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The Rule of 80%: How to Curb Your Expectations and Reach Sustainable Success


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

My language learning philosophy is “always give 80%”.

Wait. What? Let me explain.

Yoga class helps keep me sane. Mostly, I think it’s because of my yoga teacher, Marie.

Photo by Betty Chan

She’s a very hip thirtysomething small business owner, mom, yoga teacher and part-time voice of the universe all rolled into one. I’d like to share one bit of her wisdom with you today: Always give 80%.

If you are like me, that will sound absolutely insane.

I was raised in the era of “go strong or go home.” I can’t even tell you how many times I attempted to give 110% only to fail because, let’s face it, that is not mathematically possible.

Here’s What 110% Looked Like for Me

A deadline is looming. So, I’ll skip a meal, sleep less, cross off all self-care from my to-do list and push through until the project is finished.

Fast forward to one week past the deadline and you would see an exquisite vision of me: sick in bed with a runny nose, used tissues filling my wastebasket and a grumpy facial expression because I’m missing out on all the fun. My vision of a 110% success ends with a 100% chance of me saddled with illness.

For many language learners, 110% equals complete burnout. Learning 50 words a day for 30 days is often followed by never touching that target language again. Are you an overachiever turned dropout? Some of the tips in this article can help.

How My Life is Different With the 80% Rule

The 80% output rule helps me live a more fulfilling, manageable life. It even changed my language learning habit. My seemingly slow but steady progress has astonished many people including me. More on that in a bit.

What is the 80% Rule?

My yoga teacher Marie explains the 80% rule when going into a new pose for the first time during a session. She’ll usually have us try the pose firstly at 50% of our range. Then she’ll guide us a second time at 60-70%. Lastly, she tells us that if we’re feeling especially limber to go to 80% but never more than that.

As one friend tells me, I’m pretty bendy. The idea of not keeping up with the young whippersnappers in the room is not something that comes easily to me. My internal dialogue left unfettered goes something like this, “I want to touch my forehead to my knee. I will touch my forehead to my knee!” And then I hear Marie’s feathery voice float through the room, “This is not about a physical goal, yogis. We are here to honor our bodies exactly as they are in this moment.”

Ah, yes. Honor my body. Dignity with grace. Practicing self-care by getting to 80% of my expectations.

My brain recalibrates. I go to 80% of my range. Sometimes, that happens to include the forehead to knee experience. Other times, it doesn’t and I get to be middle of the road physically while excelling spiritually by accepting where I’m at.

How I Use the 80% Rule in Daily Life

I glide out of the yoga studio yoga taking with me the lesson of 80%. The next day, I’m smack dab in the middle of feeling overwhelmed. Sleep wasn’t the best. I booked my day with more than I can handle peacefully. My old pattern would be to cut out all things beautiful and lovely in my life. Language learning would have been at the top of the list.

With the 80% rule, things are different now. On the walk to my first appointment, I call a trusted friend and leave a quick message of affirmation for myself, “Hi. It’s Elizabeth. I’m exhausted and feeling overwhelmed today. I commit to doing just 80% of what I think I need to bring to the table. I give myself permission to do the bare minimum throughout the day and I promise to practice self-care by keeping my acupuncture appointment today. One more thing, I’m going to doing just five minutes of my grammar exercises instead of my planned 15. That’s enough for today. Thanks for letting me share.”

Reframing my expectations of energetic output helps me do more good in the world while also staying healthy and less stressed. 80% is the new black for me. When I let go of the need to always do my absolute best, I find that the potential for creative flow moves through me with ease.

80% in Language Learning

I had a strong foundation in my 80% rule before starting language learning. Otherwise, learning French would have been yet another avenue of self-induced stress leading to complete burnout. And if you want to become fluent in a new language, burnout is not an option.

My modus operandus is list-making. If someone gives me a list of what they’ve done to accomplish my current goal, all the better. However, that doesn’t work in language learning.

Here’s why:

No Two Language Learners Are the Same

My language learning friend in San Francisco likes to translate poems. She thrives on this.

Now, if I try to sit down and translate poetry, my brain goes on strike. My mind is filled with a crowd of picket signs, “Hey, Hey. Ho, Ho! Translating Poems Has Got To GO!”

My language exchange partner in France thinks five-minute podcasts in her target language are the best. I prefer podcasts longer than 15 minutes because I’m usually on a walk and I don’t like fiddling with my phone.

My polyglot language exchange partner in Belgium speaks five languages but hates grammar books. Does that mean I have to throw out my beloved Language Hacking French book? Absolutely not.

Take What Works and Leave the Rest

When I began learning French last year, I read nearly every article on Fluent in 3 Months. After failing 10 times at learning a language, I was not interested in yet another disappointment. Benny Lewis and Kerstin Cable became my two favorite people while chopping veggies in my kitchen. I’d listen to Benny’s amazing Q&As on YouTube and Kerstin’s entertaining podcast The Fluent Show.

I happen to be the world’s slowest cook and not in the fashionable slow-cook-movement way but rather in the mortal-fear-of-cutting-a-finger way. So, I have lots of free time for filling my brain with interesting talks. Nowadays, I listen to Kerstin and Benny as a treat because nearly all my podcast listening and TV watching is in French. Thank you, Netflix and Français Authentique!

Standing on the Shoulders Of Giants

During this very early stage of my language learning, I was taking notes. With the Fluent in 3 Months archive and my Fluent in 3 Months Premium membership, I learned that acquiring a second language was completely doable even if I had a job. Even if I was a grown-up with a busy life. Even if I failed 10 times before this attempt. Benny gave me hope. It was here that I first heard about Duolingo and italki teachers.

Being a good student, I scheduled italki trial lessons with three teachers before I did anything else. Armed with Duolingo and my teacher, I started speaking from day one. Okay, I wrote that because that’s the name of the method. In reality, I started speaking from day five because I had to schedule my lessons on my days off. “Speak from day five” just doesn’t have the same twinkling ring to it.

I found Kerstin from an interview she did with Benny. From her, I learned about finding your own study style, touching the four cornerstones of language (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and slowing down the pace to what works for you. She’s a slow cook learner whereas as Benny is more high velocity.

And that’s where I had to take what works and leave the rest. I am too much of a turtle to take on the level of study Benny was doing, but his organized approach composed sonnets for my list-making soul.

Kerstin’s a bit of rebel when it comes to scheduling what to study when, and that totally freaks me and my day planner out. She’s more of a weekly/monthly planner. So, I take her sage wisdom about self-compassion with me while firmly grasping on to my daily checklist.

But how do I incorporate the 80% rule to my language learning?

Okay, calm down. I’m getting to it.

Take One Expectation and Chop That Mamma Jamma Down

If you’re like me, you often put too much on your plate. I’ve lost a lot of joy trying to do it the right way, the best way, the smartest way. For me, the smartest way is if I’m invigorated by my work.

Having expectations thats cause me undue stress zaps the zest out of any activity. So, I chop those mamma jammas down! Here are some practical ways I’ve resized my expectations into reasonable chunks.

How Assimil Broke Me — Then I Broke It!

I bought the Assimil French With Ease book because I finished my favorite beginner book, Language Hacking French, and wanted to continue with a bit of grammar study. The instructions in the book told me to do one exercise a day for the length of the book. I think it was something like 113 lessons. Opening my new book, I was amazed by how thorough the lessons were.

By week two, I was beginning to grumble to myself every time I sat down to open the book. By week four, I was complaining to my study buddy about how the authors of Assimil are pure evil. By week five, it dawned on me. Assimil is not a malicious book of brain torture. I’m just bored with my daily routine. It didn’t interest me.

So, I chopped the expectation down. I started doing only one Assimil lesson per week. Suddenly, I looked forward to finishing the book. It was as if someone gave me permission to truly relish the lessons. And wonder of wonders, the Assimil police didn’t come knocking on my door. With that being stated, if you don’t hear from me in a week, they might just be reading this blog. (Insert spooky suspenseful music here.)

I Want to Speak French, Spanish and Chinese — All to Intermediate Level — Right Now!

Ahh, B2! The upper intermediate level! My very own holy grail.

Why? Because a video with Benny Lewis and Olly Richards told me so. I want to learn Spanish, and eventually, Chinese.

During my carrot-cutting listening time, I kept an ear out for what the real deal polyglots had to say about learning a third language. Many (including Olly and Benny) suggest learning your current target language up to level B2 before embarking upon a new language. That made sense to me because I wasn’t quite ready to give up half of my French time to Spanish. I really enjoy French. However, I was impatient. After all, I wasted 30+ years unsuccessfully trying to learn languages. I want it all and I want it now.

And it was with that completely irrational mental state that I made my first fluency goal: I will reach a B2 level in French in six months. Then I started looking for DELF exams in my area. Within three months, I was beginning to panic. There was no way I could pass a B2 exam in three months time, I was going too slow. Shoulders up around my ears, frown on my face, I had to change something. Light shining down from the heavens, I became momentarily enlightened.

“Wait just a gosh-darn minute! I don’t need to reach B2 by January. I’m doing this for fun. I can stay focused and also settle down a bit.” Oh, sweet relief! I then looked at what I wanted to do. I had already reached some of my goals.

I Want to Read an ENTIRE Book in French

This actually turned out to be one of my more realistic goals.

I wanted to read an entire book in French by the end of the first year and I did that within the first few months thanks to LingQ.

Reading is a favorite pastime of mine in English, so I just switched it over to French. I read much slower but I’ve read 17 books in French in that last 16 months. And my passive vocabulary has exploded which is, of course, seeping into my active vocabulary!

I also wanted to converse easily with people in my target language. As I was already having bumpy French conversations with my teacher, this goal was well on its way to being achieved.

Lightbulb Moment: You Can Change Your Goals!

After a few months of learning, I re-evaluated my goals. I realized that;

  • I hate taking exams. Why on earth am I doing that to myself?
  • Speaking with others really motivates me. Why don’t I do that more?
  • I can change my deadline again and again if necessary.

And so, I added weekly language exchanges with three lovely people who have now become lasting friends. I also moved my deadline of B2 to one year. After re-evaluating once again, I moved my B2 goal to 2 years. Regardless of hitting an official B2 by the two-year mark, I’ll begin my Spanish journey confidently because I will have had two very solid years of touching French every single day before moving forward in my polyglot-to-be journey.

My teachers tell me that I’m very close to a B2 level in French and I still have five more months of enjoying my serious study of French without the self-imposed (aka unnecessary) pressure. And my hobby is quite fulfilling now because I have gained so much already.

My Ultimate Goal (And Why Right Now I’ll Settle for Adorably Funny)

My ultimate goal is to be conversationally fluent in French. Here’s the kicker. Fluency is relative. If you plopped me down in France today, I would be able to not only order my breakfast. I could actually make friends with relative ease. At my current level of French, I’d be the adorably funny foreign chick, but that works for me.

author headshot

Elizabeth Bruckner

Language Coach

Elizabeth an acupuncturist, writer and tenacious language learner. She attempted to learn a second language 10 freaking times before finally grasping the art of learning.

Speaks: English, French

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