How to Make Learning Mandarin a Habit

In his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear shows us how to make (and stick to) good habits. We can apply his teachings to make learning Mandarin a habit we don’t even have to think of. Graphic by James Clear.


Recently, I read  Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear and was totally blown away with the amount of super useful insights packed into every chapter.

I also couldn’t help but notice how incredibly applicable and useful those insights are for learning Mandarin (especially after listening to podcast episode #139, where Chinese reading/writing and learning app Skritter CEO Jake Gill recommended it as one of his top books for learning Mandarin!

So naturally, I decided to write an article about some of the main and more relevant-to-Mandarin-learning concepts covered in the book and how to apply them to building a Mandarin learning habit. (Just in time for 2021 New Year’s Resolutions, too!)

Before we get started, I just want to say there are so many nuggets of wisdom in the book that it’s really worth the full read (no, not getting paid to say that). 

Without further ado, here are the main takeaways from the book and how they apply to learning Mandarin:


Takeaway #1: Design Your Environment for Learning Mandarin

According to Clear, our habits, whether good or bad or even neutral habits, are triggered by visual cues, whether we’re aware of it or not.

For example, if you leave your phone on your nightstand, it’s the first thing you see in the morning, it’s easy to grab it and start scrolling through social media (I speak from personal experience for this one). Your phone is the visual cue, scrolling is the habit that is triggered by it. Same applies to eating cookies—if you leave cookies on the counter (visual cue), it becomes harder to resist them (habit).

Okay, so cookies and mindless social media scrolling are bad habits, but how can you make cues work for you to learn more Mandarin?

You design your environment around it.

In the book, Clear says, “If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.”

Think of it this way: what you see is what you do.

Want to eat more veggies? Don’t hide them in the crisper, put them on the shelves so they’re the first thing you see when you open the fridge. Want to start running? Leave your running shoes out by the door instead of stuffing them in the closet.

When it comes to the habit of becoming fluent in Mandarin, the same idea applies. You may just have to get a little more creative, since the cue isn’t as visually obvious.

Are you learning Chinese characters? Maybe put up a big calligraphy art piece in your living room as your visual cue. If you’re using the Skritter app to learn Mandarin characters (which, by the way, you should be, since it’s free to try out, plus you get 10% OFF with code mandarinmonkey), put it on your home screen so it’s the first thing you see when you unlock your phone (instead of social media!)

For me, I have a neatly stacked tower of Mandarin books right on my desk to remind me to make more time for Mandarin. I also add Mandarin movies and shows to my watch list on Netflix, so they’re always there whenever I sit down to watch TV.   


If you want to make anything a daily habit, make it a visible and obvious part of your environment. Photo by Stephanie Harvey on Unsplash.


Takeaway #2: Make Learning Mandarin Irresistible

In the book, Clear talks about how sometimes, the anticipation of doing something is greater than the thing itself. Think about how excited you get at the thought of opening presents. Probably more excited than actually opening presents, right?

(The scientific explanation has something to do with dopamine—a feel-good neurotransmitter involved in behavior and habits, among many other things—being released at the anticipation of something pleasurable.)

Well, the same applies to any habit: the anticipation of the action is what drives us to act. 

So when it comes to the habit of learning Mandarin, think about what gets you excited. What gives you that dopamine hit? 

For me, it’s the anticipation of all the “aha!” moments. You know, those moments when something, all of a sudden, clicks in your head—a sentence pattern jumps out at you while listening to a conversation, you suddenly understand why something is said that way, you get a grammar concept you’ve been struggling with.

Those moments of insight, comprehension and even enlightenment kept me eager to learn Mandarin every day. They made all the other moments of bewilderment, frustration and fluster worthwhile!

I quickly realized that one of the best ways to get more of those “aha!” moments (and one of the best ways to learn Chinese, period), was to take online Mandarin lessons.  Having a teacher who understood the way I learn, and who possessed the experience and insights to explain concepts in a manner I hadn’t encountered before, made all the difference. 

So to summarize, find what gets you the most excited to learn Mandarin, (like looking forward to your next Mandarin lesson!) and use that to keep you on the path toward fluency! 


Some habits elicit a feel good response even before we engage in them. Graphic by James Clear.


Takeaway #3: Leverage Proximity & Community

In Atomic Habits, Clear talks about how we pick up habits from those around us. The closer we are with people, the more we pick up habits from them, good or bad or neutral.

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we got a habit from someone else. For me, it’s eating while standing in the kitchen. I only noticed I had picked that up from my mom when I noticed her doing the exact same thing, and my sisters, too. Even the way we lean on the counter and hold the plate. 

According to Clear, we can use this very human habit of, err, picking up habits of those we hang out around—which he calls the phenomenon of proximity—to help make a habit stick, like learning Mandarin.

How do we do that? We surround ourselves with people that are already doing the habits we want to pick up or get better at. 

Or as Clear puts it in the book, “Join a culture of people where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.”

If you want to train for a marathon, you join a running group. You know, people that won’t think you’re absolutely nuts for getting up at the crack of dawn, running miles on end and rubbing Vaseline on your nether regions.

When you’re with a tribe of people connected by a mutual interest, from running to learning Mandarin, the daily habits needed to get you to your goal—getting in the miles for running a marathon, studying to become fluent—suddenly seem a lot more doable.

Also, being part of a tribe will help you stick with your goal, not only because of the built-in accountability (you don’t want to leave your running or Mandarin buddy hanging), but also by the camaraderie and shared goal. As Clear says in his book, “Friendships and communities are what help any behavior last over the long run.”

If you’re looking for a tribe of like-minded Mandarin learners of all levels, join the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts.

When others are binge-watching The Office, these guys and gals are playing games and learning Mandarin Chinese together. When others are procrastinating on their goals, they’re already one step ahead in getting in their Mandarin conversation practice for the weekend. (Remember the whole proximity thing?)

When others question your sanity for wanting to learn one of the hardest languages in the world, these guys will love to help you on your quest (ask you to share your daily habits for doing so!)

Most importantly, the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts are a culture where your desired behavior—learning Mandarin—is the normal (even coolest ever!) behavior. 


Takeaway #4: Use the Goldilocks Rule  

The Goldilocks Rule of goals states that “humans experience peak motivation on tasks that are just on the edge of their current abilities.” 

In the book Atomic Habits, Clear presents a useful analogy. Imagine playing tennis with a toddler. Assuming you’re any good at tennis, you’d likely get bored really fast. Now, imagine playing tennis with a Wimbledon champion. Assuming, again, that you’re good but not Wimbledon good,  you’ll likely get bored just as quickly. 

One is too easy, one is too hard. What you need to succeed falls somewhere closer to the middle, what Clear calls “just-manageable difficulty.”

When learning Mandarin, it’s tempting to want to dive head-first into the hardest concepts, thinking that it’s a surefire way to get us faster to fluency. But just like in the tennis example, oftentimes, it’s a surefire way to get bored. On the flip side, if we never move past the easier concepts (or the concepts we’re already confident in), we won’t make progress. 

When I first started learning Mandarin, I looked around for the best podcasts to learn Chinese, mainly because I didn’t have a ton of time to learn and I could listen to podcasts at work and at the gym. 

The options were either Chinese-heavy podcasts or podcasts that had very little actual Chinese. When I listened to the Chinese-heavy podcasts, I got frustrated when I couldn’t follow and soon, I got bored. The podcasts that had little Chinese, sure I could understand more, but I wasn’t getting enough practice. 

Then, I discovered the Mandarin Monkey podcast, which is entirely different. Because they use Chinglish, they straddle that optimal line of just-manageable difficulty. You get just enough Chinese to learn valuable grammar and vocabulary in natural conversation, but not enough to overwhelm you, and just enough English to keep you from getting bored, but not too much so you’re still getting tons of Chinese practice.

Not too hard, not too easy. It’s the Goldilocks Rule in practice. 

The Goldilocks Rule states that to get really good at anything, we have to straddle the line between too hard and too easy. Graphic by James Clear.


Takeaway #5: Ride The Slow Upward Curve 

Okay, so these ideas from Atomic Habits are less about something you do and more about a mindset you adopt. 

Riding the slow upward curve is the idea that progress toward fluency in Mandarin won’t always feel like a high-speed train. Sometimes (most of the time, actually) you’ll be chugging along at a pretty slow pace, barely watching the scenery move by.

But that’s actually just the perfect pace—the 1%-improvement-a-day pace. 

It may not seem like progress (you may not even be able to see it!) improving by just 1% everyday adds up. So while it may not feel like you’re getting anywhere at first, in a year you’ll have improved by 37%! You can bet the scenery will look a lot different from here than when you first started!

So when it comes to making Mandarin a daily habit, think path vs. speed. As long as you’re moving forward, enjoy the journey! 

Graphic by James Clear.


Ready to Apply the Power of Atomic Habits to Your Mandarin Habit? 

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