The Importance of the Next Thing

No, this isn’t about tech trends or teaching fads. It’s a confession and a simple solution. Confession: My reading-and-listening habit in one of my target languages almost disappeared this winter. Why? Because I hadn’t lined up the Next Thing.


The Next Thing

The Next Thing is the resource you plan to use just as soon as you’ve finished the current one: The book you’ll read next, the show you’ll watch next, the topic you’ll explore next. Why is it so important to have it ready to go before you get to the end of the current thing?

bicycle crash, a metaphor for language-learning without the Next Thing

…for the language-learning of someone who hadn’t lined up the Next Thing

Forming and maintaining good habits comes down to making it

  • harder to do what you don’t want to do.
  • easier to do what you do want to do.

What I don’t want to do is stagnate in my language learning. What I do want to do is enjoy target-language content and, in doing so, boost my proficiency in the language. Usually, it’s less about willpower than practical stuff like where I keep my materials or what other activities my habits are linked to. I’ve noticed that the main reason my target-language exposure slips is not lack of commitment or even time, but simply my having made it easy to skip a few days.

When I finish a Spanish book from the library and haven’t already gotten the next one, it can be days before I get around to it. When I finish a Spanish series and don’t have the next one queued up, I can spend weeks not hearing native Spanish. Sure, there are always websites and videos and podcasts to explore, but the point is that it’s really easy not to explore them if you haven’t decided in advance that you will peruse so-and-so’s Twitter during your snack break every day, read a story in Borges’s Ficciones before bed, or reward yourself for cooking and doing the dishes by watching the next episode of Les Revenants.


The Next Thing or the Next Things?

I find that I make it even easier to maintain my target-language habits if I actually have multiple potential Next Things lined up. That way, when I finish what I’m currently on, I’m that much more likely to have a Next Thing that I really feel like using. Maybe I enjoyed my last thing and I want more of the same–okay, I’ve got something like it ready. Maybe I enjoyed my last thing, but I’m really ready for a change–okay, I’ve got two different things ready to go. (This relates closely to the practices I describe in “Do What You Feel Like.”)


When the Next Thing is the Last Thing

If you happen not to have the Next Thing lined up, a simple temporary solution is to make whatever you just did the Next Thing, too. I did this recently with my Spanish Netflixing, rewatching La Casa de Papel while I waited for Tiempos de Guerra to be released. You don’t even have to finish redoing whatever it is. Just go right back to the beginning and stick with it until the Next Thing is ready. If you really liked the last thing, you might do this anyway. This really seems to solidify my understanding and retention of both the content and the language.


How does it work for you? Has not having the Next Thing lined up gotten in the way of keeping your habits? Have you found other solutions that work for you?
See also: Do What You Feel LikeThe Number One Mistake in Language Learning; I’m Gonna Watch TV Anyway
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  1. Yes, very recognizable! Although time is also an important factor for me; I want to do much more than is possible in one day… And fun reading I do much more than ‘serious’ reading; like eating fast food instead of health food… Sometimes it can give me a feeling of ‘guilt’, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy… Thanks for your interesting blogposts, Justin!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Alike! Reading (and watching) things in target languages is how I get a lot of content I enjoy–soccer interviews, crime thrillers, human interest stories–that I might feel guilty spending that much time on in a first language.

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