… or as Winston Churchill said: “Never, never, never, never give up.”
“I’m too busy to study English!” is the most common complaint I hear from my adult English as a foreign-language students.
Like many people, these students juggle work obligations, family duties, and English classes, and they feel overwhelmed. Despite this overload, however, these students know it is vital that they learn English to achieve their academic and/or career goals. A small number of these adult learners are highly motivated, and they are inevitably able to become proficient in English. They don’t become discouraged, and they persevere in their studies.
But then, there’s everybody else.
There are times when our willpower is strong, but normally it can be difficult to force one’s self to do that extra bit of learning that needs to happen each day in order to acquire a new language. I recognize that maintaining a high level of motivation is very difficult, and I have usually not known to how to convince my students to make studying English a habit. But now, I have found a solution: develop tiny habits. The Tiny Habits method is virtually painless and can be used to create a variety of new behaviors, and, after having used this method myself, I believe it can also be used to help students improve their language skills — almost without effort. And surprisingly, one’s level of motivation does not need to be the most important factor to achieve success.
Step 1: Choose a behavior that you really want to acquire.
If you only are doing something that you feel you should do, Tiny Habits probably won’t work. But it you really want to improve your English (but just lack the discipline to do so), then learning the Tiny Habits method should be able to help you.
Step 2: Choose three habits that you want to start to use — rather than just one habit.
Why? Because focusing on three new habits at once will help you understand the process of acquiring a new habit, rather than only focusing on one behavior that you want to learn. If you are going to use this method, you need to understand what works and what doesn’t. You can then use this technique to effectively target the habits you want to acquire in the future. Possible tiny habits for learning English might include: listening to, reading, speaking, or writing something in English each day. This sort of consistency is key toward developing true English fluency.
Step 3: Make your new habit very small.
BJ Fogg, the creator of Tiny Habits, suggests starting with something very small. As an English teacher, who writes for students who want to improve their English, I recommend just opening your English text-book to the page of your homework. Or, if you generally want to improve your English, consider trying the following Tiny (English) Habits — or create some of your own. For example, you could:
- Open your English textbook to your homework assignment.
- Write one sentence in English.
- Read one sentence in English.
- Open one English-language YouTube video.
- Open an English-language news website.
- Turning the TV to an English-language channel.
- Chose one English-language movie.
- Say one sentence in English out loud, one time.
Focus on making your habit ridiculously easy — like BJ Fogg’s suggestion of flossing just one tooth. Notice that I didn’t recommend actually doing your homework, watching that English-language YouTube video, or even reading an entire page. Just start by opening your textbook to the correct page, going to the correct website, or writing one sentence.
Step 4: Select your anchor.
Think of a trigger or anchor (some starting point or action that you do or that happens to you) that you will do your new, Tiny (English) Habit after. This is a vital step in creating a habit that will help you learn English more easily. Some possibilities might include opening your textbook to the page of your assignment (or whatever Tiny (English) Habit you are working on):
- after you come home from class,
- when you finish reading your emails at work,
- the minute you get home from work,
- in the morning after you have poured yourself a cup of coffee,
- after you sit down for lunch,
- or after you get ready for bed.
It may take a little time to find a good trigger for your new Tiny Habit, but once you find one that is logical and easy for you, you will be able to do this new behavior almost automatically.
Step 5: Congratulate yourself on a job well done.
Whenever you have successfully completed your new tiny habit (or even when you just remember to do your new Tiny Habit), celebrate. Do a happy dance, quietly tell yourself that you’re awesome, say, “I did it!” out loud with a victory gesture: do whatever it takes to make yourself feel good — and do this self-congratulatory action every time you complete your Tiny Habit. According to BJ Fogg, this sort of self-congratulation makes you feel good, and we begin to associate these good feelings with the new Tiny Habits that are being created. And so we want to do these new behaviors again and again — and that’s the whole point. And, what’s more important, this small act of self-congratulation is the key to establishing a desired tiny habit, and those tiny habits build to life-changing behaviors.
I realize that opening your textbook to the homework assignment won’t get the assignment done, but consider: what are the chances that you might read a little of it, or do at least one of the exercises? Still, in the beginning, don’t focus on doing anything except for opening that book. Once the new habit of opening the textbook to the correct page has been established, then (maybe in a week or two) work to build on that accomplishment. You could then focus on reading just one sentence of the homework assignment. And, if you read more? That’s extra credit — a bonus which you should feel really good about — but know you don’t have to repeat that level of involvement each time. Your goal is to just complete the one tiny habit.
On subsequent days, you can progress to doing one exercise per day, and slowly, slowly, you can build on your accomplishments. Doing your English homework — or learning English — can become something that you can incorporate in your life automatically. You will be using automaticity (learning to do something automatically — in your case, beginning an English-learning habit) and this English habit can be a powerful means of changing your life and accomplishing your goals. And by incorporating English into your life automatically, you can lay the foundations for English fluency— the tiny way. After all, Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
So, I ask you, which exciting place are your tiny English steps taking you today?