A clipboard for marking off your routine language learning tasks

Routine-building: productivity tricks to turbocharge your language learning

Good intentions are cheap. A new learning project can fill anyone with enthusiasm and optimism. But without one extra thing, good intentions quickly sink. That thing is routine.

Life has a habit of getting busy, and people get distracted. Days run into weeks, and before you know it, you haven’t done any French / German / Spanish since last month. It happens to the best of us, even those who consider themselves fairly well organised. That’s why creating a scaffold of systematised routine around your learning goals can help keep you on track.

Keeping up momentum

Ideally, you should be setting yourself daily learning goals in order to keep up momentum with your studies. This might sound like a hefty commitment, but needn’t be more than a few minutes a day if you’re fitting learning around a busy life; you’ll benefit from the regularity of it (and not get bored by mammoth learning sessions either).

But it’s sticking to this daily routine that can be problematic. It’s too easy to forget, to get sidetracked, or make promises to catch up that you never honour. Fortunately, there are several great tools for tackling these problems, and none of them need cost a penny.

Never forget: Wunderlist

We’re lucky that today, apps can pick up the slack for our sometimes overtaxed brains. One app that I entrust the job of reminders to is the wonderful Wunderlist.

The magic of to-do apps like Wunderlist is in the facility to set automatically repeating tasks with reminders. For instance, I aim to run through my Anki Flashcard vocabulary every day (it just takes 10 minutes or so). In Wunderlist, I add a to-do for that, setting it to repeat daily, with a reminder in the evening. I set up similar to-dos for my weekly tasks, like listening to a podcast and taking notes, or reading news headlines in the target language.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Why is Wunderlist better than the plain old to-do app that comes with your phone OS? Well, it can do some very fancy things very well, if you want to stretch your learning. Learning a language with someone else? You can have shared to-do lists, and to-do list folders. Learning several languages? You can have multiple lists, and list folder to help you organise. You can even use it as a basic project manager, assigning subtasks to your more general to-dos (perhaps breaking ‘Learn French Vocabulary’ into ‘5 irregular verbs’, ‘5 phrases from Book X’ and so on).

It’s also cross-device, so you can manage your tasks on any device with an Internet connection. Perfect for when I’ve just done my words on the bus, and want the satisfaction of marking it as ‘done’ immediately!

Moreover, as a sweetener, you can add emoticons like flags to your to-dos quite easily on a device (see my screenshot above). It’s the little things! 😉

Tick-box challenge: Evernote

I’ve mentioned the excellent 12 Week Year plan in a previous post. This productivity method, rooted in the business world, outlines short-term goal-planning techniques as a means to boost efficiency. However, it can work brilliantly for language learners.

The approach uses a weekly list of ‘tactics’ that you need to complete in order to stay on track. Ticking off your daily / weekly tactics as you complete them can give you a real sense of achievement, and you find yourself motivated to keep your completion rate high, and beat your previous form. It turns to-do lists into a kind of personal challenge – learning, instantly gamified!

I find Evernote – available in its basic version for free – is perfect for making these weekly plans. You can add dynamic tick boxes next to your list items in the app, which makes tracking your progress really easy. Like Wunderlist, it’s available on many devices and platforms, too.

To give your learning an Evernote boost, first decide on the things you want to do each week in order to progress. Then add them to a note in the app, including a tick box next to each one. At the end of each week, tot up the percentage of boxes you ticked, and make a note of your score before writing a planning note for the following week. Brian Moran, writer of The 12 Week Year, suggests 85% as a good completion rate to aim for.

Ideas for entries might include:

  1. Add 20 words to Anki Flashcards every week (one tick box)
  2. Drill with Anki Flashcards every day (seven tick boxes)
  3. Read 3 full-length articles in the target language each week (three tick boxes)
  4. Have two half-hour language exchange conversations with a partner (see iTalki for more about finding language exchange partners)
Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning

Creating language routines with Evernote

Routine browser links: Chrome

Setting yourself a reading goal is a great challenge for language learners. There is a ton of material published across all sorts of subjects online, and the trick is to find stories that spark your interest.

But how can you keep your list of regular reading organised and accessible? Well, browser bookmarks are a start. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll enthusiastically bookmark a page, never to dig into your bookmark list again (let alone every day, which is my goal).

There is another way to bookmark, though. It’s called the bookmarks bar in Chrome, and many other browsers have a similar feature. Instead of tucking your most visited links away in a menu or folder, it puts them right at the top of the browser window, always visible. If you find a really useful site, you can drag the address from the URL field to the bookmark bar to pin it there.

So how to take advantage of this? I have a couple of news sites that I try to check every day to practise target language reading. All of them are my first bookmarks bar links, so the moment I open the browser, they’re there, reminding me that I need to check them. No forgetting, no hiding, and a bit of guilt if I ignore them. It becomes almost second nature to click them as soon as you fire up the browser – the ultimate habit-former. Magic! You can only fit a few in your bar, so reserve it for those sites you feel you’ll get a daily benefit from.

The Chrome bookmarks bar can be an excellent way to build routine into your language learning

The Chrome bookmarks bar



Learning a language is a commitment, and commitment takes routine. I’ve come across these routine-building techniques through my work in a business environment, rather than the classroom. But I’ve become a huge fan of cross-pollinating these kinds of productivity hacks with language learning.

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt in this is not to box off your language learning, but let it be informed by, and inform in return, the rest of your life. Creating routine is a great place to start that melding process!

A calendar page, which you might use to beat procrastination!

Procrastination, begone! The 12 Week Year [Review]

Confession time: I get hopelessly lost in optimistic procrastination. I always think I have time for everything.

That goes for language learning, too. I start with great intentions of doing a bit every day, yet quickly fall behind when everyday life demands my attention too. I’ll forget to do my daily dose of Anki, letting the cards pile up. I won’t read the daily news in my chosen language, like I promised myself. I’ll put off listening to that podcast until I’m already two or three episodes behind. Then I’ll beat myself up for getting so lazy!

Time for some discipline!

Enter The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran. It’s a productivity guide that I took a punt on when I spotted it on Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, admittedly with some initial scepticism. I love the idea of productivity frameworks for organising my language learning, but most books are a poor fit. They’re generally either too business-oriented, or too complicated to apply to everyday learning.

This one takes quite a fresh approach. You start with your ultimate vision, the end goal you see yourself at in a number of years. For linguists, that might be ‘complete fluency / zero accent in the foreign language’. It could also be something more concrete, like ‘managing without any difficulties in any situation when I’m in Country X etc.’, or ‘passing my Spanish exam with top marks’.

Then, you break it down to an achievable, shorter-term goal. What would a major step towards that end point be? Again, for linguists, it could be ‘going shopping in Country X and using only my target language’. The book then encourages you to break that down into the even shorter term goal windows, namely 12 weeks.

Zap procrastination!

Why 12 weeks? Well, as the book explains, when setting ourselves goals, we often go with the calendar year as our window of action. We will set ourselves resolutions on January 1st, and aim to achieve X, Y or Z by the end of the year. This regularly fails due to vast amount of time we perceive before we need to act. We put off action at the beginning of the year, meaning to catch up towards the end. 12 week windows are much tighter, creating a greater sense of immediacy between ‘now’ and ‘achievement’, and providing an extremely effective vaccine to procrastination.

With that 12 week goal set, you can then start planning your weekly ‘tactics’ to achieve them. These might be one-time, set goals like “Read chapter 2 of Textbook X”. But they can also be general, regular tasks, like “Listen to a podcast in the target language at least once a week”, or “Do your Anki flashcards every day” – the kind of things you should be doing frequently in order to keep your new language blooming.

Keeping score

Now here’s the bit that really works for me: you score yourself weekly! Take all of those tactics, and you turn them into a weekly score. This can simply consist of crossing off list items on a paper plan each week. However, I like to use Evernote for making my lists, as you easily can add tick boxes to keep track. Here’s a sample weekly list from one of my plans:

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

At the end of the week, you tot up your score as a percentage, aiming to hit over 85%. This turns execution into a fun thing, a challenge to yourself. You’ll find yourself positively buzzing to tick boxes off early in the week in order to hit the threshold. Executing tasks for score-boosting ticks is surprisingly addictive!

It’s as simple as that. And it works!

The book is full of extra tips and tools for fine-tuning your plan, but the general idea is amazingly simple to implement and work into your life. It turns each day into a bit of a game for me, and I’ve cut my language procrastination right down.

Teachers could adapt these techniques for their students, too. Devise a weekly check-list of all the tasks they should be doing to improve steadily. There’s lots of scope there for adding competitive elements here, and comparing productivity rates at the end of every week. Who knows – they might find it so useful that they apply it elsewhere in their lives.

If you’re in a vocabulary rut, or find yourself falling behind and running out of time with your language goals, The 12 Week Year is worth a shot.