Learning English at Home – Advice from a Cognitive Scientist

Learning English at Home

Advice on learning English at home

from Cognitive Science PhD Candidate and Tutor at UCD

In the last week we have been forced to move all of our classes online. We have been amazed by the creativity and adaptability of our teachers and the flexibility and enthusiasm of out students.

We know that studying at home comes with a lot more challenges and the Covid19 situation has put a lot of you into a situation where your normal routines have been turned on their head. As you know Everest was founded on a deep interest in how we learn and the research around how we learn new languages. So, in order to help you get the most out of your English learning in isolation, we contacted a cognitive science PhD candidate at University College Dublin, Mark M. James. Below are some tips and insights from Mark’s studies into habit formation as well as ways that you can create the behaviours, habits and environment to allow you to improve your English while you work and learn English from home.

Meet Mark M. James

an expert in behavioural change and design

Being both a cognitive scientist who specialises in understanding habits, and someone who has worked/studied from home on and off for many years, below is my advice for anyone who is just now making the transition to working or studying from home in this time of crisis.  

The first thing to emphasise is that you shouldn’t feel like you have to take on all of what’s included below. I include the details I do so that you have plenty of options to choose from. Any change is going to be very individualised, so no blanket prescriptions are possible, and even small behaviour changes are hard, so start with what’s going to be most natural and effective for you, and build in things as you go.  

As Bruce Lee put it, kind of: try things, keep what works, discard what doesn’t, add where you see fit.  

First things first, look after yourself 

  • I’ll not say anything about hygiene habits. You have heard enough of that from other sources
  • It is understandable if you’re not feeling 100%, and finding it difficult to engage work or study with the same vigour that you might normally
    • Don’t feel bad about this, the tips below should help you stay on top of things. If they are not enough though and you are experiencing a lot of anxiety, seek out professional help.
  • Forgive yourself for the first few days in which you are hanging around in your nightgown, or PJs, or lying in bed. In fact, if its working for you, and you are getting your work done, and not slipping into negative states or patterns of thinking, keep doing it.
    • For most of us though, these won’t be effective strategies, and will quickly lead to negativity
  • A few ideas to maintain health
    • Establish a morning ritual (if you already have a routine that you do on a normal work day, stick with that)
      • journal on 3 things you are grateful for, or simply journal your feelings
      • meditate, pray, do what brings you solace 
      • move in the context of a yoga, tai chi, or qigong practice, or do a workout (there are lots of body-weight workouts online if you cannot get to a gym)
      • make a schedule for the day
    • Make phone calls, talk to people often, instead of emails or texts, talk 
    • Continue using social media to engage with the communities you are a part of
    • Get support from and be the support for your friends
    • Help someone out, a neighbour who needs it
    • Give thanks to those who are serving us at this time, even online, sharing stories about their acts etc. 
    • Support the businesses you value and that serve you in normal times, keep paying memberships if you can afford to and they are dependent upon it
    • Make art
    • Make love
    • Play
    • Share in the humour of what is going on, funny videos and memes should be embraced, not dismissed as asinine
    • Teach and share your skills, especially if they are relevant to the current crisis
      • feeling that you are contributing can be very empowering
    • Maintain your living spaces as you normally would, free from clutter
    • Let go of the need to control. Surrender to the situation as best you can, and trust in your own abilities to deal with whatever it is we face, knowing that support is there if you need it
    • Limit the intake of news to what you feel is adequate to you. It’s tempting to just keep scrolling so as to keep confirming our negativity bias that things are getting worse. Beyond having what you feel is a good read on the situation, this is not likely to be helpful to your health 
    • If you are finding the whole thing a bit of a challenge from time to time, but don’t feel you need professional care, remind yourself of times before where you have had to do something challenging, where you had to give it your all, and find strength in that 
    • Get outside and into nature: lunchtime walks, evening walks, sit in the sun if you are lucky enough to have it shining 
    • Do what you can to get good sleep, and be conscious if your sleep patterns have changed. This can be an early indicator that you are on a downward spiral if you are not careful

Getting into the frame of mind 

  • Take seriously the fact that your environment and your behavior are very tightly related.  When you put on your work clothes, go to school, or the office, sit in your office chair etc, you are being primed to work, or study. Likewise, when you are at home, in your PJs, you are being primed to ‘home’, i.e. to relax, cook, sleep, etc. We may not normally think about it in these terms, but we already have many modern rituals that work to transform our mindset from one state to another: putting on a particular set of clothes, for instance, making a cup of tea, applying makeup, simply making a commute. In a time like this, when the existing flow of practices has been disrupted, we might have to make a more conscious effort to engage these rituals so as to bring about the mindset change that normally follows. This is the single most important thing to think about when studying/working from home. How can I not only transition into work mode from home mode when still at home, but how can I transition back to home mode when my work/study is finished. If you can do both of these things, you will be able to maintain your productivity, and get enough rest, so that working from home will be your new normal within a week or so  
  • The easiest way to think about this is to simply ask yourself, how can I preserve my existing rituals and use that as a basic template to map on to my new situation?
    • This might entail
      • getting dressed for work/school, even having your shower and doing what you would normally do e.g. do your hair, put on your make-up
        • another advantage of getting dressed as if you were going to work is that you are already dressed to go for a walk at lunchtime etc. 
      • Listening to a podcast or audio book, whilst getting set up, if that’s what you would normally do on your commute
      • Preparing the tea, coffee etc. that you might normally bring to work
      • Preparing your lunch and snacks like you normally would, even packing them into lunch boxes, can be very powerful, as they are material signifiers of the work day divided into working segments
        • There might be a tendency to treat being at home like a weekend day. By doing what you would normally do on a workday you can avoid this, and thus avoid the weekend mindset that comes with it, which might be antithetical to work/study and make any efforts along those lines more painful than they need to be

The workspace: clearly defined spaces and times


  • Of equal importance, and very related to the above point, is having a designated workspace, be it a desk, a corner somewhere in the house, or under a tree in a park nearby. Again, following the ‘existing template’ advice, it should mirror as best as possible your existing workspace and what you have found previously to work best for you
    • If you can (I can’t), keep your desk and your bedroom separate. If you can’t, at least make some effort to keep them as designated spaces within the room
  • Is very important, particularly if you are new to working/studying from home, that you actively prevent intrusions
    • communicate to those who share your space to leave you alone during work times. Not only does it take a lot of energy to recover your focus, it’s possible that if you are working on something important to you intrusions can disrupt the flow of your work, leading to the loss of a valuable idea or insight
      • you might even want to make a do not disturb sign, or, at the very least, wear your headphones if you are in an area with a lot of human traffic, so that people can see you are otherwise engaged
    • Listening to ambient music can be helpful, or, my personal favorite, nature sounds Youtube has long videos of these sounds that run for a few hours
      • Pro-tip: right-click on the video once it’s playing and select ‘Loop’. It will now loop indefinitely 
    • Ear plugs can be very beneficial also. It’s worth spending on the more expensive wax variety, as they dampen the sound a lot more and are more reusable than the standard foam plugs
  • Some additional things you might want to think about 
    • Keep your space clean and organised, and build this into your shutdown routine (see below)
    • Get some plants, or set up by a nice view. Make it a place that invites you to sit and work comfortably
      • By a busy window tends not to be a good option, as even if you are attentive to your work, your peripheral awareness is picking up on what’s going on outside the window and detracting from your primary focus
    • If you tend to get cabin fever sitting in the same place for an extended period, have another spot in mind that you can go to easily
      • Remember that these feelings tend not to last. A day or two of a change and you will likely be ready to go back to your original spot


  • Make a commitment to keeping ‘work hours’. Again, sticking to your template
  • Each day, first thing before starting work, write out a daily schedule (if you have not done it as part of your morning routine)
    • It can be helpful to schedule in your relaxing time first, and what you plan to do in that time
    • Plan out what you have ahead for the day and put it in some sort of timeblocks
      • Personally, I block my time and tasks into deep work segments, normally early in the day, where I work on the primary task for the day, usually the thing that is most difficult; and shallow work segments, normally later in the day when I have less energy, where I send emails, or batch smaller tasks together
    • Even if you don’t stick to it, having some sense of the structure that the schedule provides is helpful for giving you a sense of ‘what you should be doing’ and thus avoiding distractions
  • When you’re finished, do a shut down ritual
    • This is the perfect time to review a daily checklist that might include anything you include from this document that is part of your home setup; or to do a daily reflection, asking yourself what went well, what can you improve on, and how? 
    • You might even want to ring a bell, or set an alarm to go off
    • Tidy up your desk, your computer desktop, and put everything in its place for tomorrow
    • It can be very helpful to have another activity to transition to at this time to clearly mark the end of the workday. That might be socialising, talking to your partner or hanging out with your kids. Personally, I normally do a workout at this time and listen to some music

Enable the right behaviours, and limit the wrong ones

You can think of behaviour as a response to a kind of build up of pressure, it’s like the releasing of a pressure valve. When enough hunger builds up in the system, the behaviour of eating releases it. When an approaching deadline for an exam builds enough pressure, studying releases it. When the notification flashing red on your screen generates enough pressure, checking your social media releases it. Our behaviour is thus an adaptive response to our environment. We need to ask then, how can we design our environments to introduce ‘good’ pressures to enable the right behaviours, and steer clear of ‘bad’ pressures to limit the wrong ones. Sticking with our rituals, having clearly defined work spaces and times, and so on, are already applying these pressures, but here I want to introduce a few ‘enablers’ and ‘limiters’ to help keep you on track. 

  • Keep a strong reminder of why you are doing what you are doing, and if you think it will be helpful, the disadvantages of not doing it
    • i.e. I am learning English so that I can X, if I continue with my studies now I will be able to X, If I do not continue with my studies now X
      • Maybe stick this to the wall in front of your desk, or save it on your desktop. It’s very easy to get distracted by all the news and lose sight of your longer term goals at this point. Having this front and centre will let you cut through the ‘noise’ and stay focused on the ‘signal’
  • Be extra conscious around social media use
    • Since you don’t have to be in the classroom or at your desk, it might be tempting to just browse your social media as if it were the weekend
      • My personal rule, which I do my best to adhere to, is no social media until my first break, which is around 11
  • Additional enablers
    • Open a zoom chat with some peers and keep it running in the background, the knowledge that they could be checking in on you might actually be the kind of pressure you need to stay on track
      • Don’t do this if you feel you will just end up chatting
    • Ask your teachers to set you deadlines
    • Set up a Whatsapp group/Facebook group/accountability group to keep you focused. Ask the school to set you up with another student or sets of students if you don’t know anybody
    • Set an audacious goal at the start of the week and do your best to stay on target
    • Make a bet with a friend that you will get X done by X
    • An evening ritual can also be very useful. Personally, I use a checklist app on my phone and ask myself a couple of questions just before dinner each evening: What is deep work for tomorrow? What could have gone better today and how? and so on
  • Additional limiters
    • use Freedom app or some equivalent that allows you to block distracting websites
    • Get your phone out of sight, maybe even in a different room and on airplane mode
    • disconnect the internet if you can and you don’t need it to work/study

You are a designer

By making all these changes, and adjusting as you go, you are engaging in a process of design, what I call Ecobehavioural Design. One key understanding in any approach to design thinking is that we need to try things out, and iterate on the design by paying attention to what happened this time to inform what we include in our next design. Nothing is perfect, and rarely do things go as planned, but if you adopt a spirit of growth and remain sensitive to what works for you, very quickly you will find yourself working comfortably and productively from home. 

As a final thought. A couple of things to keep a close eye out for are what I call keystones and wrecking balls. Keystones are behaviours that make other behaviours a lot easier. For instance, you might notice that, for you, batch cooking once a week makes your lunch times quicker and more relaxing and thus allows you to be more productive during work hours, which also allows you to enjoy your time off even more, etc. It’s helpful to keep note of these kinds of behaviours with these cascading positive effects, and make every effort to enable them. Wrecking balls, on the other hand, are behaviours that are easy to engage, but tend to leave a trail of destruction in their wake. For instance, you might notice that sitting around in your PJs makes it less likely for you to go out for a walk during your lunch break, and when you don’t get out for a walk you have slightly less energy, and so when evening comes you feel less like cooking something healthy, so you order in, and then the next day you wake up feeling less energised, so you don’t bother changing out of your PJs again, and so on with the negatively cascading effects. Again, it’s helpful to keep note of these kinds of behaviours with these cascading negative effects, and make every effort to limit them. 

You cannot determine behavioural outcomes, what you can do is make certain behaviours more probable. Put simply, your job as a designer is to make your keystones more probable than your wrecking balls, and thus over time maintain a positive trajectory. 

Learn More with Mark M. James

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ecobehaviouraldesigns/

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/markmjames

Podcast: https://open.spotify.com/show/2O9Ovl7Dcog8xKMiVEXmW5

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