Feeling the Burn of Language Learning Motivation


This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Now that Thai New Years is over how about a New Year’s resolution, Thai-Style?

In Nir Eyal’s article on Psychology Today, A Surefire Tip For Making Yourself Do What You Need to Do, he wrote about a motivational idea that’s just kinky enough to work: The “burn or burn” technique.

His article wanders around a bit so I’ll cover just the interesting bits. Basically, the idea is that burning money is painful so if you go along with the “burn or burn” method you will avoid at least one of the burns by sticking to whatever challenge you’ve set yourself. That’s if you are not a cheater. Cheaters need not apply.

This is how to “burn or burn” Feeling the BURN of Language Learning Motivation

  • Decide what you are going to study.
  • Choose your study time(s).
  • Mark your study time(s) on a calendar.
  • Beg, borrow, or steal a crisp $100 bill.
  • Grab your man’s lighter.
  • Tape the $100 bill to today’s date.
  • Place the lighter nearby.

It doesn’t matter if it’s US dollars, Thai baht or UK pounds. Just make sure that it’s a large enough amount that it’d be painful to set alight.


I chose US$100 for two reasons. Reason One) The amount would matter to the man and the man matters (it’s all funny money to me). And Reason Two) US dollars are difficult to spend in Thailand so it’s not like I’ll find any old excuse to buy something with it.

Nir: Now you have a choice to make: Every day, when the time comes to do your routine, you can chose either option A and do the routine, which in my case was to feel the “burn” in the gym, or option B—literally, burning your money. You can’t give the money to someone or buy something with it, you have to set it aflame.

As radical as “burn or burn” sounds, there’s good science to support why it’s so effective: For one, it’s no surprise we hate losing money. But why not pay yourself for doing the routine instead of taking money away?

Tip 1: Instead of a paper calendar (who uses paper anymore anyway) an iOS app such as Don’t Break The Chain! will work just as well. I’ve used that app before and it’s a dandy way to keep track (and you feel just as guilty). If you have Android there’s Lift and others.

Tip 2: Tape your lighter and money of choice to an area you’ll see daily. I put mine on the wall right by the kettle. In that way I also get the ‘feel good’ of treating myself to a cuppa before I embark on my studies.

Tip 3: For emotional support, arrange for a Study Buddy to go with distance with you. I lucked out because my Study Buddy is far better at sticking to language studies than I am (I’m seriously caca). And an added plus, he’s not sympathetic to whining.

After much discussion the main course materials (Thai, French, and Italian) have been chosen and our schedule is set for three months. I’m quite chuffed because it’s all good (materials and time limit). I can do this.

Burn, baby, burn… or not.

Confused? Go to: A Surefire Tip For Making Yourself Do What You Need to Do.

Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com. He has nothing to do with language learning.

8 thoughts on “Feeling the Burn of Language Learning Motivation”

  1. Andrej, “If I pledged to burn USD 100 upon failing, and then failed, I would just take the USD 100 down and put them back in my purse :))”

    That would be a dilemma with this method for sure 😀

    After reading through comments (here and via PM) it’s clear that I failed to cover the possible negative aspects of the method.

    But you see, when writing this post, I was too busy giggling over the man’s reaction to giving up that $100.

    It took him weeks and much asking/begging on my part to get him to hand it over. I swear, he’s Scottish to the core!

    And now, whenever I see that note taped to the lighter, I smile. A lot. Call me evil but it’s been a fun way to start my studies.

  2. I’ve heard of a variant of this where you pledge to donate when missing a day. You start with 5 bucks but double the amount each time you fail. All of this wouldn’t really work for me, though; lack of motivation and consistency has rarely been a problem, and on the other hand I simply don’t do stuff I don’t want to do. If I pledged to burn USD 100 upon failing, and then failed, I would just take the USD 100 down and put them back in my purse :))

  3. Fantastico! It may seem radical at first blush , but bearing in mind our deeply ingrained love for money, I can definitely see this method working. Imagine how motivational this would be for E. Scrooge. lol

  4. I understand what you mean Scott. But for me, this is positive reinforcement. I can’t look at that US$100 taped to the wall without getting the giggles. Since I started three days ago, laughing has proven to be a great way to kick off my lessons.

    And I totally agree that if a language is a chore to learn, nothing is going to help (not even bribery). For this round I’m sticking mainly with Italian and I have a true passion for the language. I love how it sounds when speaking. And I absolutely love listening to Italian music. And … I’m going back to Italy this December (knock on wood).

  5. I prefer to use positive motivation. If I want to learn a language, it is for a reason – maybe I live in a foreign country, or want to. Maybe I know someone from a foreign country and wish to communicate with them in their own language. Maybe I’m interested in flirting with cute university girls around Siam area.

    Whatever the motivation, if it’s not enough then I’ll start to find other things to do rather than spending time ‘learning’.

    If I decided to spend an hour learning a bit of Thai because the alternative was to burn $100, I’m actually not going to learn that much. It has become a chore at that point.

    This would work for exercise, because the fact that you spend time exercising is enough. But when learning something, you need to want to do it, in order for it to stick …

  6. Thanks Lynn 🙂 There is something to say for physically burning money. I’m not sure I could actually pull it off. It’s much easier to just do my language homework everyday and be done with it! And giggle. Just the thought of burning money tickles my funny bone.


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