Always Leave Some for Mr. Manners

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It used to be a rule of thumb in English manners to ‘leave some for Mr. Manners’, meaning if you were at an event or someone’s house, you shouldn’t eat the last biscuit, and you shouldn’t try to get every last bit of food on your plate.

Etiquette questions aside, there’s a useful moral here for many areas of life, including language learning. World-famous ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof, who climbed nearly Mount Everest to a height of nearly 24,000 feet wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, and ran a half marathon in sub zero temperatures in shorts only, says he always leaves a little air in his lungs when performing athletic activities. Arnold Schwarzenegger also said that when he was working out he would always stop just before it got boring or too tiring. This meant he always came back wanting more, and on the rare occasions he broke his rule he struggled to come back at all.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’ve spoken a lot about always doing what interests you in language learning, and that’s paramount. But a key part of that is also knowing when to quit. If you look at my guidelines, I always make general statements like ‘20-30 minutes’; I never give exact numbers because that makes things too rigid. Even the numbers I give are only a guide to help you if you’re wondering - if you’re starting to find it a chore at 18 minutes, STOP. Leave it, and you’ll find you’re more interested in continuing another time. And continuing is the greater victory, because, like compound interest on shares, the investment of time compounds and you end up doing far more.

Basically, it’s about psychology. I’ve said elsewhere that if you’re not enjoying and interested in what you’re doing, then a) there’s no point in learning it (barring necessity for work or something), and b) you’re not going to learn or remember as much. So always enjoy. But even things you enjoy and are interested in can become too much, so if you push past the breaking point then you’ve turned it into a chore. Not only does this mean it’s not enjoyable, it also drastically reduces your chances of returning, and therefore of seeing results over time.

Let’s do the maths: We’ll say you get bored after 10 minutes of reading. Now, if you push through and do 30 minutes, you might be proud of yourself, but it’s going to be a struggle to keep that up. If you’re particularly disciplined, let’s say you keep that up for a week before it becomes too much, meaning you’ve read for a total of 3 1/2 hours. If, on the other hand, you’d stopped at 10 minutes, you’d be more interested in coming back and finding out what happens, so you never feel the need to stop. So, although after a week you’ve only done 1 hour and 10 minutes, by the end of the month you’ve read 6 hours - nearly twice the amount! Plus, because you’re enjoying it, you may well find yourself picking it up in odd moments throughout the day - maybe an extra five minutes, maybe more.

See the compound effect?

So here’s a rule for language learning: Always stop before it’s a chore. I’m not big on rules, but for me this is unbreakable.

Always leave something for Mr. Manners.

Alexander Westenberg