How many times have you attempted to learn something new or form a new habit, only to give up three days in? Maybe you started your sunrise meditation practice, only to realize you’re not a morning person in any present or alternate reality. Or maybe you cycled through a number of learning methods before you finally lost interest or threw your hands up in frustration.
So many good ideas are squandered by the self-punishing attitudes we assume when sheer willpower isn’t enough. But willpower shouldn’t necessarily be a measurement of how “good” or “successful” you are as a person. Human nature — and the environmental factors that create our reality — tend to win in the end.
Rather than beat yourself up for not being able to sustain your “mind over matter” doctrine over the long term, why not just take the path of lesser resistance? In other words — work smarter, not harder.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, has spent a large chunk of her career thinking about how to form better habits. In her latest book The Four Tendencies, she describes four basic types of people. Everyone is either an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel when it comes to sticking to your goals and commitments. Having this kind of self-knowledge, and understanding the learning methods that work best for your type, can make a world of difference when it comes time to assess how successfully you stuck to your New Year’s resolutions.
Which Learning Methods Are Right For You?
You can find out which one you are by taking this quiz, but here’s a brief summary of the tendencies and the learning methods that suit them best. How much further will you go in your language studies with these insights under your belt?
Discipline comes easily to you, and you can uphold your own expectations for yourself just as easily as you uphold the expectations of others. Your strength is your ability to balance your commitments, whether they’re to yourself or to someone else. You’re kind of the definition of a self-starter, and you generally follow through on what you say you’re going to do. However, you can be a little inflexible, and you might struggle with your need to “do it all yourself.”
When it comes to learning methods, the best approach for your type would be to clearly define your goals from the beginning, but to give yourself permission to deviate from your rigid timeline. You won’t struggle to follow through on something you’ve made up your mind to do, but you do have a tendency to be overly hard on yourself sometimes, which can paradoxically get in the way of your success.
If you’re a Questioner, you won’t do something unless you’ve evaluated it from every angle and decided that it makes sense for you to do it. You don’t respond well to arbitrary, irrational or inefficient demands, and you probably spend a fair amount of time researching various options and learning methods before you spring into action.
If you’re going to stick to a language-learning goal, you’re better off being clear about why you’re doing it in the first place. If you have a good reason to motivate learning a language, you’re much more likely to follow through. Similarly, you’ll want to evaluate all your options in terms of language-learning apps or tools. Once you’re satisfied you’ve picked the best one, you’ll be off and at it. However, try your best to avoid analysis paralysis. After a certain point, the process of weighing your options can be a stalling tactic in its own right. Making a decision that’s 80 percent logical is still better than making no decision at all.
Obligers tend to indulge (or oblige to) the expectations of other people, but they struggle when it comes to sticking to their own resolutions. In other words, they do better when someone else is holding them accountable, because they’ll often wind up slacking without external pressure. These might be people who perform best when they’re facing a very imminent deadline or when they have an accountability buddy to check in with.
If you’re an Obliger, it might behoove you to find a partner or buddy to help you stick to your guns. Finding a language-learning partner, or even a study group to be a part of, can make a world of a difference in your success and be one of many effective learning methods. If it’s too difficult to find a partner or group, it may be enough to simply enable auto-reminders from an app, but some Obligers do best when there’s a person (or people) to answer to. To raise the stakes further, consider setting up a bargain with someone where not holding up your end of the deal would lead to you doing something unpleasant or undesirable.
If you’re a Rebel, you’re going to resist any kind of demand, regardless of whether it’s coming from your boss or your own personal motivations. As soon as you feel like you’re being “told” to do something, your inner stubbornness kicks in, and that’s pretty much the end of that. This can be pretty challenging regardless of whether you’re working for yourself or working for someone else, but on the plus side, you can be pretty focused and enthusiastic about doing things you genuinely want to do, and you’re good at finding creative solutions to problems — which is really just another form of rebelling against expectations, if you think about it.
To successfully stick to your goals, it’s best to remind yourself why you chose the goal in the first place. Your acknowledgment of your free will, not your ability to rationalize your decision, is what’s going to keep you going in the long run. Give yourself freedom to do things in your own way and on your own time, and turn off the notifications on your phone if you’re using an app. Those constant reminders, which are designed to hold you accountable, can have a counterproductive effect on your success.