How I Spent 700+ Hours on Languages Last Year

After publishing my Summary of 2014, a lot of people have been asking me how I managed to spend 749 hours on languages last year. This is my answer.

To achieve a goal like this, you need three things: tracking, obstinence and inventiveness.


There is no way to achieve any planned goal if you’re unable to say where you are now and where you’re going. I’ve been tracking myself since the end of 2009. I’m not a fervent believer of the Quantified Self, and generally not a fan of numbers, but I do believe in tracking the metrics that I want to improve.

I have extreme liberty in what I do and when (freelancing from home, so no set 9 to 5 schedule), which also means extreme temptation to procrastinate – and I don’t want that. I have a lot of goals in life and procrastinating won’t help any of them. So I started tracking the relevant metrics. My key interests are:

  • How many hours did I spend on each language? The brain often remembers language study to have been more recent than it actually was, so by looking at the spreadsheet, I have a more accurate view of what actually happened. If I see that I haven’t spent much time on a certain language recently, then I don’t get demotivated by not having made any progress. I’d often decide to do more.
  • How many hours did I spend productively? I. e. doing work, housework, paperwork, reading, learning, studying languages, playing Go (which I deem important for myself) and working out. I don’t particularly care about tracking these hours in detail, but I care about maintaining / achieving high overall productivity.

So I created a beautiful elaborate spreadsheet, which I use to track not just language hours but also other indicators of productivity.
screenshot of my language-learning spreadsheet

You can get a copy of my 2015 spreadsheet as of yesterday at WORKING_2015_forshare.ods  . If you want to use this kind of spreadsheet to track yourself, I recommend the simplified version at WORKING_2015_simple_forshare.ord , which assumes less languages and requires no customization. (Ignore the “Half-hours in 7-day average”, it won’t work during the first week of 2015 but will be fine afterwards)

The basic idea of these spreadsheets is that you can quickly enter your hours for the relevant date (actually I enter everything as half-hours due to the way I study), you only enter everything once and the computer does all the calculations. In the two right-most columns you’ll see your productive time for that day and in the header you’ll see overall statistics for each language / your total study time. The best feature is that if you enter your goal hours, you will see whether you are on track for that goal, given how many days are left in the year. This is the part that says “Total lang hours: 7.8, Should be > 10” at the top left in the above image. If I bring the number up to 10 today, I’m on track.

My total language study time has never been more than 712 hours since I started logging it, until last year:
2010: 523 hours
2011: 712 hours
2012: 569 hours
2013: 643 hours
2014: 749 hours

I recommend setting a goal that is equal to or slightly above your previous record, so that’s why I set 700 hours as my goal for 2014 (and now 750 hours for 2015) and my spreadsheet let me know if I was on track for that – very often, that indicator convinced me to study more. Or I’d check the French column, find it was completely empty as far as the eye could see, and decide to do something in French. I would not have hit so many hours without this spreadsheet.


Opening this spreadsheet is the first thing I do when I switch on my computer and it is the last thing I close. You have to develop this habit, otherwise it won’t work. As far as habits go, it’s really well-chosen: opening this spreadsheet is not “work” and it’s so fast that you don’t have the desire to procrastinate on it. However, once you see the columns and numbers and what you need to do in order to not fall behind your goal, you are probably motivated to study languages. 🙂

I found that being able to enter a number and watch my totals go up is satisfying. I sometimes study 10 minutes of Anki just in order to be able to put another 0.33 into the spreadsheet somewhere.

Scheduling is also really helpful: get on iTalki and schedule some language classes with an online teacher. Once you’ve scheduled something, cancelling it is more work than attending, so your laziness works in favour of your language-learning plans. In this past year I’ve also taken advantage of the Swedish university system, which allows all EU / EEA citizens to take classes free of charge. Swedish universities have a lot of classes that are held completely online, so I enrolled in “Chinese in Speech and Writing IV”, “Modern Chinese Literature” and “Chinese Linguistics” (all taught in English and Chinese; I actually don’t speak Swedish). This meant having some set times in my schedule every week that were reserved for Chinese. You may have seen that my summary report of 2014 includes 349 hours of Chinese alone – it’s largely because of those classes, and their homework. In exchange for that work, I finally reached C1 (fluent) level in Chinese, mastering a mock HSK 5 exam.

To make it through an entire year AND hit your target, you do have to be inventive though.


There were plenty of days I was too bogged down in work or too sick to be able to do anything, or simply feeling down and not motivated. The key is to invent things you can do then.

For example, when I’m feeling well I may study Italian on Duolingo or write a text to be corrected on Lang-8, but when I’m feeling out of it, I’d just watch an Italian movie. This is also time I can log in the spreadsheet – the key is to expose yourself to the language a lot and obviously more involved ways are better, but when those are not an option, I’ll gladly take less involved ways over not doing anything at all.

When sick or tired, it is difficult to come up with something language-related that you could do, so I recommend making a list of possible activities beforehand. You’ll be surprised how many there are.

Another challenge was that when I had a regular office job at a big IT company, I struggled to find enough time to study languages. So I was inventive and initiated the idea of “language lunches”, getting together for lunch with international colleagues who spoke my target language. Italian on Wednesdays, Spanish on Thursdays, you get the idea. I also downloaded Anki and podcasts to my iPhone so that I could study a little bit on my way to/from work.

I like to read books, so I ensured that I’d have interesting foreign-language books lying around that I could pick up and read. Create opportunities. The opportunities will convert into time spent.

The most important thing is to realize that study time doesn’t have to be sit-down-with-textbook time. I’m actually quite bad at sitting down with a textbook, unless it is to prepare for a scheduled class. In this coming year, I will attempt to develop some textbook study habits through the Add1Challenge. If 749 hours is what I can do when “winging it” (basically studying whenever I feel like it), I want to see what will happen when I develop some good habits.