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!