Variety of approach has always been a hot topic for me in language learning. Changing up your sources and materials is one of the best ways to maintain high interest and motivation in a study regime.
But I discovered something more to that trick in recent weeks: the same guiding principle is an excellent strategy for keeping the rest of your life bubbling effervescently, rather than fizzling out into stagnation.
Someone moved my cheese!
In the classic productivity title Who Moved My Cheese, Dr Spencer Johnson details the very human tendency to fall into patterns of sameness. These patterns make us inflexible and impervious to change. In other words, they get us stuck in a rut.
Ruts are funny things. You can be stuck in one, yet not realise it. And it can take a big disruption to shed light on it.
For me, life was seemingly in perpetual motion. Working between several UK cities, the commuting rhythm gave the impression of a geographically open, free life. And don’t get me wrong; there is a great freedom in working both remotely and on the move, with a couple of weekly office days providing an anchor point between travels.
But what we do not see is how rigidly arranged everything is behind the scenes. Movement was ongoing, but within very narrow confines. It was motion, for sure, but it was always the same motion. I played the role of master of my own destinies, but in reality, it wasn’t me doing the managing. It was the train and plane schedules. Travel plans come with unique, prohibitive restrictions thanks to peak pricing, busy services to avoid (especially for someone who hates big crowds) and fitting work around family and friend commitments.
The result? I’d become a creature of habit without realising it. I knew exactly where my cheese was, and I always expected it to be there. The same trains, the same planes, the same routes.
Until they messed my train schedules up!
Desperately seeking cheeses
Yes: London Northwestern and Virgin Trains, in their wisdom, took a bulldozer to my well-trodden paths up and down the country. Obviously, there was some greater logic behind this. Some improvement or efficiency saving for the greater good. But my safety blanket, my familiar routine, was simply no longer there.
First, I felt panic. Then, realisation: I had been in an unknowing rut, always returning to the same spot for my little nub of cheese. In a life characterised by change, I had become inflexible to it, spoilt by the continuity I enjoyed up to that point.
It was time to relearn cheese-hunting.
Experiment and enjoy the variety
With nothing to lose – my original services were no longer an option, in any case – I started to change my calendar up a little. I experimented with a number of alternative routes, not settling on one, but going out of my way to try out the possibilities.
Crucially, I resolved to be brave, and particularly, to try routes I might not have ordinarily considered. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a healthy habit in learning. And, I found, it can be just as helpful in day-to-day life too.
Somewhere in the mix, you hit upon some nice surprises.
Same place, fresh eyes
The treasure in the ruins, for me, was the discovery of some very cheap and empty early hours services to London. Instead of arriving at 9:30am, I would get to the capital at 7am. Ouch.
But wait. There’s a gift in there. It’s the gift of time.
Instead of racing to the office to get a good two hours of desk time before lunch, I could take my time. And it dawned on me that I could take my time in a pretty exciting place. London was mine for a full two hours.
It’s a wonderful experience rediscovering a place that you began to associate only with work. I planned walks, coffee stops, sightseeing detours. I got to know the city as a pleasure again, rather than a chore. The Thames. Westminster Abbey. And St Paul’s Cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the office! I’d been missing out on so much.
Coming full circle
Linguists, bear with me: these circumlocutions do come full circle, right back to language learning. On my London walking adventures, I stumbled back into the territory of Foyles, the magical book Mecca on Charing Cross Road. Foyles has, by a long stretch, the best language learning department of any UK bookshop. What a rediscovery!
And just think: if it hadn’t been for those pesky schedule changes, I’d never have stumbled across that Aladdin’s cave of volumes again – at least for a long while.
So in life, as in languages, a change – forced or not – can respark the joy. Someone moved my cheese, but it reminded me that life is full of different cheeses for the hunting (and not just the corny song kind).
Keep movement in your life. Learn the lesson of variety. And stay on the lookout for fresh cheese!