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language learning in the digital age

How to build a new learning habit in 3 steps

Posted on August 28, 2014 by

learning habit

Knowing how to build a new learning habit is crucial for your long-term learning goals. That’s why for the past few months, we’ve been investigating habit-forming. How can we help people form habits that keep them engaged in regularly learning a language?

We all know that an important part of learning is repetition and regularity. This may sound rather boring, but it is inevitable if you are serious about it.

A regular comment from our users is “I can’t find the time to learn regularly.” Does this sound like you? How many times have you gotten to the end of a long day, and not managed to find that little ten-minute window you promised yourself?

While we understand time is an issue, we believe the real challenge lies elsewhere.

It turns out that there is a way to create a new routine in your life. It starts with choosing a very simple behavior that you wish to do every day. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not about scheduling that behavior at a specific time, but about reliably triggering that new behavior so it becomes second nature.

Here’s how you can build a new learning habit in three simple steps.

1. Pick an anchor – a habit you already have

The main ingredient we need to create a reliable habit is not time, but a trigger that is anchored to our real-life, daily habits.

What do we mean by real-life, daily habits?

These are things you do every day without batting an eyelid because they have become – over time – second nature to you. Think of turning on the coffee pot every morning, or brushing your teeth every evening.

We all have reliable habits that we do every day, and they often vary based on context: during the work week, while vacationing, or on weekends. The great thing is that these habits are daily anchors that we can use to trigger a new learning habit.

Here are some pointers to help you pick an anchor:

It must be an extremely reliable habit. Pick something you always do.

It must be a precise event. A fuzzy anchor (“whenever I’m in the mood for learning”) doesn’t work well.

It must match how often you want to do your behavior. If you want to do your behavior once a day, pick an anchor that only happens once a day (e.g. “after I go to bed and turn on my alarm…”)

It should relate to your new behaviour, both in theme and location. For example, “after I drop off the kids at school” might not be a good anchor for, say, training yourself to do 10 sit-ups each day, since there is likely to be a time delay between the two habits

The anchor is a very personal thing: you need to decide what is the best anchor for you, given your personal circumstances and lifestyle.

2. Create a recipe

This idea is deceptively simple, but it works. It starts with creating a ‘recipe’ that you will practice everyday.

A recipe has very specific ingredients:

After I (real-life habit), I will (new habit you want learn).

Let’s say – to pluck a random example out of thin air – you want to train yourself to learn a language with Babbel for ten minutes every day. In this case, a small baby step might be to visit Babbel, no more, no less. Your first recipe might look like this:

After I have my morning coffee, I will go to my Babbel homepage.

Or like this:

After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will go to my Babbel homepage.

At this point you might be thinking “Really? Just go to my homepage? How is that going to help me?”

Well, it’s actually crucial for your new habit to be that simple. When Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg wanted to train himself to floss, he began by only flossing a single tooth.

Your priority at this point is not to set a challenging task (such as completing an entire lesson), but to find an anchor that truly works for you. Once you have that, you can start increasing the challenge.

The key to a successful recipe is finding an anchor that will logically trigger the new behavior. Testing and adapting your recipe is part of the learning process!

3. Up the ante

Once you have found a recipe that works reliably, you have done by far the hardest bit. Because, once again, the hardest bit is not finding the time but learning a new behaviour that becomes second nature to you, one where you don’t have to remember to do something, rather it just happens without really thinking much about it.

Stephen King famously writes a couple of pages before breakfast (a very good trigger). Once you have properly established the habit, you’ll find it hard to break, just like any other habit.

So, to return to our example. Once you are able to reliably trigger the “visit the Babbel homepage” behaviour, you could swap that with “do a lesson on Babbel” and it will seem effortless to you.

Magic? Not really, it’s just the way our brain works.

We strongly suggest that in the first week, when you are experimenting with your new recipe, you write it down somewhere really visible in the same context where your anchor happens (be creative – e.g. use lipstick to write on your bathroom mirror “After I brush my teeth, I will visit the Babbel homepage”). Soon enough, you will no longer need that reminder – if the anchor and new behaviour works for you.

This technique won’t work for everyone, but it is really easy to try out and costs nothing. Who knows, it might just work for you!



J’ai pris un abonnement pour un an pour apprendre l’anglais.
C’est exactement la méthode que j’utilisais.
Tous les matins, après mon café, j’allais sur Babbel et je travaillais. Sauf le samedi et dimanche .
plus j’en faisais et plus j’aimais.
J’ai vraiment aimé.
Mais j’ai arrêté et j’hésite à reprendre car je suis un peu âgée 62 ans et les interlocuteurs de mon âge ne sont pas nombreux.

This works! I work as copywriter and right now I am looking for german friends (on Babbel?) To make me move forward.

its relly a good way ti learn ,,thank you so much and best wish for you

My native language is Arabic.
And I learned English as a step
Towords learning technical
Studies in Aircraft Maintenance , witch I became an instructor in that field teaching in English . I always loved to learn French
I like babble easy way .

I am so excited about learning Italian that I can hardly wait to turn on the computer. I now have to discipline myself to do my classical singing practise first or my voice tutor gets annoyed!

my second comment:
forming the tiny new habits
makes good sense. I look forward to trying this method.
that way I’ll look forward to
learning and getting better
with Spanish.

I go through my morning routine
then cut my computer on and
go to babbel. I go over my
vocabulary. I like the reminder
review of vocabulary. It is very
helpful to me. The days I am
not on babbel I review the
work I have written out.

Yes, I agree that anchoring your new behavior to an old established behavior works very well. But I needed something more than responding to a “habit.” It was motivation as well as the discipline of a habit. It is the driving force of motivation. Something was incomplete for me. It was the personal experience of applying my knowledge to real life and with people. Through Babbel I met some really good people who were more than willing to help me and I, to help them. We even met in person and it is extremely motivating to continue to moving forward with a new language under these circumstances. I made a major leap forward with my German language program with Babbel, something I couldn’t do with all the classes I have tried over the years and my motivation and habits to learn, have strengthened. But still something else was missing. I have recently joined a “Die Deusche Gruppe” in the United States and now I have all the missing pieces.
People are social and need that missing link which is the application of acquired knowledge within the context of real life. The German people that I communicate with have improved their English, also. One in particular suddenly became highly motivated and her English suddenly became much better. Many cities and town around the world have groups that are interested in learning other cultures and languages. I found some English speaking language groups in Germany for one friend. For us, it is the next best thing to being immersed in a different culture and using Babbel language programs as the foundation. Thanks for all you do.

Hi Marilyn, quite agree, language is a social tool and needs to be used in a real-life context – good move joining the German group.
Motivation is important, as you say. The thing is, what about those people who really want to learn a language, but their motivation isn’t quite high enough and they never really manage to take the plunge? This is where habit-forming could be useful.

Yes this works for me! I get up and put the kettle on for a drink of tea! Whilst the kettle boils i turn the laptop on and to the Babbel site.Then when I have made my drink I do my days vocabulary. So at least I have done some German. After that I do a lesson if I have time OR decide to do the lesson later in the day..

Hey, great to hear it Lynda. Did it take long to form the new habit?

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