In the late 1960s, Professor Walter Mischel put children in a room in which they were offered the choice between a single treat available immediately or two treats if they waited an unknown (by them) period of time (15 minutes). This study has gained massive popularity in the last decade and is commonly known as “The Marshmallow Test“.
If you are wondering why it took so long for the experiment to be widely recognized, the reason is that the aim of the study at the time was to find out when the ability to delay gratification develops in children, however, 20 years later, Mischel found something that had eluded the scientific community for decades: a reliable predictor of success.
It just so happened that the kids who had failed to demonstrate delayed gratification (patience) during the experiment grew up to become poor performers in school, got in trouble with the authorities, and led a below average quality of life, whereas, kids who had demonstrated the ability to postpone immediate gratification and wait for bigger rewards were accepted to prestigious universities, had lower body fat levels and were, overall, more successful than their experimental counterparts.
Compared to the I.Q. measurement, delayed gratification is much more likely to be an accurate predictor of success.
In other words, you don’t need to be a genius to learn a language, you only need to formulate a plan and patiently follow through on it, remember that a goal without a plan is just a wish.
As a matter of fact, as you’ve probably already realized, anything worthwhile in life takes time to accomplish: losing weight, adding muscle to your frame, scaling the corporate ladder, making true friendships, building a successful business, etc. Patience is the foundation anything worthwhile is built upon, any type of goal that you want to accomplish will be determined by how patient you are. Hacks and shortcuts are only noise if you are not patient, we see this every single day even if we are not fully aware of it:
- Kid is tired he’s called “pencil neck” at school all the time, signs up for a gym, trains for a couple of weeks and wonders how on earth he doesn’t look like John Cena yet and starts taking steroids: kid is taken to E.R. for liver poisoning and needs to take liver medicine for the rest of his life.
- Young woman believes 3 months of P90X would give her the body she’s always wanted but after the 3 months have passed she notices she’s not quite where she wants to be yet and the anxiety from forcing herself to eat healthy and exercise every other day is ramping up so she figures “I’ll just get surgery”. She’s happy with her body now but slowly starts to gain back those pounds she left in the surgery room, never mind, she can get another surgery later.
- Recent college graduate is tired he is exploited for pennies at his job so he lets his entrepreneurial spirit take over and resigns from his job in order to launch his very own start-up but quickly realizes the money is going to take longer than he expected to rake in, he can’t live without his Xbox live subscription and his Starbucks lattes so instead of giving up his modern-day conveniences and distractions he shows up at his ex-boss’s office to ask for his dignity-underminer job back.
While it’s clear that none of these three people were patient (or at least not enough), it may not be so crystal clear why these people (and people in general for that matter) are impatient, and thus not accomplish a whole lot in their lives.
Notice that when I talk about being patient I’m not saying go become a couch potato and watch TV all day, that’s just being lazy. Being patient means handling your mind to not give in to instant gratification and teach it to envision goals as long term investments of time, which brings us to:
The main enemy of patience is anxiety.
We live in a society where it’s OK to live our lives through people we see on TV, a society that makes people believe in magic bullets and go after every new shiny way to solve their pressing concerns…. And when things don’t work out the way we wanted them to, we get anxious. Which is almost all of the time because we want everything. right. now.
The average person’s tolerance for frustration is virtually non-existent, in practice this means setting goals and giving up before accomplishing them; take new years resolutions as an example of this; people will make new years resolutions one year and the next year their resolutions are practically the same.
What this also means is that instead of focusing on how to build up our patience fuel tank, we should put our efforts in learning how to manage our anxiety which will in turn increase our tolerance to uncertainty (because uncertainty makes us anxious and before your goals become a reality, there will always be a level of uncertainty in whether you’ll acomplish them at all) thus building patience as a natural consequence.
This is how it works in a nutshell:
Uncertainty creates anxiety which in turn makes us less patient; but if you are able to handle your levels of anxiety, you’ll be more patient which will make you able to handle higher levels of uncertainty, in other words, you’ll able to accomplish bigger goals.
When patience goes up, anxiety goes down, and vice versa.
Remember = Anxiety is what makes uncertainty get the best of people.
Let’s discuss then how to increase our resistance to anxiety by expanding our comfort zone:
Note that given the context of this blog, when I talk about “comfort zone” I’m solely referring to one’s intellectual comfort zone, that is, things and situations dealing with learning and education that make one feel comfortable or uncomfortable, however, you can use the strategy laid out in this piece to accomplish absolutely anything in life, so please feel free to start planning out your life goals using what you learn here.
The average person is comfortable exerting 5 to 10 minutes of time deep-working (i.e. not with youtube open in the background) on anything that requires some level of intellectual effort, for example: reading non-fiction, researching Wikipedia, writing a paper, etc.
The average person can resort to will power to reach out of their comfort zone well into the uncomfortable range, but it’s a last resort measure because, first, they don’t want to do it, and second, they will burn out and empty their will power fuel tank, refilling it will take them anywhere from several days to a couple of weeks of doing absolutely nothing productive.
In contrast, the successful person is comfortable exerting an amount of time that the average person would refer to as “a pain in the ass”. Anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half (or more) studying is within the successful person comfortable range, and because it’s within their comfort zone they can do it every day.
For these people the uncomfortable range is not so much related to an inordinate amount of time doing an intellectual activity, but rather about facing situations that measure their skill level in that activity, so for example, most of them (but not all of them) will feel uncomfortable doing language exchange because they don’t want others to judge their knowledge in their target language as it might not reflect the effort they’ve put into learning it, while others may see their anxiety spike when taking a test or exam.
Now, I believe everyone can become a successful and learned person, it doesn’t matter if you can’t study for more than 5 minutes now without sweating anxiety, you can expand your comfort zone to the point where you feel comfortable studying for 40 straight minutes to a full hour, which in the long term will yield you excellent results.
But you have to know how, and I’m going to show you exactly that.
You might have heard well-intentioned but unpractical advice like “just do it!” or “take radical action!”
Taking radical action might sound like exactly what you need, but the reality is you’ll burn out and be right back to square one before you accomplish anything worthwhile because all these motivational phrases rely on exactly that, motivation, and motivation is simply another word for will power.
The only way to expand your comfort zone is by gradually stepping out of it through progressively small goals in conjunction with realistic time frames.
Progressively Small Goals
You’ve probably already read about setting small goals somewhere, you’ve even tried it before maybe, but my take on them is a bit different than what you will find on other websites, I call this strategy “progressively small goals”:
- Break down your goals into smaller chunks, i.e. “small goals”.
- Assign a pre-established amount of time to work on your small goals every day which you will progressively increase over time.
A clarification has to be made regarding progressive small goals before we keep moving forward: don’t think that you have to sell yourself short and that you need to set small, “realistic” goals (lol, what a joke), that’s not the point of this article in the slightest, you need to dream big but you can’t expect to accomplish those big goals right away, that’s why you need to break them into small quickly-achievable goals, so you don’t burn yourself out and then have to start all over again time after time without having nothing to show for it. Think about it like this, you’ll progress more in life if you allocate 20 minutes (yes, only 20 minutes) each day spread out throughout the entirety of your life to accomplishing your goals than you would if you took a zero to hero approach where you use will power to work on your goals for 3 hours a day and you say to yourself “this is it, no way I’m giving up this time”. What’s likelier to happen in that scenario is that you will give up, because you have run out of will power, you let anxiety drive your actions and burned out before working on your goals became a habit.
You don’t need to be “realistic” about your goals, you need to be realistic about the time it will take you to accomplish them.
Let’s say you are learning Mandarin Chinese, you are currently focusing on learning the tones but you get tired when you study for more than 15 minutes. The first step is deciding on which course of action is best to take, Mandarin Chinese has many different tones, and it’s up to the learner to decide how to learn them, however, learning Chinese tones is a big goal so you will need to break that goal into smaller ones, like learning each tone at a time.
Next, you will increase your daily study-time by a small increment that is small enough to only cause minimal discomfort, if there is no discomfort whatsoever then the time increase is not big enough. Example: If you are not used to studying for more than 15 minutes at a time, increase your study-time by 2 minutes or even 1 minute, once you feel comfortable enough meeting your new study-time, increase it again. Every time you increase your daily study-time, you’ll be able to tackle more small goals.
You must increase your daily study-time when your current study-time has already become a habit (i.e. you’re comfortable with it), do not rush it, rushing it means you are giving in to anxiety.
Notice how by doing this you’re not just trying to “get rid” of something, you’re actually building a habit, the habit of completing small goals.
This is like compound interest = you complete one small goal today, then another one tomorrow, and so on. Do this for a year and those small goals will add up to your most productive year in your entire life, you will have accomplished more in that year than you have in any other year prior.
By working on small goals with small time increments you are slowly but progressively expanding your comfort zone.
When you don’t use
progressively small goals
When you do
Using small progressive goals creates a feel-good cycle where you become increasingly patient towards accomplishing your goals and then when you actually accomplish them, you get a strong dopamine release from your accomplishment thus feeding the cycle to become more patient and accomplish ever bigger goals.
People who are not patient and thus do not experience the dopamine release from accomplishing goals (because they never do), are overwhelmed by anxiety and try to mimic that release of dopamine by consuming material things expecting that instant gratification feeling, but as it’s pretty obvious by now, no long term benefits come from that, quite the opposite, the small dopamine release they feel feeds this negative cycle of underachievement and makes it harder to break out of, after all, it’s easier to consume than it is to create.
Realistic Time Frames
We all know somebody who’s tried to lose weight, maybe that person is us. They sign up for the gym, they start eating like they are the healthiest people on the face of the earth, they vow they will never lapse back into their nasty eating habits, they may even chant an incantation to an ancient dark god (offering your soul is optional), but how does their plan look like? “I want to lose x amount of weight” that’s it, oh, but there’s an unspoken, most of the time, unconscious, “now” attached to that goal.
In the end, they hold up for whatever long their will power allows them to (usually no more than a month) and then they go back to their Oreos and Cheetos until their will power fuel tank is full again and say “this is it” one more time, they again vow to lead a healthy lifestyle and go to the gym 3 times a week, and they repeat the same cycle over and over.
If you don’t establish a realistic time frame for your goal, your chances of accomplishing it and, more importantly, building a habit, are virtually non-existent. If you don’t know where you stand in the way to your goal then how will you know how close you’re getting? What’s more, if you have an unrealistic time frame for your goal, even if you tried your hardest but didn’t accomplish your goal before meeting your deadline, you will get incredible frustrated, question yourself and probably give up.
But how do you determine what is a realistic time frame for your goal, well, for starters, if we are talking about a big change in your life, a couple of months won’t cut it, think at least 6 months to a year or a couple of years even. When it comes down to languages, the time frame is not much different, but it will depend on several factors of which the three most important are:
- What fluency means to you.
- For how long you study every day.
- How similar your target language is to a language you already speak fluently.
Here are some realistic time frames for learning languages based on talking to many language learners and on my own experience. For this, I factored in a study time of 2 hours per day and a language that is not completely different from one you already master (i.e. like English and French, not like English and Japanese):
3 months- able to understand basic sentence patterns
6 months- able to understand intermediate sentence patterns and able to reproduce basic sentence patterns
1 year-functional command
2 years-near fluency
The 2 year mark is where it gets tricky because you are unlikely to be native-fluent, you’ll probably have a hard time finding the right word in situations you’re not used to, you may question yourself and wonder if there’s a more natural way to say what you intend, but at the same time, you’ll have mastered most (if not all) of your target language grammar which means you’ll be able to construct advanced sentences and use complex syntax effortlessly in contexts you are used to. This is when you have to decide how much further you want to take your language journey. What I can guarantee you (I don’t use that word often or lightly) is that if you keep progressing at the same rate, you’ll become fluent (in most languages… Japanese, I’m looking at you) in 3 years.
Is 3 years a long time? Learning works in a scaffolding progression, you can’t expect to go from a to z quickly and smoothly, the road will be rocky and you may have to retreat a bit to keep moving forward, taking one step back and two steps forward to cement the knowledge you will be acquiring, as I said, you won’t be going from a to z in one go, you will go from a to f and then from f to e and then from e to j and so on until you get to z, and you will get there eventually if you are patient.
Remember, for any goal that you wish to accomplish, you’ll need:
- a plan
- a realistic time frame
How closely do you resemble now to the self that you envisioned for yourself three years ago? What do you want to have accomplished three years from now? Patience along with strategically planned out small goals is what is going to get you closer to your envisioned self.