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Practice: Don’t Beat Yourself Up

You know, I don’t know how much like me you are. But I imagine that there must be some truth to the idea that if I have a particular problem, then you or someone else shares the same problem. By extension, if I have found a solution or mechanism to deal with that problem, then that solution may well work for other people.

The problem here is slipping up on your practicing. Of course you’ve surrounded yourself with Japanese music, movies, TV and books. But that needs to be backed up by good old low-level practice of kanji and sentences, in the form of practicing electronic flashcards (or, in the lingo, “doing repetitions”) in your SRS.

But some days, things might happen — an emergency crops up, or you have a particularly busy day. You have little or no time left to practice the specific number of sentences or characters you have set out to learn on a daily basis; you’re not meeting your daily goal for units of practice (repetitions in your SRS), and you’re worried that this means you won’t reach your ultimate goal of fluency. What do you do?

Let me just tell you that you’re not a failure. You’re just a baby, remember? Mistakes are almost certainly going to be made. Accidents are almost certainly going to happen. This doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility: you certainly shouldn’t blame the accident, that would be shifting the responsibility. But, you shouldn’t beat up on yourself either. Why? If you’re responsible, shouldn’t you punish yourself?

No, that’s the carrot-and-stick behavioral model. And, if my sources are correct, then according to the biggest behaviorist of them all, B.F. Skinner: reward for good behavior works far better than punishment for bad behavior. In other words, use carrots, not sticks.

A. Make the Best of It

Let me repeat: don’t punish yourself; it may make the masochist inside you feel better, but really all it does is cause you pain and worry, which are an entirely separate different thing from work. So don’t worry. Instead, act. Just do something, anything, as long as it’s headed in the right direction (i.e. towards practicing Japanese). OK, so, it’s bedtime, and you wanted to do 50 kanji or 50 sentences but there’s no way you’re going to make it? What do you do? Well, do some kanji/sentences, maybe 10. Even if you’re dead tired, do just ONE. One kanji. One sentence. That never killed anyone. Remember to treat learning Japanese like a guilty pleasure; with guilty pleasures, you always say you’re only going to do a little, but you always do more.

The situation isn’t perfect; but it’s better to salvage a bit than to just throw your hands up and brace for a total loss. There is always something better than total surrender. In aeroplane terms, a crash landing beats a crash.

If all else fails, if you really can’t even do the smallest unit of practice, then smile. Smile. There’s no use having negative emotions associated with doing Japanese.

B. Prevention is the Best Cure: Deal with the Problem at its Root

Now, we’ve taken care of you dealing with the unfortunate one-off incident. But what if this is a regular problem? What if you’re consistently missing your daily practice goals? This is a deeper problem, and you need to nip this in the bud. The solutions that have worked for me are as follows:

1. Practice first thing in the morning.
No ifs, ands or buts. Get up and practice your Japanese. Now, maybe you’re not a person who is active in the morning, and maybe you’re saying “Khatzumoto, me and morning, we’re not very good friends”. I know how you feel. The way I took care of that was to eat my favorite candy each time I was doing Japanese. I love gourmet jellybeans (the crack cocaine of candy, for those in the know), so to get myself to practice Japanese (and, actually, Digital Signal Processing), I would eat a jelly bean for each kanji or sentence I was practicing, whenever I practiced. I stopped doing it after about 5 weeks, but to this day, Japanese and Fourier Transforms still “taste” sweet to me. So change your schedule: make Japanese practice the first item of your day, and if you have to get up earlier than usual for it, reward yourself.

2. Aim lower
I hate this idea; it feels like giving up. But sometimes, you may indeed be trying to bite off more than you can chew. Yes, you want to learn as much Japanese as quickly as possible, but clearly the pace at which you’re trying to do it is too fast for your schedule; otherwise you probably wouldn’t be underperforming every day. Remember, you not only need to be learning new material, you also need to be reviewing the old. Drop the pace a little. Cut your daily number in half. Make it big enough so it’s a bit of a stretch, but small enough that you can get through it every day given the constraints of your chosen schedule and other commitments.

3. But not too low: Aim higher
Ironically, sometimes, you can aim too low. I was once under so much (apparent) stress, that I decided “well, I’ll just aim to do 1 kanji each day”. Big mistake. Sure, you should be happy that you got at least one thing done, but that shouldn’t be your goal. There is such a thing as psychological momentum, and you’re never going to get any of it if you do so little. When I was aiming that low, I would often just forget to learn the kanji; the daily goal was too insignificantly small.

4. Aim sideways: timeboxing
Timeboxing is one of those ideas that is so obvious that you hate yourself for not having thought of it yourself. Or maybe you thought of it, but you didn’t give it such a sweet name. Anyway, most of us live lives bound by time; we want to get many things done, but it’s no good for one thing to take up more than its fair share of time. One way to deal with that is to timebox; just say “I have X amount of time to do today’s practice/repetitions; I’m going to keep practicing until the time is up, and after that I’m going to go eat jellybeans”

Anyway, those are just some ideas that might help you deal with a common problem at the day-to-day level. Hopefully it’s helpful to you. Remember that you do need to practice Japanese every day, but if something unexpected comes up, it’s not the end of the world; just pick up the pieces and move on; take a lesson from Japanese history: Japan is the only country in the world to have ever actually had The Bomb dropped on it; if they wanted, the people of Japan could have decided to curl up in the radioactive fetal position and have a pity party; they instead decided to build the most technologically advanced society in the world. When you fall, don’t lay there crying, hating yourself and your mother for “messing it all up” for you in the first place, just get up and get going. And as always, have fun doing Japanese!

  12 comments for “Practice: Don’t Beat Yourself Up

  1. David
    September 21, 2008 at 10:27

    That time boxing thing is interesting. I’ve tried doing that with some things, but, I always end up going over. Which, with Japanese, that’s never a bad thing. I’ve wanted to try time boxing each Kanji. For instance, there are times when I *over think* a story so much that it takes me off into some mysterious land of distractions. Which only results in wasted time. I do worry sometimes about “Kanji burn out” because I’m pushing myself to get through so many, though.

    I have to avoid getting frustrated when I get stuck trying to come up with a good image to fix in my head, too.

  2. Alyks
    November 15, 2008 at 15:35

    Man, I really need to stop beating myself up. Today was a bit of a bad day for me (emotionally, physically, whatever), and because of this I didn’t get into my “hardcore Japanese learning mode” and get my normal 30 sentences done that I like to do. But you know what? I still learned five new sentences. I still enjoyed one of my favorite Japanese shows.

    Still, man, it’s hard not to beat yourself up. ‘Cause it’s like, “why do you still suck at listening, huh?”, “Why aren’t you reading more?”, “Why are you being lazy about looking up words?”.

    It’s just so hard to focus on the fact that I’m already light years ahead of the advanced Japanese class students. That I am, in fact, able to read Japanese with my trusty 大辞林. That with an exact subbed movie (Quiet room ni youkoso, excellent movie. I believe it’s floating around the less reputable sites now) I could follow along and understand a lot.

    Yeah, it’s hard. =)

  3. January 10, 2009 at 21:26

    Thank you for this post. I have it bookmarked at the top of my bar to read often.

  4. pantsfacemcgee
    March 19, 2009 at 01:52

    I’ve found timeboxing to be useful for another reason. If suddenly I have a lot of free time, or I make time, and study super hardcore and stay focused for hours, then it actually works against me because then I have less motivation to do it anything at all the next day. I get burned out, and if instead I limit myself then each day I can come fresh and wanting more.

  5. kyoushou
    August 25, 2009 at 13:28

    Hi Khatzumoto, im doing the AJATT style + Heisig’s Learning Kanji,
    i’ve just started 2 months ago,because i’ve found your site,you really have a good point that classes suck,anyway and i’m on Lesson 16 now,
    i’m happy with my progress and i want to have a one Lesson per day Kanji

    but a Lesson takes me 1-2 days to fully grasp the assigned Kanji,
    im a fresh graduate working full-time 8 hrs a day which my time is at work,
    i recover my lost times by learning Kanji while travelling

    is it a good idea to proceed to next Lesson even i didn’t remembered 100% of the last Kanji Lesson?
    can you give me an advice/ideas/examples to be much more faster?

  6. A
    August 26, 2009 at 14:18

    Maybe I’m not as qualified to answer this as Khatz but I have finished RTH, and he is on vacation right now and not likely to answer 😉

    Yes! Keep going!
    To try for 100% each lesson will most likely lead to burn out, drilling them over and over again, the few that you miss will come to you over time by the nature of a SRS.

    I also remember reading somewhere on the site, Khatz said he never tries for 100% retention or something like that.

  7. Philip
    September 16, 2009 at 07:35


    I’m on lesson 25 or so and I feel ya. Retention is pretty average but I noticed recently that some random kanji are slipping through the cracks. I wouldn’t aim for 100% personally though. I just started using Kanji Koohi in conjunction with Surusu and I feel it’s giving me an extra boost in memorizing the kanji (even though I probably beat myself up more now, because RTK only gives you keywords and I find that I can’t remember the story, and therefore the kanji, unless it’s given to me).

    ANYWAY: Keep going! Every bit of input counts, and eventually they’ll click. Some of the kanji I thought were the most difficult have become surprisingly easy (probably because I failed them so many times…) I figure I’ll have time to pick up all the scraps later.

    Also one more thing: one lesson a day might get a little difficult to maintain as Heisig really starts to speed up when he drops the stories in Part 3 (lesson 23 is well over 100 kanji). I aim for 50 a day, but I usually hit 25 – 30.

    Good luck!

  8. Anonymous
    January 21, 2012 at 14:44

    The problem I constantly seem to find myself running into is how exactly do I go about practicing Japanese? I’ve tried finding reading material, but it usually ends up being either so easy as to be utterly useless (incredibly rudimentary, simplistic Japanese that I don’t think is actually used) or incredibly difficult and indecipherable (anything above that, most of the time). I then think that the problem is that I don’t know enough words, but when i go to learn words, I think that I’m merely learning the answers instead of actually learning the words, which then proves itself true when I try to read a Japanese sentence and can’t recognize a large number of the words. I’ve also tried writing sentences, but I can never think of anything to say. I end up looking blankly at the white space with absolutely no idea of what to write before I end up doing something else altogether. Is there any way to fix any of this? I don’t think I’ve been able to find an answer anywhere else.

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  10. Kimchi
    August 1, 2012 at 06:31

    I always listen to music first thing in the morning. So to the point that if given a chioce I’d choose the music.
    SO you know. . .for those tired morning ppls whose eyes don’t function in the morning(me), a little japanese pep pop with breakfast works too I think.

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