I have a question. Currently I am walking through a bad “learning” period.
My question is, how I can keep attention high. I believe my English doesn’t grow up.
And this situation make me depressed and sad.
Do you have any advice?
And one which I have a lot of experience with. Or rather I should say, this is something I have struggled with a lot of in the past.
In this article I’ll discuss how the brain works regarding motivation and ‘mental energy’. I’ll also talk about HOW you can keep yourself motivated (and have more mental energy). Finally, I’ll recommend some great resources (that I have used).
I’ll start by talking about the reason why intermediate ~ advanced learners just “stop” improving…
But first, a small quiz. Fill in the blanks:
“The _______________ I do, the _______________ I get done.”
You can use any combination of the following three words: ice-cream | less | more
You can use each word as many times as you like. And you don’t have to use all the words.
Really think about this. Because it’s important. I’ll tell you the answer later in this article.
A common problem all intermediate ~ advanced English learners have is feeling like they have just ‘stopped’ improving.
Why English Is Like a Lego Tower
The distance between beginner ~ intermediate is completely different (i.e. much shorter) than the distance between intermediate ~ advanced. And that is also completely different to the distance between advanced ~ mastery.
This is why each level of assessment systems like the CEFR (see Two Step Speaking Module 2 for details) takes longer and longer to reach. The distances between levels are not equal, in much the same way as an earthquake of magnitude 4 is MUCH stronger than one of magnitude 3.
Here’s another way to think about it. Imagine building a tower with lego blocks. Every day you add one block. And every day the tower gets one block taller.
And it will continue getting taller by exactly one block, until you stop adding more blocks.
However the way you PERCEIVE that growth is relative. When we’ve only got one block…
Adding a new one doubles the height of the tower. This is a huge, very obvious difference. But the higher the tower gets, the less difference one block seems to make. If we have 9 blocks, adding one more adds 1/10th to the tower’s height. But if you already have 99 blocks… adding one more only adds about 1/100th.
Advanced English learners? They already have 10000 blocks on their English tower.
So adding one more?
It only makes a 1/10000th difference (I just made that number up, of course, but you get the idea). We perceive this addition to be tiny IN RELATION to every thing else we know. The result? We don’t think we are improving. The change is just too small to notice. It seems like we’ve just stopped…
And no matter what we do, we’re not progressing.
This is bad for motivation.
Your brain is always looking to save energy. And it doesn’t like doing things which seems to have no significant meaning.
This is where focus becomes REALLY important. (See Two Step Speaking Module 3).
The Higher Level You Are, The More You Must Focus
Here’s the answer to the quiz above:
“The less I do, the more I get done.”
How? By focusing on the things which make a BIG difference. And ignoring everything else.
The higher your tower gets, the less you notice its growth.
What’s the solution?
Start using BIGGER blocks.
Once you get to intermediate level, just aiming to “learn a few words”… or a phrase… a grammar pattern… whatever… just won’t work anymore.
You need to constantly PUSH YOUR LIMITS.
But as your limits get bigger, so does the things you have to do to push them.
This is why in Two Step Speaking I teach people to build goals and subgoals (more about this in a bit) based on WHY they learn English, not on learning English itself (meaning language content, grammar, vocabulary and things like that…).
Goals like “learn 3 words a day” quickly stop being motivational (for the reasons I explained above). Goals like “be able to book a holiday with a travel agent in English” or “learn enough about [topic] to be able to have a decent conversation about it in English” (of course, you need to define what a “decent conversation” is here) will remain hugely motivating. There is a clear need. The action you need to take is clear. Not only that…
But because the block is BIG…
When we accomplish these goals…
We add significantly to the hight of our tower. We can actually SEE it getting taller. Your brain likes this. And it’ll want more and more.
Which brings me nicely into the final section of this article…
The idea of “small wins” is hugely powerful. Probably the most powerful thing in learning.
Soon there will be a video lesson all about habit building on Doing English +, where I talk about small wins in relation to habits (and how Michael Phelps, the Olymplic swimmer, took a gold medal completely blinded). Something to look forward to.
But for now I’ll talk about two other kinds of “small win”. Since we’ve already talked about goals, let’s start from there.
The reason I teach people to make goals, then break those goals down into sub-goals (again, see Two Step Speaking Module 3) is because of small wins.
You may have heard this saying –
“How do you eat a whale? One bit at a time.”
And it’s so true, just like this poem is also so true.
People don’t normally like big, difficult tasks. Things which will take a lot of time and energy to do. That’s why fad diets — like the “one minute diet” or the “banana diet” (for a while bananas doubled in price in Japan, and the supermarkets were constantly sold out) — become so popular… when everybody know that the way to loose weight is to eat less and excise more.
So the way to make it more appealing…
And WANT to do it
Is to break it down. Take a big, difficult task. Then smash it to bits. What you’re left with now is a series of small, easy to do tasks. Sure, there’s more of them. But you’re only doing them one at a time. The it SEEMS easy.
So take your goal. And write a list of subgoals. Things related to your goal, which are much much faster and easier to do (again… exactly like I teach in Two Step Speaking Module 3!)
Of course, Doing English Lesson Library lessons all have this built in. Each lesson is broken down into 6 steps. This is NOT a coincidence. In fact, it’s exactly why many people report that they find Doing English lessons quite addictive. Again – this is NOT a coincidence. I’ve designed the lesson flow very carefully…
… to harness the power of “small wins”.
Here’s another way you can use small wins.
When you feel like you don’t want to do anything…
Like you just can’t be bothered…
Here’s what you should do: just start. Stop thinking about it and just START.
Ryan Levesque, in this course, sums this up really nicely as “screw it, just do it”. And the reason this works, is because the act of starting is an accomplishment in itself. And remember? Your brain likes to achieve something. It likes to feel like it’s done something useful. And it’ll want more.
So once you start…
It’s fairly easy to keep going.
Here are some of the ways I do this:
- Set a timer and do just 5 mins of something (for example, reading, a Step from a Doing English lesson). 5 minutes is easy. It doesn’t take much willpower to start. But once you’ve started? It’s easy to keep going for half an hour (although if after 5 minutes you’ve had enough… that’s fine too).
- Open Anki. Do repetitions for just 1 minute. Again. That’s easy. But once you’ve started, it’s easy to keep going.
- If I REALLY can’t be bothered… I open Anki… and just do ONE card.
- And my personal favorite, when I’m in a really bad mood: I pretend there’s a fire… and that I’ve got 20 seconds to get ready and leave the house. Or I’ll die. Then I go to the local coffee shop to do what ever I needed to do.
Of course, these things will work much, much better if you have clearly defined, focused goals.
Further Reading/ watching
If you want to know more about this topic…
I recommend this course by Ryan Levesque and Dr. Beverly Yates.
I’ve been through it myself (twice, actually), and it’s made a huge difference in my life. In fact it’s the reason I started running every day… among other things.
It’s not free. But it’s definitely worth checking out. You’re learning will never be better than your brain’s limits. So if you want to do a lot of good quality learning… it’s worth extending your brain’s limits.