On the importance of goals and logging

One of my most important tools in language learning is actually something that I picked up by chance while dieting. I guess this will need a bit of an explanation. After all, what could learning and dieting possibly have in common?

Dieting for me is fairly easy. If my pants start getting tight and I decide that I need to lose a few pounds, then I just do it. But I actually used to struggle with dieting, before I figured out the trick to it.

First and foremost, keep it simple and doable. A  lot of people always try crazy diets with all sorts of rules and guidelines. But in reality, losing weight is a simple equation–just eat less calories than your body uses. By over-complicating things, you only increase your chance of failure. A coworker of mine was recently talking about this great new diet that she was going to begin, that would be sure to make her lose a lot of weight. The diet in question required her to eat a very specific list of foods every day. I asked my coworker if she even liked any of those foods, and she reluctantly answered “not really”. A couple of days later, I asked her how the diet was going, and she admitted that she didn’t even make it one day. No surprise really, I doubt I could have stuck with it either. In contrast, I easily lost 2 pounds that same week while still eating foods that I actually like.

There were a lot of times in the past when I would tell myself that I was “dieting”, but it never really amounted to anything other than thinking about dieting whenever I ate something. This obviously didn’t lead to any results, but I made myself think that I was actually doing something, and I would be disappointed that it wasn’t working. I only would have had to do two extremely simple things in order to actually diet properly. I had to set a daily calorie limit for myself, and then just count every calorie that I ate. That’s it.

You see, if you just say “I’ll try to watch what I eat”, but you don’t actually measure anything, then you only have an extremely fuzzy idea of what’s going into your body. Maybe you just ate 1000 calories worth of pizza in a single meal. You have no idea though, because you didn’t spend 30 seconds to find out how many calories were in it. But if you stopped at three slices even though you thought you could put away four, you congratulate yourself for doing a good job on your diet, even though you just made a pretty bad decision.

By contrast, simply by looking at the numbers, I can easily determine that a certain food will not be compatible with my target for that day, and I can substitute something else that is more in line with my goal. Instead of thinking “maybe this food isn’t a good idea”, I KNOW for certain that this food is a bad idea.

So basically what I’m saying, is that simply keeping a log of what you’re eating and how many calories it has is the key in making a diet actually work. Because if you don’t know what you are eating, then what are you really accomplishing?

Likewise, if you want to make progress in Japanese, you need to actually be aware of what you are doing, and where you are trying to go. This is a long journey, and it’s easy to get lost along the way. I hate to admit it, but I actually spent almost the entire last year without actually learning any Japanese. I just kept doing SRS reviews of old material every day, and it was like I was on autopilot. I kept working at it every day, so it gave me a feeling of accomplishment, and I had the perception that I was actually doing something. But in reality, I was doing nothing. The worst part of it all is that this isn’t even the first time that this has happened to me!

So, here is what I have done to fix this problem, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again: First of all, I set goals for myself. It’s important to have both a long term goal as well as some specific short term goals. After all, if you don’t know where you are trying to go, how will you get there? Next, I am keeping a simple log of what I’m actually doing to achieve those goals. This doesn’t have to be something that’s updated on a daily basis, but at least once a week seems reasonable. This helps to quantify what I’m doing into measurable terms. I can actually see if I am doing productive things and making progress. If I fall into a rut, it won’t take me a year to realize it.

The cool thing is, once you actually take a simple step like this, it makes it so much easier to actually get things done. You know exactly what you need to do, and you can work towards it every single day. Simply having a structure in place to guide you along is probably the most important thing to achieving any goal in your life, be it Japanese, dieting, or just about anything else.

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