Clarifying the Task [#LatinReadingChallenge]

In my most recent post, I touched on the topic of setting goals, in particular the goal of increasing Latin proficiency. We’ve talked before about the importance of reading in achieving this goal. While discussing this issue with my friend Daniel, he mentioned the difficulty that he was having getting his own students to read regularly (or in fact at all!). Daniel himself has achieved a high level of proficiency on his own, which he owes to a strong reading practice. While exploring this problem, we started to uncover some issues that go beyond the context of merely reading some bit of Latin every day.

what_should_i_doDavid Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, describes a shift towards what has come to be known as “knowledge work.” In the modern work place, workers, more and more, are given objectives to meet, but not explicit instructions about how to achieve those objectives. While this gives workers more independence and autonomy, it also places on them a greater responsibility to determine how to meet their goals. Teachers today are finding themselves having to deal with this same paradigm shift, but from the opposite end. They are being told to guide students to be self-directed learners, while confronted with students who have been conditioned in the old model of learning. I myself have had the experience of students who are not interested in setting the tasks for themselves, they just want to know in concrete terms what they’re supposed to do.

Back to the topic of setting goals. The problem with most New Year’s resolutions (and similarly, New School Year’s resolutions) is that they are focused on results and not the tasks required to achieve those results. The Getting Things Done system identifies processing as a separate step from collecting ideas, and acting on them, and for good reason. A major obstacle to actually doing things is that we’re not really sure what it is that we’re supposed to do. When tasks aren’t clearly defined we develop a sense of aversion to doing them, which feeds a lingering sense of guilt about not meeting our goals. For example, we know that something has to be done about the “Check Engine” light in our car, but we haven’t stopped to identify “Call the mechanic to set an appointment” as the next step to addressing that issue. Think about your own personal proficiency goals. How often have you experienced frustration or a sense of guilt, because you know you’re supposed to be developing your reading proficiency, but you just haven’t done anything to get there?

So, Daniel and I wondered, how can we leverage the old “just do this” model, to help ourselves and our students meet our goals? Objectives like “get healthy,” “become a writer,” and “get better at Latin” are not accomplished by getting healthy, becoming a writer, or getting better at Latin. They are achieved by repeating specific tasks, which over time contribute to those goals. Instead of “I will get healthy,” “I will have oatmeal from breakfast every morning” becomes a task which is easy to accomplish and measure. Replace “become a writer” with “write 1,000 words each day,” and your chances of success increase. Obviously, by itself, eating oatmeal every day won’t get us to all of our health and fitness goals, but repeated consistently, it becomes part of a larger strategy that pays off over time.

In our conversation, I gave Daniel the movie The Karate Kid, as an example. In the movie, Mr. Miyagi gave the character Daniel clear tasks to complete: paint the fence, sand the deck, clean the cars, etc. Daniel didn’t need to know why he was performing those actions, he only needed to complete them exactly as instructed. Over time, he developed the foundation and muscle memory he needed to move to the next level. To become a runner, you don’t need to know all the intricacies of posture, stride length, and foot placement. You just need to get out and run for a little bit each day. The advanced topics will come later.

I wrote before about tracking your reading habit, to hold yourself accountable, and motivate yourself once you’ve established a good streak. Now you need to clearly establish what it is you’ll be tracking. Justin at Indwelling Language has written about the value of “Limiting your language learning – on purpose.” When it comes to something that you plan to do on a daily basis, keeping the task manageable is essential – it is too easy to get derailed by random life events.

However you decide to divide and measure your reading is up to you. You may choose to set yourself a time requirement each day, but if that doesn’t seem to work, try splitting your reading up into meaningful chunks. My daily task is simple: read one letter by Seneca each day. When my dear friend Faber (Evan in English), undertook reading Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (a task which he completed in a mere 14 months!), he committed to read and contemplate a single paragraph each day. (For some more advanced bite-sized chunks, follow Faber’s blog Frustula Augustiniana)

Here are just a few other works which split up well for easy daily reading:

Keep in mind that these might be too easy or to difficult for you; they might capture your interest, or you may find them boring. Let me and others know what texts might divide up well for a daily reading habit on Twitter with the hashtag #LatinReadingChallenge.

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