Meeting goals by having fun

I used to believe that to accomplish anything, I had to create an elaborate system, planning for every contingency in advance, and then strictly hold myself to that system, meeting a long string of minigoals on my way to the main goal.

Trouble is, that method has never worked for me.

I’ve never been able to create and stick to a menu plan. I’ve never charted out long-term projects for school or work and then adhered to a granular schedule.

What works for me is doing what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. This goes for anything. Some days I feel like being creative; other days I feel like doing mindless “it has to be done” tasks. If I try to do creative tasks on days I’m feeling mindless, or I try to do mindless tasks on days I feel creative, I usually end up in a sour mood.

Sometimes, of course, it can’t be helped; there’s a project that has to be done now, no matter what mood I’m in. I have built up enough maturity since college to force myself through such blocks and get the work done. But when it comes to my interests outside work, things I don’t have to do, I find that the second it starts getting tiresome, I quit.

For example, my Japanese self-study progressed very slowly once I was out of college. And even when I was in college, I barely studied. At the time I thought something was wrong with me, that I was just lazy, that everyone else was working hard and I wasn’t, and that those were the reasons they excelled and I didn’t.

I purchased Japanese textbooks but stopped short of using them; I amassed flash cards but never took them out of their boxes. I bought a workbook and only filled out a few pages.

However, I also continued watching anime; I purchased Japanese-language editions of my favorite manga, and muddled through at least parts of them; I followed translators and other Japanese-speaking native English speakers on Twitter; I installed a Japanese dictionary browser plug-in; I listened to Kyou Kara Maou radio dramas. I kept in contact with the language.

And then, through my Twitter/blog friend Harvey, I discovered AJATT.

AJATT stands for “All Japanese All the Time”. It’s a language-learning philosophy created by a guy calling himself Khatzumoto, who taught himself Japanese in 18 months without attending any classes. The idea is that keeping in contact with your target language is enough to continue your language learning…and the best way to stay in contact is through fun things you’d already be doing.

It took weeks, maybe even months, for me to truly grasp the power of this approach. During that time I followed Khatzumoto (@ajatt) on Twitter and just let myself absorb his mindset. His tweets vary from inspirational quotes to his own observations on language learning to links to various interesting readings and videos in Japanese. Some samples:

“西暦1491年―先コロンブス期アメリカ大陸をめぐる新発見” (original tweet)

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” | Nelson Mandela (original tweet)

サイロン・レイダー – Wikipedia “宇宙空母ギャラクティカ” (original tweet)

Where is your ownage? Still below the surface, where it’s supposed to be. Now shut up get back to watching cartoons! :P (original tweet)

You’ll often find that it’s more important to get things started than to get them right. (original tweet)

That first link is to a Japanese-language book on Amazon about new discoveries about pre-Columbus America. This would be a great tool for a history buff to practice reading Japanese while enjoying an interesting historical topic.

The Nelson Mandela quote is pretty self-explanatory.

The third tweet links to a Japanese-language Wikipedia article about the attack craft used by the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. Yes!

The last two are examples of Khatzumoto’s thoughts on language-learning, which are great motivators to keep yourself in contact with your target language.

He’s constantly posting stuff like this, such that I’m inundated with plenty of fun things to do in Japanese. For a time, while I was letting the AJATT philosophy sink in, that was enough…but then I started wanting more contact.

Eventually, someone somewhere linked to a blog post that recommended five iPhone applications for learning kanji. Based on that review, I ended up getting iKanji Touch and Kanji Flip. I had previously purchased several of Harvey’s iPhone apps. Khatzumoto linked to some live streams of Japanese television, so I ended up adding the MoSS app, a free live stream player. And Harvey linked to a couple more apps: one that lets you practice inputting Japanese without using romaji on the iPhone, and one that has Japanese-language news headlines in comic book format. Now I have one screen almost completely filled with Japanese apps:

iPhone screenshot

I’ve actually found myself using Kanji Flip the most. It uses the Spaced Repetition System, or SRS, which I had never heard of before I started following Harvey and Khatzumoto and Bret. With Kanji Flip, I very quickly learned to recognize about 100 kanji–by very quickly, I mean about one week. And this was just using Kanji Flip during any down time, such as waiting for food at a restaurant.

Using Kanji Flip gave me a sense of accomplishment–I could see how well I was doing at all times–while still being fun. I started recognizing those 100 kanji in Twitter posts, and relying less on my plug-in to read Japanese text.

I also changed my iPhone and my Facebook account’s default language to Japanese. This puts me in constant contact with my target language. I’ve started to recognize words I never knew the kanji for before, like 自分 (-self), which is used in Facebook Notifications such as “Heather commented on her own status” (or, “Heatherさんが自分の近 況についてコメントしました。”).

The bottom line is I’m having fun, using Japanese in my daily life and making sure to come in contact with it a lot.

It occurred to me the other day that this sort of mindset should be able to work for pretty much any goal. If I want to be a runner, for example, I should run as much as possible. If I want to be in shape, I should engage in physical activity as much as possible. If I want to eat healthily, I need to keep healthy foods around me as much as possible. If I want to save money, I need to make smart financial choices and think about how to cut out costs as much as possible.

It seems like a no-brainer writing it out like this. But what I’m coming to realize is none of that’s going to work if it’s not fun. If I don’t have fun with these things, I’m not going to keep in contact with them enough to have any impact on my life. In other words, I’ll know what I should do, and I’ll force myself to do it for awhile, and then I’ll start to think of it as a chore, and soon enough I’ll quit. That has been the story of my life. Literally, where my extracurricular activities are concerned.

I don’t have it all figured out yet. I don’t know how I’m going to make everything I want to accomplish fun. But I do know I can’t approach this the way I’ve approached pretty much everything else. I can’t put off getting started while I try to figure out how to create a “system”. What I need to do is just jump in, see what works, see what doesn’t, and, ultimately, enjoy myself.

I’m feeling a lot more hopeful about accomplishing things now.