Work hard and smart – Recover from Fluffoholism And Make Your Time Count

Never enough time. There is never enough time to get in shape or learn a language. Or even when there is time, you don’t really seem to make much of the progress.

It doesn’t seem normal, right?

And it isn’t. There is a good chance you have contracted something I call “fluffoholism“. If you cringed, the reaction is fully justified.

That’s a terrible ailment.

Fluffoholics are individuals who are very busy doing silly and insignificant activities. As a result, they either feel inadequate for not making progress or make some progress but can’t find time for anything else in their lives.

Of course, the truth is that we are all fluffoholics to some degree. The person who would concentrate only on relevant tasks would seem like an absolute genius to us mere mortals.

Let’s get it over with. My name is Bartosz and I’m a recovering fluffoholic and this is what I have learned:

3 Categories Of Activities

I like to categorize activities in the following way:

1) Low-intensity activities

A counterpart of: lying in a cozy bed under a wool blanket with a mug of hot chocolate while your spouse scratches your head.

These are the tasks we tend to do the most.
The “feel good” activities. The fluff which masks the real work.
Usually, the things which have very little to do with making any progress.

Many industries prosper around these activities.
It’s the obvious honey pot for the naive and lazy.

  • “Learn how to pick up a girl without washing yourself”
  • “Learn in your sleep”
  • “Lose weight by eating Tacos and marshmallows”.

In the world of language learning, it’s definitely Duolingo.

I get a lot of messages like this: “I have been using Duolingo for x months and I completed all the levels but when I talk to native speakers they don’t seem to understand me. Oh, also, when I read, I don’t understand most of the things.”

Go figure.

Sure, it’s motivating. And it’s a nice past-time to have. But it isn’t nearly as effective as a lot of other activities. Like speaking for instance. Other, almost evergreen and legendary language learning methods which allow an individual to achieve fluency include:

  • “Learning by listening”
  • “Learning by playing computer games”
  • “Learning by watching TV”

How to tell if I am doing these activities?

Typically, you can do them for hours. Without any particular signs of fatigue. That’s all you need to know. If you feel like “that was fun”, it’s not the real work. It also means that you spend 5-10 x more time than people who do activities from the third category and get comparable results.

2) Moderate-intensity activities

A counterpart of: getting out of bed and sitting down at the desk.

These activities definitely require some energy from you but they are not that tiring. It’s running 5 km when you already know that you can run 10 if you want to. You still need to put your shoes on. You still need to go out and sweat. But in the end, the overall progress is not so great

In the world of language learning, it’s a B2 level. You can talk and express yourself relatively fluently.
You can read most of the articles you want. So you do. And you note down some words. But not too many because you’re already quite good.

How to tell if I am doing these activities?
Usually, you feel that you have to push yourself a little bit in order to start.
But once you do, it’s not that bad. Signs of fatigue tend to appear after 2 hours.

3) High-intensity activities (i.e. The Real Work.)

Work Hard And Smart

A counterpart of: being mauled by a bear and teabagged by the seven muses at the same time. It’s when you’d rather have a colonoscopy instead of carrying on with what you’re doing right now.

The absolute opposite of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. It’s the “there is always something broken and I’ll find it” philosophy. It feels terrible. But it delivers amazing results.

How to tell if I am doing these activities? After you finish learning, you’re sobbing softly and want somebody to hug you. And you feel damn proud.

I like to think that it is our small Everest which we should climb daily.

It’s difficult to work hard and smart

I know that I should write every day in order to publish articles regularly.
But I fail. Because they are never good enough. They are never inspiring enough.

I have read somewhere that an average time for writing an article is about 5 hours.
It depresses me. It makes me feel like a failure. And I know I should come up with ideas daily. About 3 years ago I read on the blog of amazing James Altucher about the concept of becoming the idea machine.

The concept is simple – if you try to come up with 10 ideas per day, in 6 months your life should change significantly. 3 years down the road I’m still struggling to come up with 10 ideas once every 3-4 days.

It’s disheartening and it makes me feel like crap. But every now and then I manage to come up with great ideas. And my face lightens up when I send them to others. And I’m pretty sure their faces lighten up as well as these ideas change their lives. And that’s what it’s all about.

Remember – If you do not push, you are not practicing.

High-intensity Activities In Language Learning

One of the notoriously difficult activities in language learning is speaking.

  • On an A1-A2 level, stringing more than a few words feels like a crucifixion.
  • On a B1-B2 level, the challenge is to learn enough words (while improving your grammar) to be able to express yourself quite fluently.
  • On a C1-C2 level, the challenge is to constantly substitute the words you already know with dozens of other synonyms. It’s where you have to start saying “atrocity” instead of “that ugly thing”, or “marvelous” instead of “great”. (see The Word Substitution Technique)

It’s damn easy to play with Duolingo or Memrise for 1 hour. It’s much harder to actually open your mouth and start saying something.

Real-life example

I like to highlight my students as an example. If they want to learn with me , they have to accept one condition – they have to bet with me. Each day, from Monday to Friday, I have to get a 10 minute recording of them talking to themselves.

It’s only 10 minutes right? And yet, after 3 weeks their level changes drastically.
It’s almost unbelievable. And magical! Ugh, I definitely overuse this word.

The side effect is that they probably hate me but, oh well – it works!

Not accidentally, talking to myself is how I learned Swedish to B2 level in order to get the job in less than 4 months without talking to anyone in this language.

Fix Your Learning Plan

It’s a really simple recipe. But it’s hard to implement.

1. Define high-intensity activities in your domain

You can do it on your own or ask someone who is much better than you in a given domain.
But the truth is that very often you already know what the problem is and what you should be doing.

It’s a task which you are always postponing.

It’s a task which you can’t do for more than a few minutes without having to distract yourself with a mobile phone or other mindnumbers.

2. Start doing them at cost of other (low- and medium-intensity) activities

Start small. You don’t have to do it for more than 20 minutes daily.

Break this time into smaller chunks if you have to.

With time, as you toughen up, the overall time spent on practice should be extended.

High-intensity activities change with time

Of course, you have to be aware that high-intensity activities change with time.
They morph into medium- or low-intensity activities.
What once was a nightmare can become a breeze with enough time.

You should keep it in mind and adjust your learning strategies as you progress.

It’s not about perfectionism. It’s not about being a workaholic.
But if you decide to spend the time to do something, make it count. Learn how to work hard and smart.

22 comments

  • Helpful (and humorous) observations, Bartosz. I spoke four languages by the time I was 18 and never gave much thought at the time as to why I was better at it than my fellow students. I was not a brilliant student overall by any means but excelled at languages. One of the key factors to successful language learning (IMHO) is a strong desire. If you don’t really want to learn the language, you won’t. I LOVED doing it for some odd and perverted reason I have never fully understood. Bring on the grammar! Bring on the vocab! Nothing was ever too much (at the time anyway… then we get a little older and… well… you know).

    Since a strong desire is not always part of the equation (e.g. “I have to learn this for my job” which is more of a strong *need* than desire), the semi-motivated learner can make the great gains by doing exactly as Bartosz suggests — talking to yourself (outwardly and just in your head) in your target language.

    What is interesting is that I spent very little time listening to native speakers (outside of the classroom) because it just wasn’t practical. However, I found that, after spending so much time immersing myself in internal dialog, when I actually did engage with native speakers, so much of what they said I felt I had already heard many times before. It was familiar. As we all know, trying to follow someone else’s speech is one of the most intimidating things about learning a new language. After all, I know what *I* want to say but who knows where THEY’RE possibly leading the conversation. Anything outside of “hi, my name is” can cause you to break out into a cold sweat, especially when you’re a beginner.

    Another suggestion related to speaking which has which has made a big difference for me is to pretend I am teaching someone else. I would envision myself in front of a classroom presenting the material I had just been learning. If I stumbled, that meant I had not fully learned that topic. Most of us have some level of anxiety when speaking in front of a group. I would suggest that speaking to even one person is “public” speaking. By mimicking that anxiety by “fake” teaching you will quickly learn where the gaps in your knowledge are.

    All of this boils down to a simple concept: you get good at what you do. If you simply park yourself in front of a textbook or computer screen and memorize words, that’s what you’ll be good at. If you regularly engage yourself as you expect to use the new language in the real world, you will feel much less anxiety when you actually do. Who knows, you might even enjoy it!

    • HI Jeef! Thank you for this outstanding comment!
      It’s amazing that you already spoke 4 languages by that time. That’s some mean feat!

      You’re absolutely right – desire is not always an option.
      But I believe that most people don’t like certain activities simply because they are bead at them.
      Their attitude often changes as they get better.

      And I can absolutely relate to your remark about listening to native speakers and getting this feeling “I’ve said IT to myself before!”.
      It’s really oddly satisfying! 🙂

      I also pretend to teach in order to identify weaknesses in my languages! 🙂 Good thinking!
      Once again thank you for your amazing comment – it’s very insightful!

  • Oh go to hell, will you?! Some of us only have Duolingo and Memrise to learn from. Some of us have mental instabilities inhibiting us from personal conversation. Do not write as if you know a universal rule that govern as all. Everyone is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I do not give a crap about what works or doesn’t work for you. You are not me and you do not effect me. Well done…You made me doubt my language learning abilities more than ever. Be proud of youreself…

    • Hello!

      Nice to meet you as well!
      You don’t need to tell me about mental instabilities – I have a fair share of them.
      And if you put some effort into reading what I have done, you would see that I mostly suggest talking to yourself.
      No need to be hostile.
      All the best in your language learning!

  • Very good tips! Although I started with Rosetta Stone (French), I’ve supplemented with Memrise and Duolingo “on the go” while at work; listen to French Pop music, and try to speak with native speakers when I can (two of the doctors at work speak fluent French). This is as close to total immersion as I can achieve for now.

    • Hello Terry! Thank you for your comment! 🙂
      It seems like a very solid learning plan!
      I think that Memrise and Duolingo can be a great supplement of learning.
      The problem is arises when you use these websites as the core of your learning process.

  • Excellent post. I could see myself as a Fluffoholic and maybe this is a great problem for me. I’m always working very hard with Memrise in order to equip my English vocabulary and substitute the overused words, however, I have spending more time gathering new words than using them.
    The thing is: I have so little time to do so many activities, that I’d rather practice the easier tasks than the real hard work.
    Well, I reckon that I need to wonder how can I get it, but, at the moment I’m not sure yet how to do it.
    Thank you for such nice information.

    • You’re welcome! 🙂 Thank you for your comment!
      Finding balance can be hard – no doubt about it.
      But being aware of distorted proportions between different learning activities is also important.
      Once you know what the problem is, you can start coming up with potential solutions! 🙂
      Good luck!

  • Thank you so much for this great post, Bartosz! I can’t help but agree with every single word that you’ve said. I think “If you do not push, you are not practicing.” is the key message of this post.

  • You’re a pro at dealing with internet trolls. I admire your ability to not let some jerks get to you.

  • Really important points made here. It is so easy to fall into the trap of doing what is comfortable rather than what is effective. I must’ve spent hundreds of hours on Duolingo furiously working away at French. Did I learn something from it? Sure. But I am sure I would have gotten ten times the benefit had I redirected most of that time to the hard/scary stuff, like Anki, grammar books, and a conversational partner.

  • Huh. Okay, I’m going to try and speak to myself ten minutes a day. I’m sure I’ll be crying tears of rage, but I’ll try it for 21 days and see how I do.

  • Holy sh.t great article !! Duolingo is in comfort zone, it’s waste of time I know this because I lie to myself that I working on language. Same with many courses about programming language If you play video and do what they do it is also waste of time. Better is take one problem from beginner level and try to solve first on paper (notepad step after step) next on computer. If you don’t know something – search in google (not solution 😉 ). Little steps but high-intense. Fun is better when we want to conquer our fear about something in other situation we must play hard not soft like a p.ssy.

  • This article is so right on…….I have greatly increased my vocabulary, improved my reading, writing and listening skills to the point that I am a strong B2, for me all of these activities are enjoyable but speaking ….. It kills me to speak. I have started a daily practice of making three short recordings and it’s like pulling toe nails, on the other hand it is clear that I am making significant improvements. Everyday (well almost) I grit my teeth and start recording.

    • Wow, so cool to hear it, Bill! I know it’s really tough but the results always make it worth your while! 🙂

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