Forget “learning a language.” Focus on forming the habit.

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Forget “learning a language.” Focus on forming the habit.

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Meet Maneesh Sethi.

Maneesh is a friend, an inventor, and a fellow language learner (he has been a DJ in Berlin, and spoken on stage in Italian, among other things) with a very particular passion…

For years, he has been obsessed with solving the problem of maintaining motivation that we all face in trying to achieve our long-term goals.

In language learning, motivation is a huge barrier to success and often a constant struggle. The eternal question is how can we be as dedicated to our language practice on week 60 as we were on week 1?

Maneesh has taken a scientific, practical, and a bit extreme approach to answering this question. He actually once hired a girl to work alongside him and slap him in the face whenever he got distracted by Facebook. He wanted to see how the social pressure (peer beside him) and physical pain (slap in the face) would change his habits.

Today, Maneesh is on the blog to talk about his scientific approach to forming new habits, and how he invented a new device (already featured on the Colbert Report, ABC news and reaching it's Indiegogo intial funding aim in a single day) to train his brain in a very unique way.

He takes productivity problems very seriously.

Over to you, Maneesh.


Why is learning a new language so freaking hard?

We imagine how empowering and liberating it will feel to travel the world, visit exotic locations and speak to locals in their native tongue.

We endure the monotony of audio and video courses. We attend expensive classes. We spend hours on complicated software. It’s all in the hope that one day we’ll become fluent… or at least proficient.

Yet for 95% of us, none of this training ever “sticks.”

At the end of our study, we usually still don’t know enough to have a basic, two-sided conversation with anything that isn’t prerecorded. (Remember high school Spanish class?) It’s frustrating and discouraging — and it also perpetuates the myth that learning a new language gets “harder the older you get.”

But here’s the good news: It’s not your fault.

The truth is, most people will never learn a new language not because the language itself is too difficult or they’re not smart enough… but because they can’t get themselves to practice the language consistently.

They haven’t learned how to assimilate language learning into a habit.

What is a Habit?

Habits are the key to behavior change.

When you form a habit, you won’t have to get “motivated” to do something. You won’t have to use willpower or “force” yourself and get it done.

Think about how it feels to go to bed without brushing your teeth. It feels wrong. You feel like your day isn’t complete — and you’ll even drag yourself out of bed to do it, despite being tired.


Because brushing is so deeply ingrained into your daily routine that it actually requires more willpower to NOT brush than just to brush! It’s a deeply formed habit — and you rarely miss a day.

How much more progress would you make if you could retrain your brain to treat language learning the same way? How much faster could you master the basics and move on to fluency if you practiced your new language 365 days in a row without missing a day?

You’d be unstoppable. And you’d definitely be able to hold a casual conversation without grabbing the dictionary every other word.

It all starts with changing your behavior and forming new habits.

This idea of making language study a habit in my life was on my mind a lot back in Florence when I was learning Italian.

And so I’ve spent the last two years rigorously researching behavior change and figuring out how to make goals like language learning, working out or waking up earlier a natural part of my day, rather than an eternal struggle. Since then I developed Pavlok — a wearable technology to help you build new habits (and break bad ones). Pavlok currently commits you to fitness, waking up on time, and being more productive — but we are currently working on integrating Duolingo and other language learning tools so it can commit you to forming the habit of learning a language.

In this article, I’m going to distill all of our best research and teach you the step-by-step process for reprogramming your brain and making language learning so efficient that it becomes part of your everyday life, automatically.

If you’ve ever felt like learning a new language was a chore, and that you weren’t making the progress you’d like, this article is for you.

Keep reading!

Demystifying the Habit Formation Process

The habit formation process contains three main components: Cue, Routine and Reward.

The habit process in motion

It starts with a cue. Think of the cue as the spark that sets a behavior in motion.

The cue initiates a routine. The routine is the actual behavior that you perform in response to the cue. Over time, this behavior becomes a habit.

Then, the routine is given a reward. Usually, the reward is something pleasurable we give ourselves for carrying out the routine that reinforces it. But beware: many rewards are subconscious. We don’t even know we are rewarding ourselves.

Cue. Routine. Reward.

Let’s say you’ve formed a bad habit of over-snacking while watching TV after work.

You come home at 7:30 and Criminal Intent is on — so you flip on the TV. That’s the cue.

What happens next? Well, you flop down on the couch… and suddenly you realize that you haven’t eaten since lunch. You’re starving, but also tired. You don’t feel like cooking — but there is a nice tub of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer. You start to snack on that as you’re watching TV.

Now the routine has begun.

You’re watching one of your favorite shows, eating a tasty treat, and dopamine is firing like crazy. Then, your significant other comes in and starts watching TV with you. You have fun talking to them and really enjoy the together time. The entire experience is very rewarding.

Even without thinking about this process consciously, your brain is primed to do it over and over again. Good food, your favorite show, happy times with family. Who wouldn’t want more of that?

But ice cream for dinner is a really bad habit. So how do you break the cycle?

The easiest way is to keep the cue and the reward constant, but swap out the routine you want to change.

In an alternate scenario, you’d still come home from work, turn on the TV and plop down. But instead of reaching for the ice cream, you’d substitute it with frozen berries.

It sounds simple, but there are a lot of complex factors at play here.

First, instead of depriving yourself by saying, “no more snacking” you’re acting in line with how your brain is already functioning. Eating the berries would still allow you to respond to the television cue with food. An added bonus is that the berries themselves are sweet and cold — which fulfills some of the tactile sensation from the ice cream.

Next, while watching TV and snacking on these berries, you’ll still get to enjoy quality time with your family — which reinforces the new behavior and helps it become habit.

Simply substituting a new routine in place of an old one, while keeping your cue and reward the same, is one way to build a new habit practically overnight.

Using Micro-habits to Learn a New Language Quickly


Turning ice cream into frozen berries is great… and it’s certainly a worthy behavior change.

But what about establishing more complex habits like language learning?

Habits that require you to utilize more cognitive function take much more effort — and that means your approach has to be different.

The secret lies in creating powerful “micro-habits” that catalyze your brain to perform difficult new behaviors, even when your conscious brain doesn’t want to.

What is a “micro-habit”?

Simply put, a “micro-habit” is the smallest individual action you can take to spur the execution of a new behavior and turn it into a habit. It’s similar to the concept of “mini-missions” that Benny uses whenever he learns a new language. You break down a large goal into a much smaller specific action.

In combination with proper cues and rewards, “micro-habits” can help anybody execute even the most complex behavior changes without having to endure the long periods of forced, sustained willpower expenditure that typically exhaust and defeat you before you reach your goal.

Imagine a world where it’s actually more painful NOT to complete a new behavior than it is to just do it. That’s what “micro-habits” create.

Setting up the “micro-habit”

Assume you want to build the habit of studying Spanish every day. How would that look, in practical terms?

Maybe your current approach involves “cram sessions” after work, huddled next to the vocab book until something else catches your attention, or until you pass out. How’s that working out for you?

These types of poorly planned approaches rarely work for those trying to make massive, consistent change. Distractions loom as soon as you open the front door. The dogs needs to go out. Your kids want to talk to you (the nerve!). Your significant other wants to talk about finances. And you just realized how tired you are. Como se dice “overwhelmed?”

It looks like you’re not going to get much studying done today. It has nothing to do with “motivation” or “willpower” — it’s simply a matter of time, energy and mental systems.

Now, let’s take another crack at installing the same language learning habit, but instead of using the traditional “just do it” mentality to power through the discomfort — let’s use a “micro-habit” to install this new behavior.

What the step-by-step “micro-habit” process looks like:


The first step to installing a great “micro-habit” is choosing the correct cue to remind you of your goal and initiate the new behavior (this is all part of the 3-Step habit formation process we covered above).

In this instance, the cue should be something extremely simple and completely unavoidable, such as setting an alarm on your phone for the exact same time every day that says, “Open Duolingo.”

Put the ringer and vibrate on. Make sure that you don’t miss the cue.


The next step is creating a meaningful routine that encourages you to execute the new behavior.

In the past, the behavior you tried to execute was complex and time consuming. In order to check off “study Spanish” on your daily to-do list, you had to:

  • Get off work/get home
  • Turn off all distractions and get into study mode
  • Open whatever book/program/app/website you’re using and reacquaint yourself with where you left off
  • Struggle through the lesson, mentally exhausted
  • Remember to do it again tomorrow (otherwise you’ll forget what you just learned)

It’s a tiring process.

This is where 99% of people fail to create a new habit — and this is where the idea of “micro-habit” comes into play.

From now on, I want you to forget about how tired you are after work. Forget about remembering vocabulary. Forget about conjugations.

In fact…


Your new goal is not a nebulous notion like “study Spanish every day” — your new goal is one, single action.

All I want you to do is open the Duolingo app.

No, that wasn’t a typo.

Every day, you’ll see the reminder when your phone goes off.

When you see that reminder, all you have to do is OPEN the application. That’s it.

You don’t have to study. You don’t have to remember anything. You can simply open the app and close it. This should take you less than 5 seconds.

That’s it. That’s your new routine. If you can do that every day for a week, it counts exactly the same as actually studying Spanish. Hooray!

To make sure you follow through, add some accountability: Every day you aren’t able to open Duolingo, you’ll have to invoke some sort of negative reinforcement as a penalty — and have an accountability partner check in to keep you honest.

Have your significant other or a willing friend ask you every day after work “Hey, did you open Duolingo today?” If the answer is “no,” you owe them $50. No exceptions.

Of course, you may not have a good accountability partner. Or you may choose not to have one so you can cheat occasionally with no guilt. It’s for people like you that I invented the Pavlok app. It works as a custom API that detects when you check into the app to give instantaneous non-cheatable accountability. It lets you choose a referee, and use non-cheatable accountability methods like GPS, API integration or even heart rate monitoring to ensure you hit your goals.

In other words, it knows if you haven't opened Duolingo today, and it penalizes you accordingly. After one or two $50 penalties for something that requires literally NO work on your part, your brain will get the message quickly.

So how does merely opening an application result in forming the habit of studying Spanish?

This ridiculously simple, seemingly dumb action is actually initiating a bunch of highly sophisticated psychological triggers behind the scenes:

  1. Setting the bar so low that it literally requires NO effort to complete a task means that your ability to complete the task goes WAY up. The easier something is, the less willpower/motivation it takes to perform the action.
  2. By intentionally setting a super easy goal, you’re purposely creating an environment that’s structured to give you consistent success and positive feedback on a daily basis. This repeated success builds confidence. Even if you’re only opening an app, doing it 7 days in a row feels great since that was your goal for the week.
  3. MOST IMPORTANTLY: Intentionally setting a ridiculously simple goal and achieving it over and over again begins to agitate your brain after a while. It eventually becomes impossible NOT to follow through with the entire habit, since the tiny action has already set the entire process in motion.

Sure, the first few days, you might simply open the app and close it again.

But as the week progresses, your brain begins to REJECT the idea of opening the app without working out.

The thought process might sound something like, “This is stupid. I’m already in the app. Maybe I’ll just study a few vocab words.”

Before you know it, you’re watching Finding Nemo on Univision without subtitles, wondering where all the time has gone.

The next day, maybe you’ll go back to just opening the app — and that’s totally fine. However, after a week or so, it will make less and less sense to open it without actually doing some work. You will forcefully change your own psychology.


Now, you’re on a roll.

Your new cue is in place, the “micro-habit” is in full effect, backed by the threat of losing money. You’re opening the app and studying more — and the best part is, you’ve barely expended any willpower to do so.

Now, it’s time to activate the last part of the habit formation process by creating a reward to solidify the new “micro-habit.”

The reward can be something simple, like treating yourself to a massage or movie if you open Duolingo every day for a week. The actual reward isn’t important — the important part is pairing positive reinforcement with completing your goal every week.

This process is called “Push-Pull” motivation.

The negative reinforcement (the monetary penalty) “pushes” you to get started on your new behavior and creates urgency.

The positive reinforcement (the massage, movie, etc) “pulls” you through the behavior change week-to-week, and encourages you to keep going by rewarding you for consistently completing the “micro-habit.”

Properly implemented, the “micro-habit” system is a psychologically bulletproof strategy for starting new, positive habits.

“Micro-habits” work when you’re tired and just don’t feel like doing your new behavior. They work when you already have ten “pre-loaded” excuses ready to go for why you can’t get something done. They even work when you’re unsure of yourself, or lacking confidence in your new behaviors.

What about breaking bad habits?


Forming new, positive habits like language learning is great. But what about breaking deeply ingrained bad habits – wasting time, smoking, overeating and the like?

For that Pavlok uses a combination of classical conditioning and aversion therapy. Below is a brief description — but you can get our full use-case ebook here to explore in more detail:

  1. First, set the bad behavior you want to eradicate
  2. Then, Pavlok will begin to monitor your behaviour using sophisticated sensors and algorithms
  3. When you perform that behavior, Pavlok will administer a mild shock that your brain begins to pair with the behavior

Research has shown that simply self-administering a shock at the moment of doing an undesirable action can quickly break bad habits — even smoking cigarettes! Pavlok offers an API to automatically shock based on trackable data, or you can self-administer a shock to break bad habits including smoking, biting nails, and more.

I designed Pavlok to help you hold yourself accountable in ways that stick. When you implement these techniques, change is truly inevitable.

What To Do Next

The main reason most people have trouble changing their lives is because they don’t even know what real change feels like.

They don’t know how it feels to wake up at 5am, fully rested, and get work done.

They don’t know what it feels like to commit to learning a new language… and actually achieve fluency.

They don’t know how it feels to look at a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of whiskey, and feel completely repulsed — even after 20 years of using.

They don’t know how it FEELS to be victorious over their own psychology.

But these aren’t just pipe dreams. Implement these psychological principles I used to create Pavlok, and finally you can become the best version of yourself.

We’ve prepared an ebook: Habit Change: Theory & Practice. Download it, and if you think this is a cool idea, we’d love your help in supporting our IndieGogo campaign!

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Guest Author

Guest Writer at Fi3M

See the article above for more information on this guest author.

Speaks: Various languages

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