Lesson One: How to finally stop feeling stressed and guilty

In one week, I’m going to be reopening my course on how to learn effectively, Rapid Learner. This is a course for students, professionals and lifelong learners to manage their limited time available for learning and get the most accomplished.

Before I open registration, I’m going to be sharing a free four-part lesson series, highlighting some of the key ideas from the course. The remaining three lessons will only be sent to my newsletter subscribers, so if you’d like to get the other lessons as they appear, be sure to subscribe:

Stress and Guilt

These are two emotions familiar to most students. The first is the most obvious, stress. That feeling you get when you have looming deadlines or important exams that you feel unprepared for. Stress can cause you to hate subjects you would otherwise love, mess up your health and relationships and make you feel miserable.

The other emotion, guilt, is also common, particularly when the threat of deadlines and failures has been taken away. This is the feeling you have when you know you should be learning something, but you’re wasting time instead. It’s the nagging feeling you have when you procrastinate or the itch on the back of your mind that something that should be getting done isn’t.

In this lesson, I’m going to explain why these two feelings have the same root cause, and how you can change how you approach your work and studies to avoid them.

An Outdated System

Every moment, our brain needs to make decisions about what we’re going to do. We can decide to work hard and get ahead, or we can decide to slack off and relax. How we make that decision is complicated, but the modular view of the mind which suggests that different parts of ourselves compete to have a voice in that decision.

I would argue that stress and guilt form an important system for decising when to get things done. Stress and fatigue is the voice telling you to avoid working. Guilt is the voice telling you that you probably should work. Whichever voice is stronger tends to win out.

These forces can both be pushing you strongly. That is to say, it’s possible to feel both extremely stressed and guilty at the same time. You can have both forces at max, which can make the feeling very unpleasant, even if motivationally, you’re not working particularly hard.

This system is the default system most of us use for making decisions about when to work. It’s very likely that it evolved much earlier in our evolutionary history, and thus reflects certain assumptions about the costs and benefits of working hard, from an environment that no longer exists.

Our ancestors, prior to farming, often had short working days and plenty of leisure time. The eight-hour workweek is a relatively recent invention. As are literacy, numeracy and much of the intellectual activity we would call studying. They didn’t exist as such in the past, so we have inherited a system for motivating our behavior that is often out of sync with our current realities.

Nowhere is this mismatch more obvious than with foods. Obesity is rising because we have easy access to foods with more fat and sugar than our ancestors had, all while allowing us to live more sedentary lifestyles.

I believe the case is similar with our stress and guilt system. It’s a useful system that has gotten out of pace with our current working reality. As a result, we often experience unnecessary distress as part of learning and getting things done.

A Tale of Two Systems

The alternative to relying on the system of stress and guilt, is to rely on a different system. Instead of deciding when and how much to work based on your internal moods, you base it on a system with simple rules that you commit to in advance.

There are different systems that will do the job here, and we cover them fully in Rapid Learner. Today, I just want to highlight the essential features of a system and suggest just one.

The essential features of a system, if it is to successfully replace guilt and stress in forming the decision procedure for much of your work, are as follows:

  1. The system must tell you what work to do.
  2. The system must tell you what work not to do.
  3. The system must tell you when to work.
  4. The system must tell you when not to work.

That’s it. Four decisions. What to do, what not to do. When to work, when not to work.

If you have a system that provides simple answers to these questions and works effectively (meaning it actually delivers the results you desire if you follow it), you’ll start trusting the system. Instead of relying on your gut feelings about whether you need to work or quit, you’ll have faith that sticking to the system will lead to results. Feelings of guilt and stress will go down, and you’ll get more done to boot.


The System that Doubled My Output

Now that you understand the main idea, I want to outline one such system I started using almost ten years ago that caused me to push through a lot of my own guilt and stress issues. What’s more, I ended up getting about twice as much done after I started using it.

The system is called Weekly/Daily Goals, and it is quite simple. It breaks down to a few rules:

  1. Every Sunday, make a new to-do list called “Weekly Goals” with your goals for the week.
  2. Every night, make a new to-do list called “Daily Goals”, based on the Weekly Goals and any extra smaller tasks and errands, as your goals for tomorrow.
  3. When working, only focus on the Daily Goals. When you’re finished all of them, you’re done work for the day, no need to keep working.

This is a strange way of working, I’ll admit. Most of us, when we’re getting more done than expected, push ourselves to do even more, we don’t quit.

However, I’ve found, correctly calibrated, that this system works quite well. The reason is that it incentivizes you to get things finished. Instead of procrastinating, you want to get things done because then you can relax guilt-free later.

Second, this system lasers in your focus on a small number of tasks to work on. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the mountain of projects, goals and deadlines ahead of you. With that big picture, slacking off for one day may not seem like it will matter. However, when you focus exclusively on the daily goals, you’re zoomed in on what really matters.

The purpose of the weekly goals is to add a slightly longer time horizon. Daily goals themselves can get harder to schedule if you don’t have a bigger picture for the week ahead. However, the daily goals remain the object of focus while you’re actually working. The weekly goals are just used when making the daily goals lists.

Calibration is an important phase in this process. Even though the rules are simple, it takes a little bit of working to figure out the right amount of work to schedule, and how to handle problems like genuinely scheduling too much work, or if tasks become impossible due to changing circumstances. In Rapid Learner, I cover how to deal with these small details and more, but for now it suffices to say that experimenting with the broad outlines of the system should give you a good starting point.

Now it’s your turn.

I don’t want you to just sit passively and read these lessons, I want you to take action and try out new ideas and tools that have the potential to improve your life. Here’s what I want you to do (if you haven’t already):

  1. Make a to-do list for the day.
  2. Try sticking to finishing just that list.
  3. Note the time in the day when you finished everything.

My guess is that in 80% of cases, most people are surprised at how fast everything got done. This isn’t always the case, but it happens often enough that on average, you should see your productivity increasing. Why? For the very reason I suggested—by focusing on a small subset of tasks that allow you to relax afterwards—you’re highly motivated to work, bypassing the normal emotionally exhausting system of stress and guilt.

That’s it for today’s lesson, tomorrow I’ll be back with an explanation of three studying tactics you’ve probably used that are terrible for learning (and what you should do instead). If you would like to get the remaining three lessons, be sure to join my newsletter.


Is Learning Extra Languages Worth the Hassle?

One of the most common problems with language learning is forgetting. You spend months or years to build some knowledge of a language, only to find a few years later that you’re unable to speak it very well.

There’s a few ways you can deal with this. One is to simply accept that forgetting is a price paid as part of learning, with the silver lining that relearning tends to be faster. If you forget the language, you can brush up again with a shorter period of practice than originally.

Another way to deal with the problem is to be proactive—establish a regular maintenance schedule, like I did with the languages I learned. I found this helped a lot to prevent backsliding, but it’s not perfect. More, it can be annoying to keep practicing a language you don’t plan to use, if you want to move onto doing other things.

One theory suggests that if you learn a language to fluency, you won’t forget it. That forgetting only occurs because you were at an intermediate level. Reach fluency once, it’s said, and you can speak the language forever.

Does Being Fluent Prevent Forgetting?

I’m not convinced by this theory, but I suspect it has two grains of truth. The simplest explanation is that when you’re fluent, there’s so much more to forget that you can forget a lot and still have retained functionality. By this account, fluency offers no added protection to the decay of memory, it’s simply a greater volume to forget.

The secondary explanation has to do with overlearning. This is that when you speak a language fluently you are using it frequently in real situations. Real situations have considerable overlap, where common words and phrases are used far more than uncommon ones. This results in a psychological effect called overlearning, where extra practice that goes beyond perfect recall increases the stability of your memories.

My suspicion is that the relatively low loss of language by once-fluent speakers is largely these two effects, but it’s also possible there’s a third benefit that makes reaching fluency a more stable goal.

Was I Able to Level-Up My Korean?

My trigger for this essay today was in the wrap-up of my recent project to level-up my Korean. On one level, the project was successful. I stuck to my predetermined schedule and added tons of new vocabulary and grammatical knowledge which showed up in my tutoring sessions.

On another level though, the project was a failure. My original motivation for the project had been to reach a high enough level to sustain genuine interactions with people, in Korean, while living in Canada. That didn’t end up happening, so even though my Korean got better, it didn’t get to the point I wanted to reach.

I think this failure largely came down to a mistake I made early on. My thought was that my lack of immersion in Korean in Canada now was mostly hobbled by my inadequate Korean skills. That if I worked on it for a few months, I’d be able to engage more fluently with speakers here who also speak English.

In practice, I think the problem had less to do with my level of Korean (which was probably already enough, to be honest), and more to do with my lack of a foundation of activities and opportunities to socialize in Korean.

In other words, I had mistaken a linguistic problem for a social one. The irony is, that this was essentially the thesis of the Year Without English. During that project, I wanted to demonstrate that pushing immersion, even at a very low level, can be successful for language learning. The fact that I turned back on this when attempting my level-up project, I think underscores how counter-intuitive it is.

Can You Maintain Immersion in More than One Language at a Time?

I’m done my Korean project now, as I’m starting a writing project that’s going to demand my full attention. I’m not giving up on Korean, but I’m switching it back to the status it had before: maintenance through occasional practice, not active improvement.

Although part of the reason was that I simply ran out of time, I’ve also become more aware of the difficulty of trying to simultaneously maintain immersive environments in more than a few languages at a time. 

Once I realized the flaw with my Korean project midway, I switched to trying to build more contacts with Korean people here in Vancouver. The challenge is that this is time consuming. I already have friends and pre-existing social contacts, so it’s difficult to add a bunch of new ones, without pushing other activities out.

This was a major reason, during our trip, that Vat and I insisted on the No-English Rule from Day One. Once you establish a social life wherever you’re living, you’ll be reluctant to ignore friends and social engagements to strike up new, more difficult social relationships in another language. Starting from scratch is easier because you don’t have anything to compete with.

None of this should be taken as an impenetrable barrier. Of course, if I were really serious, I could overcome these challenges and improve my Korean. However, as I think about it more, I’m inclined to focus more on improving my Chinese.

Is It Better to Master One Language or Be Adequate at a Few?

One idea I’ve written about before is the idea that there are some things worth learning well and others worth learning poorly. Meaning, that some skills, if you learn just a little bit of them, will reap most of the rewards. In contrast, other skills are only worth learning if you intend to get very good at them.

I suggested languages were something worth learning poorly. Because if you know a little bit of a language, you can do quite a bit with it. No, you might not be able to fluently discuss politics or philosophy, but you can easily travel and communicate with people who speak that language but not yours. A little bit of language is a good thing.

I stand by that opinion, at the lower ranges of language learning. However, my feeling is that once you get past the intermediate level of a language, the next cluster of benefits come at a much higher level.

To express this idea concretely, if you were looking at a graph of the benefits of learning a language, you’d see a spike at the early levels, corresponding with suddenly being able to order food, travel and have simple communication with people. Then you’d see a second spike at a level near complete fluency, corresponding to being able to do deeply functional things in the language like negotiate business, work professionally, consume media, etc..

For all of the languages I’ve learned, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Mandarin Chinese and Korean, I feel like my ability is above the first spike. I can do all the basic things pretty easily, and I’ve practiced them enough that I’m unlikely to forget them for a long time.

However, for Mandarin Chinese (and possibly Spanish), I’m beginning to notice the second spike. During my last trip to China, I was able to give two live talks in Chinese, as well as discuss business with some potential colleagues. That’s a different set of benefits I’m only starting to tap into.

Where I find myself with the other languages is more of the gulf between the easy benefits of low-to-intermediate abilities, but still a long way from the hard benefits of being a fluent speaker.

This leads me to think that, for now, I’m going to strive to push further with Chinese rather than try to continue the level-up with Korean.

Weighing in on the Mastery/Polyglot Debate

There’s a bit of debate about whether you should master a single language or dabble in a bunch. I think part of the heat of this debate is fueled by the perceived impressiveness. That is to say, a polyglot who speaks many languages, is often seen as very impressive, even if their ability with any particular language is actually quite low. Whereas, someone truly fluent might actually have done a lot more work, and thus be more deserving of praise.

Side note: Honestly impressiveness is probably the worst reason to learn any language, never mind a bunch of them. Telling people you speak multiple languages is usually awkward and conceited. Them finding out usually results in skepticism or trying to “test” you. This isn’t to say nobody finds it interesting, but just to say that if you’re learning languages with the purpose of seeming “cool” you’re going to have a bad time.

I think the benefits of language learning are mostly intrinsic. From that perspective, there’s two broad sets of benefits, one that comes early on and one that comes much later. Whether you favor full fluency in a single language or adequacy in several depends a lot on which benefit matters to you more.

I would lump the early benefits into two broad categories. The first are travel benefits, meaning that you can now travel in countries that speak that language with much greater ease. The second are cultural bridging benefits, allowing you to interact with monolingual speakers of that language, which helps you get outside your own cultural bubble.

The later benefits mostly have to do with deeper experiences. Interacting meaningfully with native media (novels, movies, music). Working professionally or studying in the language.

Because the early benefits can be reached much faster, they don’t require as long a commitment and it’s possible to reach that level in multiple languages within a few years. This is great if you want to explore the world and dip into different cultures and experiences. The later benefits take a lot more work, so it’s usually a decades-long project.

What Do You Think?

The tl;dr version of my views right now are:

  • Maintain adequacy in multiple languages.
  • Focus on getting really good at one (maybe two).

I’m curious, however, what your views are. Do you speak more than one language? If so, why did you do so? If you speak multiple languages, do you focus on one, or improve them all evenly?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.