Clock-time, Calendar-time, and Hours of Practice
How to use self-tracking of time to support learning
- Self-tracking of time can be most useful when there is some sense of what “enough” is
- Calendar time (how many days do you spend returning to something overall) is more important than clock time (how many hours of practice you put into that thing directly) when it comes to learning
- Learning requires not only disciplined action, but also disciplined receptivity. Gamification with tracking can help build discipline in taking a particular action, but it’s important to notice when it helps (and when it doesn’t) cultivate the mental and emotional receptivity needed to learn
Since 2015, I was supposed to be learning German. I wasn’t spending enough time on it; this was objectively true, as I was spending maybe a cumulative hour on a flashcard app per week. No matter how you slice it, that’s not enough. “I should spend more time learning German,” I thought, and to motivate myself, I tracked it. That got me to maybe 2 hours per week.
Was that enough? What would be enough? How many hours of practice are needed for fluency? Well, it depends on which language you are learning, and which languages you know. You can look up a rough range. Looking up combinations of languages I knew and German, the numbers I found on a cursory glance were between 480 and 750 hours. That is a very wide range! But, importantly, both numbers are far smaller than what I might have guessed. That sticky “10,000 hours are needed for mastery” idea had lodged itself in my brain a long time ago, and even if consciously I knew it to be not applicable to most actual skills I would want to learn, it colored my expectations. (It’s been thoroughly debunked anyway.)
This is one of the main ways that self-tracking of time is used to support learning something: to gamify the process, to create quantifiable goals. Even in absence of additional reward, hitting the “high score” can give its own reward effect. In psychological studies of habit formation, rewards can usefully help with repeating the desired behavior, at least as a way to make the behavior more satisfying (and it is more satisfying behaviors that are easier to make into habits).
Well, at my rate, it seemed I would learn German in 5 to 7 years. Is that too long? Of course, it is possible to do intensive courses. However, I had done this in the past (including with language learning) and I knew that spreading learning out over a longer time, and balancing calendar time and clock time was essential to actually retaining the knowledge.
Let’s say I would need 480 hours to become fluent in German. I am completely certain that if I do nothing else and only study German full-time (40 hours/week) for 3 months, I will know much, much less than if I study the same clock-time (480 hours) over a longer time. In reality, I have done so far 225 hours of practice (in clock time) over 6 years (in calendar time) and I do not communicate with speed or ease, but I can communicate, and I have the certification I needed. Of those:
- 60 (27%) were on flashcard apps on my phone during work commute, which I felt guilty (“this is not enough”) about at the time, but which I later realized was very helpful to build an initial vocabulary. That was very helpful when I eventually went to evening classes.
- 85 (37%) were in evening classes, which would last for 3 hours on a Monday or Wednesday after work, and which gave me both a rough, minimal basis in grammar and unbelievable headaches.
- 80 (36%) were in weekly hour-long tutoring (including homework) with a great teacher that I am still working with on a regular basis, and who has been enormously helpful because they know my tendencies and can really focus the hours of practice on the most necessary areas. Unlike the evening classes, these lessons don’t give me headaches, and I look forward to them. This has been by far the most effective mode of learning for me.
There is a night and day difference between these three activities, even though they are quite comparable in clock-time. It is not surprising at all that the 60 hours of angrily tapping on flashcard apps on trains was the least effective learning method. It may be a bit more surprising that I learned (and retained) much more from tutoring over a long time than from relatively-intense evening classes. I feel the difference is in the capacity to be receptive.
When activities are gamified, that can be helpful — at least in the short term — to established a discipline of action. “I will floss every day. I will look at German vocabulary for 15 minutes.” I don’t need to be in any kind of particular mental state for the flossing activity to be effective. This is not true when it comes to learning: if my mind wanders, if I’m exhausted, if I’m frustrated that I’m not learning “enough,” I will not retain those words, or retain many fewer.
Even if it is helpful to look up “hours of practice needed” for setting baseline expectations initially, the only thing that really helps to understand when one is (and isn’t) receptive to learning is listening to the signals of one’s body. I was having headaches during and after my evening courses so consistently that I tuned them out, rather than listening to them as an important signal: This isn’t working for you. You won’t remember anything you’re learning in a few weeks. Try something else.
Currently, I am not completely fluent, but I feel maybe three-quarters fluent. Which means, for me, the hours of practice needed (so far, only 225) are far below this rough 480–750 range. The ongoing habit is helpful, and my time-tracking is not a gamification at all. I can estimate these numbers form my calendar appointments, and I am curious how many hours I will ultimately need for what feels more like fluency. As I reflect on the time tracked, I find that I am trying to keep the hours fewer (and over a longer time) rather than more because I have seen how much more effective (and pleasant!) it is.
The initial gamification was to help motivate myself to take the needed action — to study — with the hope that taking the action will be effective. But for the action to be effective, I needed also the mental and emotional quality of receptivity, and this needed to try out different actions.
I’ve taught a course on radically honest and creative approaches to time-tracking, and have personally been using tracking and systematic journaling as part of my art practice since 2007. English is actually not my first language, and I do a lot of self-directed learning with online materials on many topics, so when I arrived to learning German, I had thought: “this is going to be a piece of cake. I know how to do this, I know how to learn and I know how to learn languages, and I know how to use apps to organize this activity well and make it fun!” It ended up being a whole journey to get to the point where I could be receptive to studying German. That inspired me to write this post.