Effective capacity for learning / How not to burn out

Good day to you! tips hat

I’m looking for generalized opinion on how much mentally-taxing capacity an adult can take on in a typical day.

Let’s define an adult as 30+, and learning being something like learning a new language, or a skill of some kind. How much time committed to study should one schedule per day, or per week, such that it is as gainful as possible, without risking burnout or general fatigue? Constraints are that the adult has other responsibilities including a full-time job and general survival that this educating venture has to work around.


All depends on how much you like it. If you hate it, a few hours a day at most. If you love it, you could halve your sleep and devote all your free time to it. There is no simple answer.


Be kind to yourself.

Understand that it is a process and it will take time.

Set goals but don’t adhere to the goals strictly.

Also, be kind to yourself. Know it will take some effort but you will need breaks.

I find a reward system helps me focus.

Don’t forget exercise and spending time with loved ones.

The total time is less important for me. I need to enjoy the experience.


It depends a lot on what “study” looks like. I found that my Chinese speaking ability improved most when hanging out with locals at bars (of course after having learned the basics in a classroom setting). Probably spent 4 hours a night on it, 5-6 times a week, but it didn’t cause much fatigue. The earlier classroom-based study, prep for classes and revision were a lot more tiring - 1.5 hours were plenty!

Caffeine helps to prolong these periods in the short term, but can lead to more fatigue in the long run.


If you’re speaking on language learning specifically, the brain works in chunks. 15-20 minute periods at a time are better than five hours straight once a week. (Actually, this applies to learning most things…). Listen to a podcast at your level for 20 min in the morning, then go to work, then spend 15 minutes on your vocab software of choice on a break (Memrise is free. Always add pronunciation, it makes a world of difference in learning how to actually say things), then spend the afternoon/evening practicing what you learned that morning by speaking with others or writing a story with your newly learned stuff.

Something people tend to overlook with language learning is the importance of input. It really doesn’t help that most Chinese teachers here and abroad think introducing a grammar pattern and giving translated examples is enough for learners to produce their own sentences. That requires an immense amount of work and results in half-understanding and weird/wrong sentence formation. The easier/more effective thing to do is find a lot of content at your level on a specific topic and listen to and read a heck of a lot of it before you ever sit down and try to learn the grammar patterns or vocab. If you give yourself sufficient meaningful input, you won’t need grammar explained to you, as your brain will have absorbed it naturally. This really is the opposite of all experience I’ve had with Chinese learning, but it works, unlike the grammar-translation method that 99% of teachers teach you to use.


Be sure to give your brain regular work outs on unrelated stuff. Learning is a mysterious process and there’s a lot of unconscious rewiring going on during language acquisition.

Playing a musical instrument, juggling, doing Sudoku, playing pinball. Anything counter intuitive is good for the brain.


I did my undergrad degree whilst working full time and was studying about 15-20 hours per week during term time. I tried to do everything during the week to have as much of the weekend free as possible. That was manageable.

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Thanks for all of your responses. To be honest I can’t quite believe it’s only been six days since I asked the question.

I think I’m taking my own productivity for granted a little bit. Currently I’m about three weeks ahead of where I need to be in terms of recent projects so that’s good.

I watch an hour or so of netflix each night and then go to bed after I’ve sorted out other stuff. I can’t help but think if I dedicated that time to something productive like learning a language, I’d be fluent by now, but I guess that is life, or something similar to it.

Sure, spending more time on something “productive” can get you somewhere faster than not doing something “productive”. But what do you want? Where are you currently in your language learning journey? Are you working on Chinese? Do you have a tutor or language partner that is holding you accountable? As was mentioned above, your brain also needs rest. I often find myself repeating a word over and over again with no idea what it means, only to encounter it as soon as I get back to focused study. Sometimes you need to “waste” time watching Netflix for your brain to have a chance to process information.

If you’re feeling like your Chinese is virtually nonexistent, consider Pimsleur. It’s usually available from public libraries in the US. It’s also on audible. I think they went to a monthly subscription model too, so it’s not a thousand USD upfront anymore. I find that’s a good jumping off point, as it gets you thinking in the language, as long as you actually listen to and focus while doing the lessons. If you make it through a whole series (not sure if Chinese has 3 levels or 5), you’ll be able to talk about most basic things in a fluent way. Add to that daily reading practice from Chairman’s Bao or a collection of various textbooks and readers at your level (that have audio for your to follow along with!!!), and it won’t take more than an hour total per day for you to get to be quite proficient. If you get in a groove and start trying to spend nine hours a day with a goal of 80 new words a day, you’ll burn out. Learn to embrace when you don’t meet your daily goal and adjust them based on what’s reasonable. Just don’t decide that reasonable is zero seconds of study for weeks on end.

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it depends

I’ll use German as an example:
I have a lot of the language floating in my brain but I cannot string words together to form a complete sentence that the average German will tolerate. About a month ago, I started playing Pimsleur German lessons from the moment I woke up. They last about 25-30 min. On my commute, I work on one Babbel lesson (~5 min). In the evening, I listen to DeutscheWelle’s hilariously awful but solid A1 German learning podcasts. Maybe two episodes. And then I hop onto Memrise, if I feel like it, and work on vocab either from the podcasts or Memrise’s lists. Total learning time: maybe an hour.

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are you responding to me? if so, why?

Oops. That was supposed to be at OP. @volv1992 see above

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Depends on the individual and what they’re learning.
An anecdote which may or may not help - many years ago I had a teacher who would put on an annual week-long seminar which had hundreds of attendees from all over the world. I assisted with a few of these and noticed that his stopping time each day varied considerably. This was martial arts, so each day was a repeated pattern of verbal presentation and demo followed by practice and interactive instruction by him and assistants. Every day started at the same time in the morning, but he might call a halt as early as 3pm, where other days might go as late as 9pm. I never saw a pattern, and I knew some days he stopped before completing the planned schedule, so I asked him one day, and he said he just stopped, “when people’s heads are full”. So of course I asked him how he knew that, and he said it was simple, during the course of the day, when he was giving the verbal explanation of something, everyone would be seated on the floor, generally cross-legged. At some point in the morning some people would start rubbing one temple, then more would, and then they would switch to the other side, and then they would rub both temples at once. When it seemed like a majority were rubbing both temples that was when he said it was pointless to continue, they weren’t going to learn any more that day!

Tl;dr; if you find yourself rubbing both sides of your head it’s probably time to quit for the day. :joy:


I’m interested about this. How much do people learn about martial arts through listening?

Really learn in terms of practical application, not much, but his approach was a little different and sometimes people needed some explanation to understand it. His interpretation being that if you’re defending yourself, it means you were dumb enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to begin with, (number one rule of a fight, don’t be there in the first place), and your goal is to GTFO in one piece, which means you’ve got at best one or two shots to put the other guy(s) down as quickly and efficiently as possible and you probably won’t be in a position to pick and choose how to do it or how the other guy might respond, (some people don’t feel pain, aren’t susceptible to joint locks etc).
He’d take what one would consider a basic block or strike and explain all the ways the movement was really a block or a strike (or both at once), just depending on what the other guy was doing. So that was both the explanation and the practice - here’s a basic movement, here’s a whole bunch of ways it can be used, avoided, turned against you etc, now go play and figure out more! :grin:

Meet yourself halfway – watch Netflix in Chinese. :yin_yang:


I’m rubbing both temples when reading Forumosa, does that say anything?

@discobot quote

:left_speech_bubble: He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much. — Richard Braunstein

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