This thought struck me the other day: I’ve been alive for 37 years, and I’ve spent 31 of them in school.

I was a student for 19 years all told, and I’ve been working in schools for another 12. Come to think of it, for several of my studying years, I was also working as a tutor or a student teacher. And for several of my teaching years, I’ve been studying feverishly on the side. If I’m allowed to double dip and count those years twice, one could say I’m a 37-year-old with 40 years in education.

Now that’s how you pad a résumé.

One thing I’ve gained from all that school time is a pretty sound study method. We’ll get to that, but first, let’s discuss what people like me — foreigners in Japan — are so busy studying.

In a word, it’s Japanese. More specifically, foreigners here are often studying to pass the country’s Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

The JLPT is broken into five levels, designated N1, N2, N3, N4, and N5, and test takers choose the level they’d like to attempt. The N5 test is the easiest, generally designed for rubes who have just fallen off a Japanese turnip truck. The N1 at the other end of the scale is only attempted by wizards and masochists.

Businesses and schools in Japan will often require certain JLPT qualifications for prospective foreign employees and students. A company may only interview foreign applicants who have passed the N1, for example, or a college may only accept foreign students with an N2. Other companies may not ask for any language certification at all. Mine didn’t, bless them.

The Japanese Language Education Center (JLEC) helpfully estimates the study hours required to pass each level of the exam. For someone like me — a person whose native language doesn’t feature any kanji characters —JLEC advises that the N5 will take between 325 and 600 hours of study time. That’s the test for us mizzle-witted rubes, mind you.

The hours scale up as the tests get more difficult, with JLEC recommending for the N1 a resounding 3,000 to 4,800 hours of study, or what I’d call a life sentence.

With the thousands of study hours sprawling out ahead of any would-be JLPT taker, it’s crucial to have a study plan. After my résumé-padding 40 years in education and my many false starts in Japanese study, here’s the four-step approach I’ve landed on. It’s served me well for a few years now, and I believe it can apply to anything you’d like to do better.

Step 1) Your goal in studying should be about time spent and nothing else. There’s no fast way to be good at anything. Skill only comes from an investment of time. There’s a Japanese saying that goes “Keizoku wa chikara nari,” which means, “Constancy is power.” It doesn’t matter what or how you’re studying as much as that you’re studying.

Set a target time of 30 minutes per day. In terms of a language like Japanese, get a few different textbooks and a flashcard app on your phone. Cycle through these as you like, just be sure to hit your 30 minute mark every day. The variety of books and activities will keep you from burning out. Just be sure to cycle through them daily, never overloading on any one thing.

What happens if you miss a day? It rolls over, and you’re staring at an hour the next day. Never ever ever ever abandon your 30 minutes.

Step 2) It’s helpful if there’s something to aim for and mark your progress by, like the levels of the JLPT. In other arenas, this could be a performance or the giving of a birthday gift that you’re learning how to make. Seek out something related to your study that lets you mark progress. It builds in accomplishment, and that’s a motivator.

Step 3) Don’t view your 30 minutes as a limit. In fact, create a mechanism to reward yourself for going over.

Mine is pure materialism. I choose some high-dollar item that I’d normally never buy, and I pay myself at a rate of $10 for every study hour beyond my regular routine. Study an hour of overtime, and that’s 10 bucks toward something big you want to buy.

Step 4) Increase your involvement over time rather than easing off. If you’ve spent 30 minutes a day studying for an entire year, well, first of all, congratulations. Second of all, you could bump that to 35 minutes a day in year two without much extra strain on your life.

And that’s the system. I’ve been horrible with studying my whole life, but this has been working for me for over two years now. I bumped my 30 minutes a day up to 35, and then to 40. I did enough overtime study to buy the Brompton Game Bag in Storm Gray Tweed, which I had wanted for years.

What’s more, I passed the N5 and the N4, and the N3 is coming up next weekend. Tell any foreigner in Japan that I’m taking the N3, and they’ll say, “Oh, then he’s not very good at Japanese.” I can’t argue with that. But it’s also exactly why this rube needs the system.

Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at justinwhittinghill@gmail.com.

Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at justinwhittinghill@gmail.com.

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