You can often spot a new language learner by the scale of their language learning goals and daily habits. When we first start out in a new language, the excitement makes it easy to commit to big, hairy, audacious language learning goals and herculean daily routines. Perhaps we commit to listening to three hours of foreign language audio a day, reading one foreign language novel a week, or speaking with a language tutor for an hour every single day.

We might keep this up for a few days, or even a few weeks, but eventually, our motivation will run out and we’ll fall off the pace. Perhaps we have a bad day at work, and cancel our tutor session. Or we have a fight with our spouse and don’t feel like studying any flashcards. Or maybe we get sick and opt to binge watch Narcos instead of listening to language podcasts. One missed day turns into two, and then three, and then weeks or months of zero language study. Most people (especially perfectionists like me) will then think, “Well, since I can’t do it all, I guess I will do nothing.”

Fortunately, we can avoid this all-or-nothing-perfectionist trap by committing instead to a “minimum effective dose” of daily language study: a tiny, tiny amount of time and effort that we will hit each and every day no matter what.

The minimum effective dose is a concept I first learned about in The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss:

“The minimum effective dose (MED) is the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. To boil water, the MED is 212° F (100° C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled.’ Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”

For language learning, the MED is the minimum amount of time you can spend each day listening, speaking, reading, or writing to continue making progress in the language. Everyone has their own unique MED depending on their personal language learning goals, but I recommend committing to much, much smaller habits than you think you are capable of. Your MED can literally be as tiny as “study one flashcard” or “listen to a language podcast for one minute.”

You can do more of course (and often will) if you have the time and motivation, but set the bar as low as possible that you can still get over it on days you extremely busy, stressed, or depressed. These are the days that end up making the difference between wanting to learn a foreign language, and actually reaching fluency. The amount you learn on that given day isn’t what’s important. What matters is maintaining “the habit of the habit” as Gretchen Rubin calls it. You are solidifying your identity as a person who shows up every day and does what they say they will do. You are doing what is hard but meaningful instead of what is easy and expedient.

What daily language MED are you committing to? Let me know in the comments.


P.S. This blog post itself represents an MED for my daily writing habit. I’ve committed to writing every single day, and typically shoot for 1,000 words or more. When the Muse is really speaking to me, I can crank out many times that amount. But some days (like today), I really, really don’t feel like writing. What I felt like doing instead is sitting on the couch and watching Parts Unknown (rest in peace, Anthony Bourdain). But I said to myself, “No, damnit, I’m someone who writes every day no matter what.” So I opened up Bear and cranked out this post, committing to just two “pomodoros” to create some much needed gamification and useful constraints. And it worked! Once I got going, I actually wanted to keep writing. The same goes for language learning or any other long-term habits that require daily practice.


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