Just as corporations can waste lots of money storing unneeded inventory, the human brain can waste lots of precious energy on unneeded information. The Toyota Motor Company is famous for its “lean manufacturing” approach, a big part of which is what’s termed “Just-In-Time” manufacturing (ジャストインタイム). Instead of sinking excessive costs into surplus parts, Toyota does everything it can to ensure that there are just enough parts (not too many, not too few) at just the right time (not too early, not too late) needed for the next phase of production. While our goal here is to learn a language, not build a Prius, we can apply the same basic approach to foreign language acquisition.
This is especially true for learning new vocabulary. Instead of spending time on words and phrases you might need someday (or even Sunday), focus all your energy and time on just the terms you will need to use today.
For example, if you will be going to buy a prepaid SIM card in Taiwan, you would want to commit the following words to memory:
- “cell phone” (手機, shǒujī)
- “prepaid” (預付, yùfù)
- “SIM card” (SIM卡, sim kǎ)
The Chinese names of different bird species, on the other hand, might be useful for your birdwatching trip next week, but won’t do you much good at the Taiwan Mobile (台灣大哥大) store today. Such vocabulary will be important to you soon, but not today. It’s therefore not “JIT information” and can wait until later.
As Tim Ferriss puts it in The 4-Hour Workweek:
“I used to have the habit of reading a book or site to prepare for an event weeks or months in the future, and I would then need to reread the same material when the deadline for action was closer. This is stupid and redundant. Follow your to-do short list and fill in the information gaps as you go. Focus on what digerati Kathy Sierra calls ‘just-in-time’ information instead of ‘just-in-case’ information.”