I've been studying Chinese for an embarrassingly long time. I started in high school, where I was required to take two years of a foreign language to graduate. After two years of two hours of Chinese a week, I walked away from high school with a firm grasp of both “nǐ hǎo” and Chinese pronouns.
I decided to continue my studies in college. Armed with my trivial knowledge, I miraculously managed to test out of the first term of Chinese. I'd been studying Chinese for two years, and my professor thought I was only prepared to skip ten weeks of classes. I enrolled in the level 2 class, and over the next ten weeks, I doubled my knowledge of Chinese. After that, I forgot it – all of it – then I took one more term of Chinese I was utterly unprepared for years later. After that, I did something I was even less prepared for. I came to China.
I flew to China fantasising about having conversations with native speakers and achieving fluency within my first year. I was just going to soak up all the Chinese around me. Except there wasn't that much Chinese around me. I was teaching English, making friends with my English-speaking colleagues, reading English books, and watching American TV shows. Being in China did not immerse me in the language.
I do have far more opportunities to practice here if I seek them out. Being in China is certainly very motivating, and I was never completely delusional about how easy it would be to learn. I've had a Chinese tutor since my second or third week here, and I've studied independently off and on. I just wasn't achieving the progress I had dreamed about on the plane over here.
I resolved to do better. I was going to spend more time studying Chinese. I wasn't going to do anything differently; I was just going to do more of it. Somehow, though, telling myself over and over again that I'd study Chinese after I got home from work didn't motivate me to study more. If anything, spending the whole day reminding myself I was going to study when I got home exhausted me.
Something had to change, and I had an idea how to do that. I had a horrible, awful idea how to do that. Since I was too tired to study after work, I was going to have to wake up earlier and study before work.
I'm not a morning person. I haven't been a morning person since before I went to college. Waking up earlier was no small step for me, but I couldn't think of any other solutions. I eased myself into it. I set my alarm just ten minutes earlier. That, along with the fifteen minutes I usually spent watching random YouTube videos while I drank my coffee, allowed me to spend a respectable twenty-five minute studying Chinese in the morning.
When I got used to that, I moved my alarm up another ten minutes and then another ten minutes. I now have time not only to study half an hour of Chinese but also revive my long-dead yoga habit.
I expected to hate waking up earlier, but I'm much happier now than I was when I was sleeping in. Finding time to get exercise into my routine has boosted my mood. I hadn't realised how much I'd missed it. The feeling of heading to work with all of my personal goals already accomplished is just as good. I now go to work more alert and in a better mood overall.
It's only been a month, but I know my new morning routine is going to be around for a while. For one, January is one of our busiest months. Kids are out of their public schools for the winter holidays, so they enrol in extra English classes. I also got sick right in the middle of our busiest month. If I can keep my routine up through all of that, I can continue no matter how busy I am.
I know I will continue because I've come to understand why I wasn't reaching my goals in the past. Before, I didn't have a set time to study. The question “Should I study now?” was constantly on loop in my head, and because I can't (and won't) constantly study Chinese, I got into the habit of answering “Ask me later.” Now, I study in the morning every morning without question.
Getting rid of that question was just as important as nailing down a specific time to study. My old yoga habit died when I got sick and took a week off. Once I got out of that habit, I had to ask myself if I wanted to start it up again today. I always planned to start up again tomorrow, when Lazy Aly would magically wake up as Super Aly and do all the things I didn't feel like doing today. This time, even when I got sick, I still did an easy stretch routine to maintain my momentum without taxing my sick and healing body.
Super Aly never woke up, but it turns out I don't need her. When goals become daily routines, you don't need super willpower to maintain them.