you in the least. But I'll
bet there is something you would like to achieve - for
example, learning a foreign language - and haven't yet. So why
not apply the same principles that the Japanese gentleman used?
- Set yourself a clear goal
- Develop a plan to go about reaching it.
- Do a little something every single day that will move
you a step further towards your goal.
To get by in a language in most situations, you need
a vocabulary of about a thousand words. That sounds like a big number,
doesn't it? Well, what about three words? It can't be so hard to learn
a mere three words, can it? Why, you could easily do that in a few
minutes, couldn't you?
And if you learn three words today, another three
tomorrow, and so on, in a year you will have acquired a vocabulary of
almost 1,100 words, without stress or undue pressure. This approach is
so simple that it doesn't take a genius to figure it out. Countless
people have no doubt thought of it before. The question is, then, why
don't so many people actually do it? The answer, of course, is
that they do not persist. Let's put it more plainly: they lack
Discipline. A word that doesn't ring
too pleasantly in the ears of many. Perhaps it reminds you of the
military, or of an overly-strict parent. The truth is, most people tend
to want to avoid doing those things that they know they "should" do.
The majority of children find it easy to sit down and watch TV for an
hour, or two, or even more. But if their father told them they must
sit there for three hours, watching television without a break, no
doubt many of them would rebel, and try to sneak away at the first
opportunity they got!
As soon as something fun becomes an obligation,
the fun evaporates almost at once, and the activity can soon turn to
drudgery. As everyone knows, it isn't possible to always escape from
one's "duties", and when we do, we often feel guilty about it. Thus it
would seem reasonable to ask ourselves how we can transform this type
of situation, so that we act with discipline, doing what we know we
"ought to" do, with an absolute minimum of displeasure.
Let's assume that you have set a language-related
goal. You want to expand your vocabulary in a foreign language by 1,000
words within a year. You know this means learning only three words a
day, a prospect that certainly wouldn't terrify anyone. Sure, you'll
have to spend some time each week reviewing the words previously
learned, but since your daily "quota" is only three words, you should
readily be able to find the time to review several others within a
day's session. The big question is now simply "But will I really
get around to learning three words every single day?"
The technique I am going to suggest to you will
almost surely allow you to answer that question with a YES. And
it's quite simple, maybe even deceptively so. Let me tell you how I've
been implementing it in my life.
One of the necessary daily routines for a musician
is practice. Being a musician as well as a language teacher, I love
music, and I usually enjoy sitting down at the harpsichord and studying
new works, or polishing up ones I have learned before. But let me
assure you that there are days when I don't have the least desire to
play anything. After all, there are so many other things to do in life!
This isn't a problem if it's only a matter of not practicing a day or
two. But the danger is always that you simply lose the habit of regular
practice: days turn into weeks, weeks into months, your instrumental
technique goes downhill, you forget works you used to know rather well
... you get the picture.
Another thing that I determined many years ago to do
regularly was run. Back in my school days, I was one of the worst
runners in the class. I had suffered from asthma and bronchitis as a
child, and my lungs had always been weak. When I was in my early
thirties, I told myself that that situation had to change. I knew I
would never be a really good runner, but at least I should be able to
run a couple of miles without collapsing after the first three blocks!
Of course, if it isn't always a pleasure to play your
favorite instrument, running can be said to be a real torture
by comparison. Yet for some 18 years now, I have been running
religiously every two days, all year, rain or shine (health permitting).
Where did I get the discipline? By using that simple
technique I mentioned earlier, and which I will now reveal...
I have a notebook in which I always write
down the time I spend practicing every day, and also the times I go
Maybe you're disappointed, since you may have been
expecting some quasi-metaphysical, earth-shaking revelation. But don't
let the simplicity of this habit fool you:
By taking note of a certain regular activity, you
will soon constantly be aware of whether or not you've done what you
wanted to do that day. If I don't practice on a certain day, I
still list that day's date, and fill in a big ZERO next to it. Doing so
is, to be sure, frustrating, but that's the effect I want: if I get
somewhat frustrated because I was lazy that day, it's all the more
likely that I will not be lazy the next day!
When I do practice, I write down how long I did so.
For example, if I practice an hour in the morning, and another hour and
five minutes in the afternoon, I'll note: "60 + 65 = 125 minutes". (I
like to be precise). True, it really doesn't matter much whether I
practice two hours and five minutes, or just an even two hours, but by
writing down exactly how much time I spend practicing, it's
easier to note trends: for example when, during the course of a week or
so, my rehearsal time slowly declines. Seeing this in writing gives me
the motivation to put in some more time over the next few days to "
make up for the loss".
On my "Running" page, I'll note the date, the total
time I ran, along with other data such as the route I took, and my
heart rate upon finishing. Thus, this list not only motivates me to
continue running, but also shows me whether my physical condition is
Compared to practicing an instrument for a few
hours, or running a few miles, the goal of learning three new words a
day should seem like child's play - and it is! But your daily list will
make sure you never skip a day - and if you do, looking at that
blank entry in your list on the following day will motivate you to
learn six new words instead of three, to make up for lost time.
Your list could be as simple as this:
Nov 1 X
Nov 2 X
Nov 3 X... etc., with each "X" meaning that you learned your three
words for the day. But why not write down the three words themselves in
this list (I'll assume you're learning Spanish)?
Nov 1 el perro=dog; el gato=cat; trabajar= to work
Nov 2 hacer= to do; bajo= low; alto = high
Nov 3 la cara= face; tonto= silly; el edificio= building
Nov 4 ------------------------ oops! I visited Great Aunt Maude today,
and just didn't get around to learning any new words! But just wait
Nov 5 La mesa= table; La silla=chair; el suelo= floor; volar=to fly,
el bolígrafo= pen; el lápiz=pencil; el papel=paper; la
There! I did SEVEN today!
The power of such a notebook is not to be
underestimated. There are many things I like to do: read about any
number of subjects, work on various computer/Internet-related projects,
do astrological research, and so on. But the two things I almost never
fail to consistently do on a regular basis are - that's right,
practice the harpsichord, and run. Precisely those two activities that
I also never fail to take note of! (Hmm... I think I'll start a
notebook for some other activities as well...)
After you have been adding to your list for a few
months, it will be growing automatically, since you will be learning
those words every day without even thinking about it too
much. But until then - that is, until your daily word-learning routine
has become a habit - you'll have to be on the
lookout for any sort of distraction that threatens to make you forget
to learn the words of the day.
determined to start towards your goal of a thousand new words? Then go
get a notebook now, or if you don't have one at hand, a piece of
paper will do (you can always copy the first few days' results into the
notebook when you get one). The idea is to start now,
lest you simply decide to "put it off" till another day... all to
often, that "other day" never arrives, and we haven't progressed at all!
assume you have learned your words for the day, and have duly taken
note of this first step? Fine! So now we can move on to our next,
to form positive habits that will help you reach your goals
Master the English Phrasal Verbs with my special audio series!