Managing the Long Haul

Hill with one tree on it

As most of you know, I have a background in Medieval Studies. I still like me a bit of history, and this past month I've been working on a book-project: an atlas of military history. Perhaps the tightest deadline I've ever faced, I had four weeks to write 70,000 words (about 320 pages).

Completing a single, finite task is relatively simple. When presented with a complex project with several components and a time-scale lasting weeks or months, things get a bit trickier.

Sitting at my desk, I thought, "I have four weeks to write a book roughly the length of my doctoral thesis. FML." Staring at the project as a whole, it's easy to become convinced of its impossibility. No way! I can't do that! And it's true to a certain extent: no one could do this project in a single sitting. It has to be broken down.

The project consisted of roughly 140 topics. In order to finish, I would need to sustain an average of 5 topics a day, about 2,500 words a day. Knowing that I would be unable to work on the project every day, this would mean that some days I'd need to do more. Already, though, 2,500 a day words is a lot more doable than 70,000.

Within each topic there needed to be a few subtopics and small sections. Breaking each topic down, I was able to say, "OK, I've got to write 200 words on X. No big deal." When that was finished, it'd be, "I need to write 300 words on Y. Ok, that's not too hard." By breaking down this colossal project into small, easily digested pieces, I was able to actually meet the deadline set by the publisher. It was absolutely brutal — I'm not going to say it was easy — but it was possible.

One of the tools I used — and it's something I discuss in my course — was a combination of a time-based and work-based approach. As my motivation and attention flagged, I needed to concentrate in smaller bursts. I would set a timer and say, "For the next 20 minutes, I am going to work on this topic as hard as I can." When the 20 minutes were up, I would take a break, then repeat. In this manner, I was able to meet daily quotas through a focused time-based approach. A kind of "time machine gun" as I call it (that's a terrible name I know).

Language acquisition is no different. It is a big project, and many people get scared away when they realize how much work it is in total. The important thing to remember is that no individual piece or exercise is going to be unmanageable. If you break the language and the language-learning process down, they are made up of several, finite pieces of work, all easily accomplished in a short amount of time. When running up a long hill, don't look up — just keep placing one foot in front of the other and you will get there.

It's important to know how much work language acquisition is; but it's more important not to get scared away by the "big picture." In practice, each step takes little time and effort, and all the pieces add up very quickly when you've broken down the process properly.

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