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Struggling to Focus? 4 Types of Goals to Get Your Language Learning Back on Track

May 11, 2022

Are you struggling to focus?

I've noticed many people complaining that they can't focus like they used to. They struggle to finish a book, pay attention during a meeting, or watch a full movie (without checking their news feed).

I attended an online writing class this week, and the teacher started by asking us to eliminate all distractions. She reminded us that we'd learn a lot more if we focused on the one thing we were supposed to be doing: watching her class (and maybe taking a few notes). It worked!

Tip: Good ol' note-taking (by hand) can help you maintain focus during class because you aren't just sitting still. If you prefer to use a device to take notes, turn off your notifications and go offline (or on airplane mode). 

Improve your focus one goal at a time

I listened to Oprah's Super Soul podcast last weekend where Johann Hari summarized his research on distractions from his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again.

He reminded us of something important too: "Your attention didn't collapse. Your attention has been stolen from you by some really big and powerful forces."

In the podcast, Hari recommended focusing on one goal at a time. In addition to being meaningful, a goal should be set just outside of your comfort zone.

Did you know? The average college student switches tasks every 65 seconds.  

—Johann Hari, Stolen Focus

4 types of goals to help language learners regain focus

Johann Hari described four types of goals. (You can use these as inspiration to get your language learning back on track.)

1. Spotlight goals

A spotlight goal is an immediate goal. You want to get something done right now (e.g., writing or reading this blog post). If we don't put a task like this into the spotlight, we'll undoubtedly get distracted by another shiny thing (or ping).

For example, last week, my daughter asked me to print something for her. I went upstairs to my office, turned on my computer, and noticed a message from a colleague. I answered the message and then checked my LinkedIn updates. Then I turned off my computer and grabbed some dirty laundry and went back downstairs.

"Did you print my essay, Mom?"
"No. I'll do that. Can you bring down your laundry?" 

Clearly, I need to work on eliminating distractions when it comes to immediate tasks. I could also work on not distracting others who have an immediate task of their own to complete. 

Challenge yourself: Your immediate language learning goal is to listen to and read this post without getting distracted. (Let's see if you can get all the way to the end.)

2. Daylight goals

Hari described a daylight goal as the ability to simply know what your goals are.

One of my favorite ways to prioritize my goals is with Jennifer Louden's Pots on the Stove metaphor.

Drawing of burners on a stove with goals written in each burner

Once a week, I draw a stovetop in my journal—five circles of various sizes (some burners are bigger than others). Inside the circles, I write my main goals for the week, making sure to note which ones will require more attention. These may include work goals, personal goals, and other things that just need to get done.

Challenge yourself: What are your language learning goals for this week? (Try the pots on the stove exercise above.) 

3. Starlight goals

A starlight goal is a long-term goal. If we allow ourselves to be constantly distracted, we won't achieve any of these.

Every year, I encourage my family, friends, and colleagues to choose a Word of the Year. Unlike a New Year's resolution, the word you choose acts as a guiding light. 

Challenge yourself: What's one long-term language learning goal that you have? (Make it meaningful and just outside your comfort zone.)

4. Stadium light goals

A stadium light goal is a collective or group goal. This type of goal requires us to pay attention to each other.

For example, at work, we use roadmaps, objectives and key results (OKRs), and check-ins to keep us on track with annual and quarterly goals. 

I share collective goals with some of my exercise club, such as meeting every week for a workout and meeting quarterly for a neighborhood fun run.

One goal I'd like to set with my family is for everyone to remain at the dinner table until everyone else is finished eating. This time is important to me because it's when everyone shares a story from their day.

Challenge yourself: What's one collective goal you could set with your language class? (If you aren't in a class, you could find a learning partner.)


  • switch: to quickly go from one thing or position to another
  • feed: a constant stream of information or updates
  • eliminate: to fully remove
  • meaningful: having a real purpose
  • outside one's comfort zone: in a place or situation where one feels a bit challenged or uncomfortable
  • burner: the element on a stovetop where the heat comes through
  • OKRs: objectives and key results, a goal-setting system for setting ambitious, measurable goal
Complete your first spotlight goal in the comments

You made it to the end! Now, complete your spotlight goal.

Step outside your comfort zone and answer the following question in the comments: What distractions do you need to eliminate to achieve your long-term language learning goal?

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Comments (8)

Cathy N.(Student)

My greatest distraction is gadgets. I usually check newsfeeds on online platforms unconsciously, which takes me a lot of time for nothing. So, what I should do is unplug from the world when I am working or learning.
The second distraction is procrastination. Only deadlines can push me, otherwise, I would put off tasks for another day. So, what I can do to prevent this is to start and stay focused on the project for 5-10 minutes. Then I can keep going. This really works for me.

Cathy Nguyen from Viet Nam

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Hi, Cathy!
Gadgets are such a distraction! Thanks for sharing what works for you. You're so right about deadlines being a motivator. Sometimes even our own deadlines are better than no deadlines.

Keep up the great work!

William H.(Teacher)

focus in class and leave the phone

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

I noticed at a recent conference that more teachers were saying they are less strict about mobile device use in the classroom these days. The pandemic had teachers and students relying more on digital whether they liked it or not.

Abdus Sadeque(Guest)

As a programme, I got distracted very often. I started working on something and in the middle of the works someone ping me and told about something not working. So, I started investigating on that and forget my real tasks and missed my spotlight goals.

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

I think distractions are a reality of our lives with devices and the internet. Recognizing how distracted we are helps a bit, but we have to keep doing the work in order to focus on what's important. I found that not having social apps on my phone and logging out of the browser version helps because I have to log in to scroll. I also try to leave my phone in a different room if I have company over. But with one's own family it's so much harder since we're all on our devices.

Milka S.(Teacher)

Thank you for this topic, Tara! This week, my learners have been working on setting learning goals, so I used the audio clips from this blogpost for a listening assessment task. After this task, they have expressed that they would like to learn more about the >external forces, so they will be listening to the Ophra's interview with Johann Hari. The stovetop method sparked their interest, too.

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