What I learnt about Habits by using the Duolingo app to learn a language for 230 days

Dinakaran Sankaranarayanan


What I learnt about Habits by using the Duolingo app to learn a language for 230 days

What I learnt about Habits by using the Duolingo app to learn a language for 230 days ( ~ 8 months)

Some times life gets boring. The day-to-day grind of professional work brings no joy. It usually follows a pattern. There are periods of hard work followed by some success. It is getting thrown into the deep end of the water and swimming back. Rinse and repeat.

During this intense period, I normally stop reading/learning anything. I get engulfed and consumed by work, and some work and, then some more work. Quick wins are hard to come by and even if it comes, it is always 1% done and there is no sense of jubilation given the bigger picture.

To avoid screen time and to distract me from becoming a computer zombie, I got into the habit of reading books. I read the book Atomic Habits. One of the suggested tips to form and build any new habit was that the habit must be easy to start without too much workload. Any new habits that can be completed in 10 -15 mins tend to stick.

Learning a new language the gamified way

While reading through the book, I came across the Duolingo app. The app helps us to learn new languages easily. The whole premise of the app is around gamification. Engage the learner through interesting puzzle-like games, rewarding users with points and trophies, leaderboards etc. All I need to do was spend around 10- 15 mins a day.

So I thought why not give a try. I always wanted to refresh my basic Hindi skills for a long time. I had learnt Hindi in schools till 5th standard, but beyond that, I did not learn any further. So I thought of enrolling just for fun.

One important aspect that I later realized is that I never had any major motivation here to pick this up and complete it other than the fact that I can just learn Hindi the fun way. I had no immediate use of Hindi either at work or personal life. So without thinking too much, I went about using the app to learn Hindi.

The early days

Early days were super fun. I learnt alphabets and got reminded of some Hindi words that I learnt during my school days. It was just fun to see progressing through every level day after day, week after week.

I blogged about the experiences positively during that time.

Novelty starting to wear off (after 100+ days)

I always thought I would reach this stage pretty soon. Even though the effort required to do this was pretty small, I was not compelled enough to go through the rest of the course. There are not so much of rewards to speak for taking this up. It initially felt like an interesting idea, but then beyond a point, I felt it to be boring. I did not pay for this is another reason why I thought of giving it up mid-way. What is there to lose was the practical perspective.

Should I complete or drop out ( after 150+ days)?

It was then I realized why most of our new year resolutions or habits do not stick over time. Some of the reasons :

  1. No real interest in pursuing the habit or the idea. There is no good intrinsic motivation in us to sustain and complete.
  2. Rewards for diligently following up on this habit is not good enough.
  3. Habit was super hard to sustain or the effort required is too high and demanding

In this case, it was 1 and 2. But then I also realized, giving up is probably the easiest thing to do. If I decide to try something out and if I get bored, then giving up would become the regular phenomenon. We dream about trying out X, Y or Z, but the moment we start to undergo the daily grind, it becomes either boring or insufferable. So in my mind, I thought this was an interesting idea to try it out, but not willing to fully follow through to see how it felt towards the end.

Most of our life feels like this. Something feels pretty interesting and fun, but over time, we feel no love. I have become an expert on giving up midway many of the ideas on the personal front for a variety of different reasons. Some of them were perfectly valid, while the other was because I lacked the conviction to get it done. It became a recurring pattern.

So this time I want to get through the finish line and accomplish the goal irrespective of how I felt. I persisted through this one day at a time. In my mind, I was thinking that if I were to give up something so easy and simple, how will I have the belief and faith in myself to try out more complex things.

Crossing the finish line

Once I had my mind set up that am not giving this up, the daily chore even though it did not feel enjoyable became bearable. I was slowly progressing steadily and there was only one end goal. Get done with this. Some days I felt no energy to complete the drill, but then the app started sending reminders again and again.

The app became my forcing function. It kept reminding me that I have this thing to complete before calling it a day. So after 230 days, nearly ~8 months of the daily grind, I completed all the 5 levels of the Hindi course. It is not a big deal, to be frank. I’m not an expert and still out of depth on a lot of different things with the language, but I felt a certain sense of peace.

Learning from failure

I tried to build more than one habit at the same time or different points in time and failed miserably over the last one year.

Some of the habits that I could not keep up :

1. Write code outside of work for good 30 mins every single day

From a motivation and rewards perspective, this habit can do wonders for my career, but it never happened. One of the reason was that I was not very sure about what to code every single day. It was not super clear or obvious to me. I planned a certain time but there was ambiguity around how to get going. Without thinking much about how to plan my habit, I went in and crash-landed big time.

2. Shed some weight

Again with this habit, the intrinsic motivation was to remain active and healthy. Rewards were appealing as well. But I had no specific plan around how to achieve it. I kept walking my usual way, but then it did not help me to lose any weight at all. I tried to stretch and do a bit of skipping. But it did not help. Once I worked out too much that resulted in muscle pain and then I fell behind on my schedule. I should have come back on track, but I lapsed. Next time I need to plan this better, be more detailed and intentional about the goal. I did not have proper systems in place to see through that I can hit this goal.

Reflecting on habits

As James Clear called it out explicitly in his book, habits are hard to build and sustain unless there are intrinsic motivations to keep us going through hard times. It is important to align habits with the overall goals of what we want from life, the kind of person we want to become. All habits need to be tied up with a sense of purpose. The rewards need to be equally attractive. Only then do habits become part of who we are and start to integrate with our identity.

Next time when I want to try a new habit, before picking it up randomly and giving it up halfway thereby losing self-confidence one habit at a time, I need to think through the real motivations behind wanting to try this out. Does this habit help me to reach my overall goals/ motivations that I want out of life? Are the rewards attractive enough? Can this goal help me to make a lifestyle shift to become a better person?

To give an example, if our overall goal is about improving and be better with our health, how about making the goals pretty easy and simple.

  • How about starting with 10 push-ups a day or walk for 15-20 mins.
  • If this is possible without breaking a sweat and put into practice, then it is a good start.
  • After this initial habit becoming second nature, increase the intensity to probably 20 push-ups a day or walking for 45 mins or include another habit that you want to try post completing the first one.

Prepping up our environment is very much required to succeed in our habits. I cannot walk randomly at different times each day. It will be too difficult to manage this activity if there is no fixed schedule.

If the plan is to walk every day at 8 am, I need to wake up at 7 or 7.30. And if I need to wake up by 7, I need to be in bed by 11. And if I want to be in bed by 11, then I need to wrap up everything by 10 including work.

Putting a system in place is where most of us fail when it comes to habits. Once the right systems and process are put in place, it is easier to get going and chances of giving up are relatively less. And yes, no one gets it right the first time. But the idea is to try and refine, improvise and get better at reaching the given goal. And more importantly, it is not just reaching a goal but making it part of our identity and who we are.