Updated: Apr 13
2020 was a crazy year. In addition to the actual pandemic, many people had to change their entire working lives. People all over the world lost their jobs, started working from home, and made the transition to online classes. Being a paramedic, I didn't have the sudden influx of free time that many others did. However, the lack of social distractions and obligations brought on by the lockdown allowed me the time to ask myself, "What have I been doing with my life" and more importantly, "Is this getting me where I want to go?"
These questions were about wide-ranging topics such as my career, physical health, and housing situation, but I also reflected on my approach to language learning. When I considered the matter, I realized that I actually had no idea what I was doing each day or how long I was doing it for. This may seem to you like a pretty big oversight for someone whose primary hobby is language learning … and you'd be right.
I simply squeezed in whatever activity in whichever language I felt like that day. I would read on the bus to school, study grammar in the ambulance between emergency calls, or I would veg out in front of some Netflix at the end of a long day. This method wasn't bad, I was still learning, and it was certainly better than nothing, but I found that because I wasn't making a concerted effort to improve, I became quite good at maintaining my current level and not actually progressing.
I realized that I needed to keep track of what I was doing with my language learning, and I turned to technology to help me out. I have tried keeping a journal to track these things, but for some reason, I can't stay consistent with analog habit tracking. After a bit of browsing, I settled on the Forest App.
Forest is a beautiful app with a calming interface. The idea is you plant a tree in your forest for each successful focus (or, for our purposes, "study") session. You can choose different tree types to represent different activities, but you can also split your study time between customizable categories. I have categories for German, Russian, and Spanish. You can also make notes for each session, adding more detail about what exactly you did. For example, I would jot down "Italki lesson" into the comments for my 60-minute Russian block after a lesson.
There are also a handful of specialized features that may come in handy. For instance, you can turn on "Deep Focus," which causes your beautiful little tree to wither and die if you leave the Forest app. I choose to keep this one turned off because I'm often using the apps and the dictionary on my phone to study. Still, it IS a nice way to prevent yourself from mindlessly slipping into social media when you meant to open a learning app.
Once your study sessions are over and counted, you can view them by the day, week, month, or year. The app will also give you a breakdown of how you spent your time overall. I love this feature because I sometimes neglect a language without even realizing it (sorry German last month!). Forest doesn't just give you your timed totals either. It also gives you color-coded graphs of which category you used most, trends to compare with other time periods, and even tells you which part of the day you tend to be most focused.
I use Forest solely for my language learning, but I use an additional habit tracker on Notion to track my diet, exercise, hydration, and language learning. I'm not going to cover my use of Notion in detail here because it is so involved that it definitely deserves its own article.
I'm not sponsored by Forest or Notion; I just love their interfaces and find that this method works for me. I think habit tracking sometimes feels like something only techy, type A people do, but even if you're skeptical, I would recommend giving it a go. It's really difficult to change your habits if you're not fully aware of your current practices.