Learning Mandarin While Working From Home 

WFH presents a unique opportunity to do everything the productivity gurus have always been telling you about, or fail miserably at it? It depends how you see it. Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash


Ah, the perks of WFH (working from home). Sleeping in. Saving on hair gel. Skipping laundry day. Making pajamas the new business casual. Getting more time to learn Mandarin. 

If only.

The truth is, there are forces working against your plans to make the most of WFH. Yes, even learn more Mandarin while you’re at it. Luckily, we’ll learn all about them and what you can do to keep WFH from turning into WTF. 

Let’s go through them one by one:


The productivity shamers

This is what happens when productivity gurus go wrong. Productivity shamers would tell you that if you haven’t become fluent in Mandarin by now—given all the extra time on your hands due to, you know, a global pandemic—then you must not want it that bad. Where are your time-management skills? Why are you not 10-X-ing (whatever that means) this situation that just fell on your naked lap? They say.

But what they fail to realize is that yes, we may be working from home (and there are lots of pros that come with that, including potentially finding more time to learn Mandarin), but we are also working from home during a pandemic. And that comes with an extra side of stress.

Yes, you said see you later to your cubicle and your commute, but also hey there to way more stress than you had hoped for. What was once an ideal work situation we all dreamed about (as a creative, I’ve always wanted to work from home!) quickly turned into something quite different than what I once had in mind.  

Groceries on delivery. Zoom calls. Fear-mongering news. Gym shirts for polos. rationing toilet tissue. Now you really need that wi-fi to not quit on you. 

So don’t feel down on yourself when someone asks what you’ve done with all the extra time.

Besides, once you get past that romanticized, dreamland version of working from home—you know, the one you had before you were actually working from home—you’ll realize you actually have more power over your day and your time than you thought. 


The hyped up WFH illusion

WFH promises to open up more time to realize your wildest self-improvement dreams and go after your long-time goals, from learning Mandarin to starting that business right from your living room. 

But then reality hits. The kids’ school takes priority over those Mandarin lessons you’d been planning on taking. The zoom meeting gets moved to the exact time you had set out to review those Mandarin grammar patterns. The news has you so stressed out that you can barely focus on your work, nevertheless your Mandarin. Then, somebody on your social feed says WFH is the chance you’ve been waiting for to become the architect of your day. 😡

When your WFH fantasy bubble bursts, it’s easy to want to throw out all those high-hope dreams you once had of finally taking charge of your day. But if you give into your deflated feelings, you’ll truly be giving up the opportunity to do just that.

I know, the architect analogy is annoyingly presumptuous because it assumes that all you need to learn Mandarin is simply more time. It doesn’t take into account all the responsibilities you have to contend with on a daily basis even while WFH—the kids, the dogs, the wi-fi, the distractions (more on those later), the video calls.

But the architect analogy isn’t that out of touch, if you see it as less about total autonomy (which is the unrealistic dream version of WFH) and more about creating a blueprint of what you want your ideal day to look like. 

So just because you can’t control everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to modify your day to make more room for Mandarin. At the same time, by trying to change your day in one grand sweep, you’ll likely get frustrated and soon give up before you make any headway.

Instead of big changes, look for tiny opportunities and small wins. 

Maybe  you can start work a little later and devote the first hour of the morning for Mandarin. Or start work earlier and get in an extra hour of Mandarin in the afternoon—say, the hour you would have spent driving home. If your job is all about total output—meaning you don’t have to be “on” for a specified period of time, just as long as you get all your work done, you’ll have even more room to play with.

Just remember that your ideal day blueprint is just that, a blueprint. You’ll fall short, things won’t be perfect, time will get away from you. But the blueprint exercise is still a good way to get a little more say over how you run your day. 

And so is setting boundaries around your work time.


Are you bursting with joy or at the brink of tears WFH right now? It could go either way. Photo by kazuend on Unsplash


The 8-hour work day, 16 hours later 

With WFH, the line between being on and off the clock can get a little blurry. It used to be that people would avoid “taking work home.” But what about when work is at home?

Without the physical constraints of having to leave the office by 6pm (or whatever time they shut the lights out at your joint), work can become practically around the clock. And then when are you going to find time to learn Mandarin? (I mean, if nothing else, I suppose you could just listen to this ASMR Mandarin podcast in your sleep.)

It’s called Parkinson’s law, the adage that says work will always grow to fill the time allotted for it. Before WFH, you had to get your work done in 8 hours. Now, the work hours overflow into the wee hours. 

You’ll need to be decisive with your time. 

Let the clock mark the end of your workday, not whether you finished a particular task.  Any task you don’t get to finish by your predetermined stop time (unless it’s something that’s so pressing that it really can’t wait) you’ll consider it on tomorrow’s to-do list. This will create some pressure to get things done within the “work day” you’ve already set for yourself.

Another trick is to let an activity you have to do mark the end of your workday. A good example would be taking the dog out for a walk, say, at 6pm. Or getting up to play with the cat (trust me, my cat gets angry when he wants attention). 

There are also some changes you can implement around your environment to help cue when you should be “off the clock” for work and “on the clock” for learning Mandarin.


Parkinson’s law says work will always fill the time allotted for it. If you want to learn more Mandarin while WFH, be mindful of how you’re filling up your day.  Photo by Murilo Viviani on Unsplash


The work-life unbalance 

We touched designing your environment to be more conducive to learning Mandarin in another article, but it’s even more important when working from home.

Why? Because your work environment can help you set those boundaries we talked about before. And setting up those boundaries will ensure your entire day doesn’t get sucked up by your ever-increasing work tasks, as Parkinson’s law would have.

The challenge with working from home is that there are only so many places you can designate as your workspace and your everything else space. Right now, I’m both working and writing from just one dining table. Later today, I’ll take Mandarin lessons from this same table. (Best investment ever, right!? Both the table and the lessons.)

If this sounds like you, or you’re simply a minimalist who happens to love multi-functional furniture, the good news is you don’t need more space, just a little variety. Even sitting at a different side of the table when you’re studying Mandarin versus when you’re working is enough to provide a small shift to reduce mental fatigue and, more importantly, get you out of work mode for the night.

And don’t forget about your digital environment.  

If you use the same computer for work as you do for learning Mandarin, set your workplace messaging apps to “away” or silence them, quit Outlook (or at least minimize it), and close or minimize work-related tabs.

That way, you won’t be tempted to check your work email or go down the rabbit hole with a work task when you’re supposed to be focusing on Mandarin.

Making those little changes can help you stay fresh for learning Mandarin after tackling a long day at work, err, home.  

Your environment also dictates your routines.


The echo of your pre-WFH routines 

Before WFH, we did things almost on autopilot. The day was already structured for us around certain parameters we didn’t choose for ourselves, like being at the office for 8 hours a day, commuting to work, getting the obligatory morning coffee, and so on.

Day in and day out, those routines became just how we did things, without questioning them. 

Now that we’re working from home, we have a chance to reevaluate those routines, and even create new ones! But it’s a lot easier said than done. That’s because we’ve spent a lot of time practicing those routines, making them easy to stick and hard to pull away from. 

Take a look at the things you do today that are simply a result of your pre-WFH schedule, and see if they still serve you. For example, maybe you woke up at 8 every morning because you needed to catch a train, meet up with your carpool buddy, or beat that rush at the Starbucks drive through—and you’re still setting your alarm for the same hour. 

Now, you could try waking up at 7 instead and using that extra time to exercise or study Mandarin. Or you could sleep in and get some extra snooze time (hey, sleep is essential for learning, too).

The point is, now is the time to swap out those old routines that are no longer relevant to your schedule. Shed them, build new ones, prosper. 

Just don’t underestimate them. Old routines are not only sticky, they’re also sneaky. 

Almost as sneaky as that scrolling habit of yours. 🤭


Sneaky scrolling (& other digital distractions)

One of the things I noticed since working from home is that the screen time on my phone has gone up significantly. Okay fine, skyrocketed.👀

Without coworkers or a boss hovering about, I seem to get into mindless scrolling mode more often than when I was in the office. You could say the social pressure to look busy acted as a deterrent.

Being at home mostly alone, except for my cat, who also keeps me in check in other ways (we’ll save that for another article), the urge to grab and scroll is almost irresistible. Maybe it’s the work stress, the dopamine burst we supposedly get when we scroll through all those pretty pictures on the gram, or maybe it’s that I just really need a break from the monotony of my work tasks. 

One thing’s for sure, all those little moments spent scrolling, a minute here, two minutes there, can really add up—this week, they’ve already added up to 5 hours this week alone! 


Literally my face when I saw I’d spent 5 hours this week just staring at my phone and exercising my thumb muscles, instead of my Mandarin muscles. Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash


In his book The Heart to Start: Stop Procrastinating & Start Creating, David Kadavy talks about how he kicked his scrolling habit and picked up a habit of reading books instead. 

He explains that, sure, the motivation behind scrolling could be explained by neurobiology—the mini-high we get from it—not to mention that it gives us a little breather from work. (All just theories.)

But, Kadavy argues, the reason we engage in scrolling has less to do with neurobiology and more with psychology. The real reason we reach for the phone when we feel we can spare a minute or two, he says, is because it requires very little perceived effort. We’re not intimidated by the task at hand (no pun intended). 

He says that if we just lower the perceived effort of any other activity, we’re more likely to engage in doing that instead. Say you want to read a book. Anytime you feel the urge to spend a few minutes on Facebook, spend a few minutes reading half of a page. By making the task tiny, you make it easy to do again and again—almost as easy as binge-scrolling.

You can use this strategy to get in more Mandarin. Want to learn Chinese characters? Put in 2 minutes practicing character strokes on the Skritter app.  Read half a page of that grammar book. Listen to 5 minutes of that Mandarin podcast. Take 2 minutes to watch a video on Mandarin verbs. You get the idea. 

You’ll be amazed at how much those tiny beneficial distractions will add up to improving your Mandarin over time. 

Another way to improve your Mandarin over time is to get in some social time—something that can be hard to come by in our new WFH era. 


The social subtraction 

WFH has come with another perk, well, if you’re an introvert like me—a substantial lack of social interaction. But even if you’re a hardcore hermit, not interacting with people gets old at some point. 

It’s also detrimental to your Mandarin learning over time. 

That’s because one of the best ways to learn Mandarin is to practice your speaking and listening with other people. While there’s something to be said about learning solo, there’s no replacing real-world conversation practice to really develop that speaking confidence.  

Luckily, you can have your cake and eat it too. As in you can practice social distancing (and still be a hermit, too) while getting in some much-needed social time and Mandarin conversation practice with the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts

Sure, you can also look for a Mandarin pen pal or Mandarin language exchange student, but why stop at just one. With the Hangouts, it’s like getting a whole tribe of Mandarin pen pals, all together, all at once! You can practice your Mandarin with lots more people, all at different levels, even native Mandarin speakers.  

WFH For the Win!

Okay, so WFH isn’t quite what you thought (or hoped?) it would be. But with a little creativity, persistence, and the will to fight for your time, it can be so much more! What are some things you’ve found work for you? Share them in the comments below. 

Leave a Reply