In general, I’ve found self-studying to be very difficult. After graduating college, I’ve occasionally tried to study something on my own, but I never get very far before giving up.
It’s not that I can’t stick to routines. I’m generally able to form good routines around e.g. exercise, but for some reason, when I tried to apply the same techniques to studying (or writing, or side projects), it wouldn’t work. I would do study sessions with friends — I wouldn’t concentrate. I would try taking a class — and I wouldn’t keep up with the homework. I would try setting a simple goal to try every day — and I couldn’t keep up.
I found it so odd. I was good at school, and I have no problems learning whatever I need to learn for work, and I’m generally not bad at establishing routines… so why was this particular routine so hard? I couldn’t figure it out.
🎉 Success at last!
Last Sunday, I completely finished my 50th day of studying Korean for 2+ hours! Check out my completed habit tracker:
I have never been this successful with independent studying. What did I do differently this time? Well, basically everything, but I especially changed my approach and mindset!
I wanted to share some tips and tricks on self-studying in case it helps anyone else, since this has been something I’ve found challenging for over a decade. I hope you find this helpful the next time you want to try to study something on your own!
(Note: Finding a positive way to pass the time during the pandemic was something I personally needed to do for my mental health, to get through this time as un-miserably as possible. Studying is not what self-care looks like to many others, and that’s absolutely valid 💕 Don’t pressure yourself! Study only if it feels right.)
💡 How to make a self-study routine that works for you
Here’s the key breakthrough I had in establishing a successful study routine:
- a) You need to create a routine that works for you, and
- b) That’s really hard to do, so take an iterative approach!
In school, it’s not like your English teacher just handed you a dictionary and a grammar textbook and was like, “Look, I’m giving you these resources, plus you’ve got the entire internet – now sit down and figure it out.” Instead, your teacher provided a curriculum, pacing for the curriculum, a daily schedule, homework, worksheets, games, in-class activities, exams…
And yet when self-studying, I would so often be like, “Gee Victoria, you have a Korean grammar book and the internet, why can’t you figure this out? You must be lazy and bad!” Which was totally the wrong mindset! Instead, I needed to think of it more like course design: Creating a class really hard! It takes time! It’s anything but obvious.
So in this guide, I wanted to focus on tips for creating a study routine that works for you, as an iterative process. Remember: You are not lazy or bad. A routine that works really well for one person might not be the right one for you. If the routine isn’t sticking, try adjusting the routine!
1. Start a simple routine
OK, so let’s say you’re like me and you want to start learning Korean.
🍏 EXAMPLE: Your first attempt at a routine might look like this:
- At 7am every morning, I’m going to study Korean.
- Monday – Friday, I’m going to go to http://talktomeinkorean.com/ and learn a grammar pattern. If I encounter any words I don’t know, I’m going to add them to my Quizlet flashcards. I’ll study my flashcards every day after my lesson.
- Saturday – Sunday, I’m going to review everything I’ve learned.
After you do this, you might be like, “Hmm there are around 30 lessons per TTMIK level, and 10 levels, so around total 300 lessons… with this routine, if I double-up a few days, I should get through all of TTMIK’s material in about a year! OK awesome!!! 😎”
2. Start debugging this routine!
📣 The first routine you come up with will almost certainly not be right for you. 📣
As I mentioned, self-studying is essentially the art of creating an education for yourself. That’s extremely hard!! The chances that you define your perfect self-studying program on the first try are very, very low. In fact, you should expect that you won’t quite get it right, and that you need to make adjustments.
When your routine isn’t working for you, analyze what’s wrong and and make adjustments. In other words, debug it!
🍏 EXAMPLE: You’ve tried 3 days of the routine above, and on day 4 you don’t want to wake up at 6:45am, and actually you can’t really remember lesson 1, and you want to give up.
That’s OK and normal!! Analyze this routine. What’s working for you, what’s not?
Change as much or as little of it as you want, but be sure to write down your next routine.
Maybe your next revision looks like this:
- I’m going to study Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday off
- I’m going to study at 7pm
- On Monday and Wednesday, I’m going to learn a new TTMIK lesson, and on Tuesday / Thursday / Friday I’m going to do flashcards + watch a Korean youtube video
Try out your new routine! This too will probably not be right. That’s OK, keep repeating these steps of setting a routine, then debugging the routine, over and over again.
😭 MYTH: Ugh but if I make my routine easier, that means I’ll take forever to finish TTMIK lessons!! I’ll never learn Korean!!!!!
Not true!! Once you figure out a routine that you can stick to, your progress will really take off, I promise! (I have a case study at at the end of this post if you don’t believe me.) You will figure out ways to make your routine more sophisticated in a way that’s sustainable, because you can build upon your already-functional routine.
3. Track your overall progress
It’s good to track your progress! It’s to be done with caution — one can be a little too fixated on maintaining streaks, etc — but it can be good to have some objective data that you can look back on when reflecting on progress, especially if you tend to be hard on yourself.
When you start, the focus should be on, very simply, tracking the routine itself. How many days are you sticking to your routine?
Also, here’s how you should track these days: Count every version of your routine as “studying Korean,” and count your planning time too!
🍏 EXAMPLE: Let’s keep with the example – so you’ve studied on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then Thursday and Friday you didn’t feel like studying at all. Saturday and Sunday, you create a new routine, which you pick back up the following Monday.
You should track this progress like so:
In other words, count the days that you tried Routine v1 (M-W), count the days you thought about changing your routine (Sat-Sun), and count the days of Routine v2 (M).
😭 MYTH: Ugh but planning days aren’t really studying!! If I’m this lenient with my counting rules then I’m never going to learn Korean!!!!!!
Ah, but here’s the beauty of this method: You are frequently debugging your routine and trying a new one. That mean you will converge on a working process!
The other thing is that you are trying to establish a routine here, which is more important than the contents of the routine at this point. This is why it’s important to count planning days as part of “sticking to the routine”!
😯 QUESTION: Where should I track my progress? In an app? Habit tracker? Stickers? Bullet journal??
This, too, is part of your journey in figuring out your routine and what works for you! (I know, everything is so meta — this is why self-studying is so challenging!)
I’ve tried all sorts of things, stamps, stickers, notebooks, apps… and literally the most effective method of tracking progress for me was that free TTMIK goal tracker sheet. I put it on my fridge, and in each circle I wrote down the date on which I stuck to the routine. Now that my TTMIK tracker is all done, I hand-drew my own, and — continuous refinement — I found hand-making my own habit tracker to be quite unpleasant, so I ordered this notepad for next time 😁
4. If you fall off, don’t worry! Just pick it back up again when you can.
Use caution when tracking “streaks” as motivation, like setting a goal for yourself to study X days in a row. While this works well for some people, for others, breaking your streak can feel like a failure. To me, this doesn’t feel like a beneficial framing. For instance, if you study 15 days straight and have 1 day off, isn’t that incredible progress? What’s the benefit of beating yourself up, saying something like, “but arghhh I was trying to study 30 days in a row“?
If you end up having one day off, or several days/weeks/months off, don’t worry about it! Pick it back up when you feel ready again. And, like always, evaluate your routine! Why did you fall off? What do you want to do differently?
🍏 EXAMPLE: We’re going to use a real example this time! Look at my habit tracker more closely:
There’s a big gap between 1/3 to 1/16! I took a moment to analyze why I didn’t study those days.
- 1/3 to 1/16: This overlaps exactly with my last 2 weeks at Glitch
And actually, in this case, I changed nothing!
In my last 2 weeks of Glitch, when I found myself totally not studying, I told myself, “OK, after my last day of Glitch I’m going to pick it back up again.” And 1/16 was a bit painful, but I did it, and each day after that got easier. Soon enough, I found myself back into my Korean study routine. Had that not worked, I would have tried to change something. But since it did work, I figured, OK this is a unique enough situation (i.e. the last 2 weeks of a job) that I’m not concerned that there’s something wrong with my overall routine.
It’s good to do an assessment, but no need to fret. If you stop your routine, the most important thing is to pick it up again, whenever that may be.
5. Continuous refinement
To reiterate: You should expect that your routine will change. When you do settle upon a working routine, it probably won’t work for you forever.
To prepare for that, you can research different approaches for studying your topic of choice. Think back to your entire academic experience: Wasn’t 6th grade English class different from 10th grade English class? Was every day in class the exact same? Your teachers (hopefully) did a lot of work thinking of different exercises and activities to keep students learning and engaged.
🍏 EXAMPLE: Again I’ll use a real example: I frequently look up different techniques on how to learn Korean. I try all sorts of different apps, I’ve watched dozens of YouTube videos with tips on Korean learning in particular or language learning in general, I’ve built apps for myself, I’ve downloaded Chrome extensions, I’ve bought several different books … all in all, I have collected maybe over 100 ways to study Korean.
I do not attempt all of these learning methods at once, but instead, I cycle through a few depending on how I feel and what I want to learn. For instance, for a little while I was really into reading webtoons on Naver to help with my Korean. Then I had a phase of getting really deep into Quizlet and vocab words. Then I had a phase of studying conversation transcripts from this book. Then I read a Korean novel. etc.
It’s really nice to have this backlog of techniques and study material prepared. I actually keep track of studying ideas on notecards. Then, whenever I hit a rut with my Korean study — like if I just don’t feel like studying that day, or if I want to improve a specific skill — I can look through my notecards for inspiration.
😭 MYTH: Finding tips on how to study is just procrastination!!! That time is better spent studying!!!!!!!!
Not true! While I think it’s a good thing to err on the side of “just” trying something, and it is possible that one can spend too much time thinking about studying vs actually studying, looking up tips on studying is by no means a waste of time. In fact, it’s hard to create an effective routine, so doing research on this is encouraged! My current routine has come from pieces of the many YouTube videos and resources I’ve consumed on how to study effectively.
Once you are on the “create a routine that works for me” journey, having a large toolbox of techniques to try is a huge benefit, not a downside! (Don’t try them all at once though ☺️)
📚 Case study: My Korean study routine
To conclude, I’ll leave you with an outline of what my current Korean study routine looks like. But to reiterate that this is absolutely not what I started with, I’ll provide you with some false starts as well. I hope this serves as encouragement!
🚫 First attempt (March or April 2020):
- Monday – Friday, TTMIK lesson every morning, starting with Level 7 (I took the placement test and this was the recommendation) (I studied Korean in college)
- Saturday – Sunday, review the previous days
- Track everything in a notebook
I literally did this for ONE DAY before stopping
🚫 Another early attempt: April 2020
- italki lesson 2-3 days / week, focusing on conversation
I tried this with 2 tutors for exactly 1 session each and I found it excruciating. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I was so slow and awkward at speaking. I struggled to answer easy questions.
I thought: Hmm before I can be comfortable with italki, I need to practice conversations solo.
🚫 Another early attempt: April 2020
- Study one lesson from Korean Q&A Sentence Patterns every week
- I also signed up for the Advanced Korean at KCCNY. It’s a lightweight class, one that doesn’t have exams or any required homework. There’s no sequence or syllabus, at least not at this level, so one can attend any random offering or class and not be behind. (Think of it like weekly drop-in yoga class, rather than a 10-week yoga training program, if that analogy makes sense.)
I literally stuck to the Q&A Sentence Pattern for ONE LESSON before quitting 😭! But!!! I ended up sticking with KCCNY 🎉 I found having a group of people that I see regularly really helps with motivation for me. And the lightweight class format really worked for me, as I am creating my own self-study curriculum anyway!
(…several attempts later…)
🌟 First working routine! November 2020 🌟
Around this time, I had recently watched this video. Sofie said she studied 2-3 hours every day, and she emphasized needing to use vocabulary in conversation to have it stick. So I shaped my routine like this:
- Every day: 2 hours of totally open-ended Korean study time after work, using MDProspect‘s study with me videos as a Pomodoro timer. I’m very strict at respecting the Pomodoro interval: I devote the entire 45 or 50 minutes to studying, and I don’t do anything unrelated to studying during this interval, not even for 5 seconds. But I’m lenient with what I’m studying. And reading tips on how to study counts! I also light candles, turn on my space heater, and make tea.
- Also: 3 hours KCCNY class on Saturdays (continued from April, though they don’t have enough students for Advanced anymore, so I attend Upper Intermediate)
- Also: 30 minutes italki freetalking on Mondays and Sundays (hadn’t done any since the 2 awkward sessions in April)
This worked incredibly well for me!! This is what I used to fill out that 50-day tracker.
Some things to point out:
- It took me 8 months to come up with my final (“final”) working routine!!
- But also, my Korean still improved a lot during this 8 months, even as I was constantly changing things up in my routine. In fact, my Korean improved so much that when I tried italki again in November, I could actually converse WAY better than last time! I can like… legit have conversations about … real things with … real Korean people!
- I also didn’t end up with a less rigorous schedule despite shying away from things like “Learn X grammar patterns every week.” This schedule is still quite rigorous! It’s just also a rigorous schedule that works for me, and is one I can actually stick to.
- One sort-of specific point: My KCCNY classes / italki sessions are not “the things teaching me Korean,” but rather, they’re components of my self-study journey. Going back to the yoga analogy, it’s kind of like taking yoga classes as part of a fitness journey. I actually think this is another important mindset adjustment for language learners: If you take a language course outside of college or an otherwise intensive, full-time program, your teacher is not your personal trainer. Therefore, they’re not going to create your study routine for you! Depending on what your goals are, it might not be (nearly) enough to only attend the course and see improvements, at least for the intermediate -> advanced stage. (This is also why I still consider myself self-studying, despite taking a class – the class is an augmentation of my studying, rather than the other way around.)
🌱 Current routine: February 2021
I basically have the same routine as I had in November, but I’m experimenting with a few things:
- I’m trying to read an article / day in almost exactly the way that Hyunwoo describes at 4:31 in this video: I changed my Google News to Korean, I randomly pick a news article, then I paste a paragraph at a time into Papago. I first read the paragraph in Korean, and hover I don’t know over the words in Papago to get the translation. Then I read the paragraph in Papago-translated English, and I compare the two. (This definitely takes me longer than 10-20 min, though!!)
- I’m trying to summarize the end of my day in Korean to myself, as a form of self-talking / thinking in Korean (inspired by this video).
🌸 In conclusion: You can do it!
Alrighty, if you’ve made it this far, here is my summary:
- Start a simple routine
- Start debugging this routine!
- Track your overall progress
- If you fall off, don’t worry! Just pick it back up again when you can.
- Continuous refinement
I hope this guide was helpful to you! I have many, many, many more thoughts on studying Korean specifically and self-studying in general, some of which I plan on posting on here on vrk.dev in the following weeks.
I’ll also put a small plug for an educational experiment I might run in the next few months (no promises): everybodystudy.club Check it out and maybe fill out my interest form if you’re interested in learning things!
Good luck on your self-studying journey! You can do it!!!