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The rest is up to you,
Julian Power

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My minimalism challenge for 2019: Three purchases only

framed piece of minimal art

The year 2018 has been a tremendous success for me all around except for one small but significant detail. My company didn’t turn a profit and I lost a couple of grand with my previous editing business, which I shut down after a couple of months.

When you start a company, you can’t expect to make money from day one, especially when you are building a personal brand from scratch. You would think that the expenses of a writer are marginal, but I still have to pay for a bunch of service providers for my blog (hosting, domain, stock photos, Grammarly, WordPress theme, G-Suite, etc.) and much more for business administration (tax guy, incorporation, random German bureaucracy fees, etc.).

All these small bills add up to a big bill at the end of the year. As a solo-entrepreneur, my biggest expenses are my living costs. In the short term, it’s easier to decrease your expenses than to increase your income because you can almost always cut costs immediately (rent, food, subscriptions, purchases, etc.). Having said that, your end goal is still to make bank.

My business is already lean, so I have the most saving potential for my personal spending. I have been interested in minimalism for a couple of years, but it was more of an intellectual exercise than a lifestyle choice. I read the minimalists blog, but I didn’t take action and change my spending habit because I rationalized that I am already reasonably frugal. That may be true, but I still have a couple of major blind spots I have to fix. The biggest one is my e-book library. I have around 100 unread e-books on my kindle, which is ludacris.

Obviously, I don’t have unlimited resources and therefore I have to cut down my current burn rate or I will run out of money eventually. 2018 was a much-needed wake-up call for me to get my personal finances in order. Minimalism is the answer to my problem.


Most people think of minimalism as owning little stuff, but that view is simplistic. Minimalism is a life philosophy and goes much farther than that. Reducing your belongings is just the beginning. The beauty of minimalism is that it’s a practical and simple philosophy. It’s about finding out what’s essential (belongings, relationships, purpose, work, hobbies, etc.) and whats’s healthy (thoughts, emotions, habits, etc.) for you and eliminating the rest from your life. You have to say no to a lot of stuff to be able to say yes to the things that matter.

The idea is that your belongings are dragging you down and that decluttering enriches your life. Minimalism is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort and time to find out your priorities in life and that’s why most people don’t even bother. For example, it took me 26 years to realize that I love writing and now I am going all-in. My number one priority is becoming a successful writer and this lens drives the decisions in all aspects of my life. I am always asking myself: Is this going to help me to become a successful writer?

Minimalism challenge

The premise is simple: I am allowed to buy maximal three products in 2019. That sounds straightforward, but as always the devil is in the details. I settled on a few exceptions:

  1. Food, transportation, shower gel and other consumables don’t count.
  2. Business expenses (e.g., Grammarly) don’t count.
  3. Digital subscriptions (e.g., New York Times) don’t count, but digital products like movies, courses and e-books do count.
  4. Gifts for other people don’t count.

At first, I wanted to be more hardcore and buy zero new products in 2019, but then I realized that I need some wiggle room if I have to replace essential items like my MacBook Air.

The minimalism challenge is an easy way for me to simplify the daily buying process. Instead of a binary yes/no decision, the answer is always no. When I go into a shop with friends, I know beforehand that I am not going to buy anything, which is a great feeling to have. Now, I don’t waste any mental energy on purchasing decisions, and I can use the energy on more important decisions instead.

„No“ works fine for 99% of the daily buying decisions, but there is a small subset of buying decisions where you actually need an item. A wedding invitation is a good example. If you don’t own a suit, your first impulse is most likely to buy one. I have only two use cases for a suite: weddings and funerals. Therefore, it makes more sense for me to borrow or rent a suit (buzz word: sharing economy) for a wedding. These options are rarely considered in the buying process because buying stuff is a form of mental laziness. Throwing money at a problem is a quick fix. It takes much more mental energy to find an alternative.

Personal finances

As an entrepreneur, it’s almost impossible to separate your personal life from your business. I need money to cover my living costs to be able to work on my business. When I run out of money, I have to find a job to make ends meet. Most people prioritize financial security and avoid this problem by working for someone else their whole life, which isn’t an option for me. Frugality is a small price I am willing to pay along the way to financial independence.

Recurring costs (rent, insurances, subscriptions, etc.) have the biggest saving potential. With a cheaper apartment or shared flat you can save 1200€ per year easily. Saving money spend on insurances is also a straightforward process. You need a weekend to research if you can find a cheaper provider and you can cut out some insurances altogether.

Subscriptions are cheaper, but also less complex. I have canceled a bunch of subscriptions before going to Colombia. Among other things, I canceled Spotify and my Amazon Prime subscription. Canceling Amazon Prime was huge because I buy almost exclusively on Amazon and Prime removes all the friction from the buying process. Without Prime, shipping is more expensive and takes longer, which makes you think twice before you buy something. I also thought about canceling my NY Times subscription, but I get so much value out of reading high-quality journalism that it’s worth the money for me.

Cutting out unnecessary big-ticket items (products, which don’t add value to your life) is an even easier way to save money. A good example would be the 1200€ DSLR Camera I bought with my first start-up salary and never used. I liked the idea of taking high-quality pictures, but I wasn’t interested in learning the technical stuff. After two years I finally had enough and sold the camera on eBay to at least recoup half of the money.

Unnecessary big-ticket items are much easier to identify than small day-to-day purchases like coffee. I have been a hardcore coffee drinker for years and I must have spent a couple of grant on coffee over the years (six years of university and one year as a writer). I could have avoided these costs by cutting down my coffee consumption and carrying a thermos flask around. If you have developed a bad spending habit, you have to take a step back to reevaluate and change it. It’s the only way to get a handle on your personal finances.

Spending habit

Most people don’t think about spending money on little stuff like an e-book because there are no short term consequences. You only see the consequences in aggregate over time. Small unnecessary expenses (coffee, e-books, etc.) add up to 200€ per months easily, which is 2400€ per year. That’s roughly two months of lost runway in my case.

To know your monthly living costs (runway) and your saving potential, you have to track your expenses. For 2019, I got a free money tracking app called Money Manager, which is a game changer. After buying something, I immediately get out my smartphone and write down the purchase (date; category; amount; description). Now, I am much more aware of my expenses because I have an accountability system in place. That means I not only can identify saving potential, but I am less likely to waste money on bullshit in the first place. The app forces you to replace your automatic spending habit with a conscious one. I am using the app for only a week and I already see the positive effects. Saving money has become a fun game and now I finally have hard data to work with.

It takes a little effort to put an accountability system into place and most people don’t see the need as long as their monthly income exceeds their expenses. They don’t see the upside potential of the potential extra money (shorter working hours, traveling, side business, etc.) and the costs aren’t tracked and therefore hidden.


Personal finances is a somewhat dry topic. It’s much more exciting to talk about making money than it is about saving money, but they are two sides of the same coin. That’s where minimalism comes into play. It not only sounds cool, but it also gives you a framework and a new perspective on your belongings. Decluttering doesn’t take away anything from your life, but it gives you more freedom and clarity.

I want to downsize my belongings and get a handle on my personal finances in 2019. The minimalism challenge is an integral part of my strategy to achieve this goal. I am going to write a follow-up article how it worked out next year.

The rest is up to you,

Recommended books:

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism
Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life

How to run a marathon

Running a marathon has been a life goal for me for quite some time and last year I finally pulled the trigger. The timing was right and I thought aged 25 I am near my physical peak.


If you tell people that you are going to run a marathon, a common reaction is that they tell you how difficult this undertaking is and that they could never do it themselves. I would say this reaction occurs more than 50% of the time and it’s not limited to unathletic people either. The reaction didn’t sit well with me, but I couldn’t tell exactly why and I had to reflect on it. I came to three conclusions regarding running:

1. Endurance sports is different from other sports in that technique and experience are non-factors. Your physical disposition is also less important. It’s an egalitarian sport in the sense that the two most important factors are your work ethic and your ability to push through pain. You can start an endurance sport like running at age 30 and become world class in a couple of years and the decline in performance level is also less drastic in comparison with other sports. This is unheard of in almost all other sports, because you can never bridge the gap in technique. For example, almost all NBA players started playing Basketball at a very young age. There are a few rare exceptions like Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid, who didn’t play Basketball before the age of 15 and his success can be partly explained by his outstanding athleticism and size.

2. Running is also a simple sport. You don’t need any equipment except running shoes, which most people already have anyway. Put on your running shoes and off you go. Therefore, lack of equipment is a bad excuse as well.

3. Another popular excuse are time constraints, but you can always wake up one or two hours earlier for a morning run, so it’s a matter of prioritisation and not lack of time. Most people simply prioritise sleep over running.  

Experience, money, talent and time are irrelevant for running a marathon, so when people say that they never could run a marathon, it’s a rationalization. Anyone, who puts his mind to running a marathon, can do it with the adequate preparation. What people are really saying is that they are not willing to put in the necessary work, which sounds less sexy.

Another explanation is that people actually think that they couldn’t run a marathon, which is a limiting belief and even worse. Of course, not everybody likes running, because it’s “boring”. But these people could say: ‘I don’t want to run a marathon, because running is boring’ instead of ‘I could never run a marathon.’  You can apply the same argument to the popular statement: ‘I could never start a business.’  

My brother has run several marathons and therefore it never seemed like a big deal to me. This example illustrates the importance of your peers and the kind of people you surround yourself with. Like it or not, humans have a herd mentality and we adapt to our environment. Surround yourself with overachievers and you are one step closer to greatness. On the flip side, surround yourself with underachievers and you are going to adjust your behavior and mindset negatively. It’s no coincidence that an above-average share of top executives practices endurance sports. They have an impeccable work ethic and they like to overcome obstacles and push their limits.

I am process driven, which means I have unlimited trust in the process. If you put in the work consistently and don’t get distracted, everything will fall into place eventually. This rule is true for all skill sets: Basketball, Spanish, entrepreneurship, running, writing, etc. Your learning curve will differ depending on your talent, but you will achieve your goals somewhere down the road.

Goal setting

It’s important to have a concrete goal to move forward in life. I have been thinking about running a marathon for years and in 2017 in finally pulled the trigger. I signed up for a marathon on the 02.04.2017 in Bonn a couple of months before. I like to commit to goals with concrete steps like buying a ticket. I did the same with my stay in Colombia. I booked the flight tickets for August 20018 and from thereon there is no backing out. I also tell other people about my plans, to put some extra pressure on my shoulders. It also holds me accountable, because it’s wack to talk about your plans and not go through with them.    


The next step is finding a sound strategy to achieve your goal. I am a big fan of best practices. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, buy a definitive book with all the important tips like “The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer” and you are good to go. You can also go the free route and collect information from various sources on the internet. The problem with this approach is that it’s time-consuming and the information isn’t necessarily reliable. I am always willing to pay for information as a shortcut. The best practices for marathons are 10-week training plans for preparation.


Like I mentioned before you don’t need much gear for running. Therefore it’s the perfect sport for minimalists. Just pack your running shoes and you can go for a morning run anywhere in the world. The only exception are cities like Ho-Chi-Minh-City (formerly Saigon) with high levels of air pollution. In these cities, you have to find a gym.

ASICS Men’s GT-1000 5 Running Shoe (Asics has the best running shoes. Dope color schemes are a bonus on top)
Garmin Forerunner 35 Watch (Keep it simple, you don’t need Big Data for your first marathon)

Summer season:
NIKE Legend Short Sleeve Tee
Under Armour Men’s Raid Shorts
Balega Running Socks

Winter season:
Tesla Men’s Long Sleeve
Tesla Men’s Compression Pants
Physix Gear Compression Socks


It’s a good idea to run a half marathon as a stepping stone to your first marathon. It gives you a taste of the upcoming challenge. I ran half marathons in Cologne and Madrid before my marathon in Bonn, but I think one half marathon is sufficient. The half marathon in Madrid was part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. The concept consists of live bands along the running track and the music gives you an extra push to give everything. They offer a global TourPass, which enables you to run several Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons.

My final preparation consisted of a 10-week training plan right before the marathon. I like training plans because they eliminate all decision-making. The plan tells you the distance and time you have to run each weekday. The only thing you have to do is follow the plan and execute. The most efficient way to track your time and distance is the use of a running watch with GPS. At the time I was working full-time at a startup and the evening runs were a welcome balance. I also changed my diet and quit alcohol during this period.

The marathon

The anticipation before the start was intense and it was extraordinarily hot, but my preparation gave me a sense of ease. My goal was to stay under 4 hours. I made a typical rookie mistake by getting carried away and starting to fast instead of running at a steady pace. Everything went well until I reached the 19th mile (32nd km), where I hit a mental wall. When you prepare for a marathon, you don’t run the whole distance in order to peak at the day of competition. Your longest run lasts around 19 miles and therefore you enter unknown territory at the competition day. The heat wore me out and I felt like giving up. My feet became heavier and heavier and I felt like I was running in slow-motion. The moment of truth had come. I could give in to my inner impulse and give up or I could push through the pain. I chose option two. I limited my focus to the next steps repeating the mantra ‘I am Julian Power.’ During the last 3 miles (4,8 km) I was rewarded with a runner’s high and I crossed the finish line at 04:16:37 hours, thus exceeding my target by 17 minutes.


My main takeaway from the marathon is that your body is stronger than your mind makes you believe. It tells you to give up before you reach your physical limits. Having said that, you also need a sound preparation and can’t purely will your way through a marathon. This lesson is applicable to entrepreneurship as well. Your business skills are stronger than your mind makes you believe. It tells you to quit when you don’t see immediate results, but you have to mute this inner voice and push through and eventually, you will succeed. On the rare occasion that self-doubt creeps in, I think back to my first marathon and remind myself to push through.  

While I didn’t hit my target, I finished the marathon, which is one of the accomplishments I am most proud of in my life. Now you know everything you need to know about running your first marathon.
The rest is up to you,


The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer

ASICS Men’s GT-1000 5 Running Shoe
Garmin Forerunner 35 Watch

Summer season:
Balega Running Socks
NIKE Legend Short Sleeve Tee
Under Armour Men’s Raid Shorts

Winter season:
Tesla Men’s Long Sleeve
Tesla Men’s Compression Pants
Physix Gear Compression Socks


How to meditate

Tattooed bold man meditates in the lotus position sitting on a roof over blue sky

Meditation is an abstract concept, and you have to experience it to gain real benefits. Meditation means “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” Meditation has still a bad rap because people always associate it with esotericism.


I am going to keep this paragraph short and crisp, but it’s always good to have some background info. Most religions integrate some form of meditation practice; however, my experience is restricted to Zen meditation. The Zen school was founded in China in the late 5th century and eventually spread to Vietnam, to Korea and finally arrived in Japan in the 12th century. Japanese Zen is best known in the western world nowadays. It can be subdivided into three schools, ordered by following: Sōtō (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済), and Ōbaku (黃檗). The Soto school focuses the most on the meditation practice.

Master Taisen Deshimaru

Six years ago someone gifted me “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. The book is extremely popular and has a cult-like following. Naturally, I hated it immediately and stopped reading after the second chapter or so and I normally force myself to finish books when I started reading them. His core message of being more present in the present moment is powerful, but his writing didn’t resonate with me. It was too watered-down and esoteric for my taste. The review of Andrea Sachs from TIME magazine is on point: “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo” and “unhelpful for those looking for practical advice.” Yet another reason to not trust the masses. The story does not end here though.

Four years later I attended a seminar about cognitive enhancement in university and I had to write an essay about non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement. Among other things, meditation is an effective form of cognitive enhancement. The research for the topic and the described benefits of meditation sparked my interest and lead me to buy the book “Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru.”

On rare occasions, you read a book, and it changes your life trajectory. I started reading the first chapter and it hit me right away. This was some next level shit right there. The writing was clear, practical and the concepts were explained in a precise manner. At that moment Taisen Deshimaru became my spiritual teacher. I bought all of his other books and read them in a couple of days. Most of his books are translations of his talks and you feel like he is directly talking to you. I have read several Zen books since then and I haven’t found a better introduction to Zen so far. I started meditating on a daily basis and just like that my path towards enlightenment had begun.

Taisen Deshimaru (1914 – 1982) was a Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher. Deshimaru received dharma transmission from his influential teacher Kodo Sawaki in 1965 on his deathbed with the mission to travel to Europe and spread the Zen teaching. Deshimaru went to France in 1967 and lived there for the rest of his life. He founded the Association Zen Internationale in 1970 and the associated temple La Gendronnière in 1979. He died in 1982 after he had established the Zen practice in Europe. His former disciples still operate the temple La Gendronnièr.

La Gendronnière

After a couple of weeks of meditation at home, I craved a deeper understanding of Zen that went beyond reading. Unfortunately, Taisen Deshimaru is dead for decades, but the temple La Gendronnièr still follows his school of thought. I did some research and booked a week-long sesshin for the summer at La Gendronnièr. A sesshin is a period of intensive meditation in a Zen temple. The Association Zen Internationale describes a typical day during a sesshin on their website as follows:

6:30 amzazen, ceremony
8:30 amgenmai (traditional breakfast)
10:00 am - 12:00 pmsamu (work around the temple)
12:30 pmlunch
2:45 pm - 5:45 pmsamu
6:30 pmzazen
8:00 pmdinner

During semester break I took a train to Paris and changed to another train in the direction of Blois. Blois is a small city between Orléans and Tours and near the temple. When I arrived at Blois, three other people were already waiting for our shuttle to the temple.

One of the monks picked us up at the train station, and we arrived at the temple after a 20 minutes ride. We waited at the reception with the other people of the sesshin and it seemed like a lot of the people knew each other from previous sessions. I was by far the youngest there and I stood out like a sore thumb. I think the average age of the participants was around 50 years. Two monks had an impressing calm aura about them, which I had never experienced before. We dined in a big hall and this is the first time that I first doubted to come to the temple. Everything was strictly ritualized regarding how to eat and when to eat. I was expecting some rules, but the sheer number of them annoyed me. The non-dogmatic approach had attracted me to Buddhism in the first place after all. I tried to keep an open mind and waited for the next day when the standard program would start.

The next day the group meditation in the Dojo begun. I didn’t get the memo, that we are supposed to wear a black Kimono (robe). I thought you could rent them or some shit. Therefore, I sported my grey hoodie in combination with grey jogging pants, while everybody else was wearing a black Kimono during the mediation. It was a valuable lesson in the power of conformity; I had never felt that out of place before. I hope they didn’t take my lack of preparation as disrespect. The meditation had a lot of rules as well and we had to change our sitting position during meditation, which rubbed me the wrong way. I was having none of it, it all seemed rather pointless to me. I understand the value of rules, but I like the ability to make my own decisions as well. After some careful consideration, I went to the office, explained my discomfort and asked them to call me a taxi. They were cool about it, and I only had to pay for the two days I stayed there. It wasn’t an easy decision for me, because I don’t consider myself a quitter. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and move on though.

The Taxi brought me straight to the train station in Blois. I had already bought a return ticket to Paris and Cologne for the next week. Now I had two make a decision. I could either stay in Blois, a small and sleepy city situated at river Loire or I could buy another train ticket and head to the metropolis Paris and spend a week there. Paris is a three-hour train ride from Cologne and I figured I could go there anytime, so I choose to explore Blois. I found a decent apartment on Airbnb and used the week for writing on my memoir, reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and listening to Seth Godin’s Startup School, while devouring crunchy croissants and French coffee (café serré). “Meditations” is one of my favorite books and I can not help but wonder about the similarities of our way of seeing the world. It is a life-changing book for me like “Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru.”

On my train ride back to Cologne, I thought about my learnings from this experience. I had learned that I don’t need a formalized Zen practice and that I prefer meditating on my own terms without artificial rituals. Maybe I should have researched more about the temple La Gendronnièr and visited a local Dojo beforehand. Some things you have to experience in order to judge them though (trial and error). The staff of La Gendronnièr were friendly and understanding, and it wasn’t their fault that I had wrong expectations coming in. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Meditation Practice

I needed a few months to find the perfect meditation practice for myself, but now it’s working like a charm. I started off by reading Zen instructions and then I meditated for 10 minutes each morning. I had to overcome three problems:
1. The first problem was my sitting position. I quickly realized that I couldn’t sit comfortably on the floor cross-legged, let alone in the Lotus Position. I fixed this issue by buying a Zafu (meditation pillow) for 30 bucks on Amazon. I recommend an extra high one for beginners. I think kneeling is a more comfortable position for beginners than the Lotus position. Too many people try the Lotus position and then give up on meditation out of frustration.
2. The second problem was my timing. In the beginning, I set a phone timer to 10 minutes, but I would always wait for the alarm to go off, which fucked up my focus. I switched to a stopwatch and this problem was solved as well.
3. The third problem was my irregular meditation schedule. I meditated at different times of the day and often I simply skipped it. I fixed this problem by always meditation first thing in the morning after waking up. I realized that meditation takes a lot of mental effort for me and therefore I have to do it in the morning when my mind is fresh and relaxed.

I prolonged my meditation time after a couple of months and now I am meditating 20 minutes every morning.

Guided meditation apps like Headspace are highly popular, but I have to admit I was skeptical of the whole concept of paying a monthly subscription fee for this kind of service. I thought that meditation has been free for thousands of years and that we don’t have to start paying for it now, which I still think is a fair point. But I came around slowly after watching the founders Ted Talk and reading enthusiastic reviews. The point of meditation is non-judgemental thinking and openness to new concepts after all.

I tried out the free basic sessions and was sold immediately by his calm voice and clarity of thought. Shortly after that I took advantage of a 40% discount offer and bought a yearly subscription for 60 bucks. Headspace offers guided meditation packs with specific themes (Sport, Health, Relationships, Performance, etc.) and a meditation called everyday headspace, where Andy talks about a topic followed by a short meditation. The subscription also includes singles for specific situations like falling back to sleep.

Headspace does an excellent job of cutting out all esoteric bullshit and relating Buddhist concepts to a secular western audience. It gives much-needed context, and I like to apply my new gained insights to my non-guided meditation. Having said that, you should not rely exclusively on guided meditations. It’s mainly a way to get yourself started and familiarize yourself with key Buddhist concepts.

My daily meditation routine consists of three elements. First thing in the morning after waking up I sit down for 20 minutes and meditate. Afterward, I lie down on my bed and listen to the everyday headspace talk. During the day I think about the headspace talk and try to apply it to my life. Before going to bed, I lie down again and listen to one of the ten-minute packs. I noticed the compounding effect of meditation early on. The more consecutive days I meditate the clearer becomes my mind, and after missing days I have to start all over. It’s a lifelong process similar to fitness. Its relatively easy to get fit, but your fitness level drops quickly when you stop exercising. Like always, good old-fashioned consistency is king.

Business Application

You might be thinking, that’s all nice and well, but how does meditation help me bring home the bacon and that’s a good point. Meditation isn’t meant to be outcome-oriented, but I am not afraid to explore new territory. Meditation helps you to be more balanced and less easily distracted by random thoughts. I recognized that my ability to work concentrated for long periods of time increased due to meditation. Professional athletes in the NBA and other disciplines use meditation for performance enhancement for a long time. As an entrepreneur it’s easy to get caught up in your business and it’s important to keep things in perspective. 


The benefits of meditation are enormous and well-documented scientifically. The benefits are massive and it should be a no-brainer for anyone to meditate. It’s in the same league with a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and regular outdoor activities. But I think there are two main obstacles, which prevent most people from meditating.

The first obstacle is the esoteric/religious connotation of meditation, which creates an inner resistance in a lot of secular people. Meditation has an image problem. The second obstacle is the starting time. In the beginning, it feels weird to sit down and meditate and you feel like you are not making any progress. It’s similar to running, the first week or two, it feels weird to run because you have no stamina and then eventually you push through and see results. The problem is that most people give up before they reach this turning point.

Now you know everything you need to know about meditation.
The rest is up to you,



Headspace App
Seth Godin’s Start Up School

Recommended Books

Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru                                        Questions to a Zen Master: Practical and Spiritual Answers from the Great Japanese Master                                                                                              The Zen Way to Martial Arts: A Japanese Master Reveals the Secrets of the Samurai
The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance
Zen & Karma: Teachings of Roshi Taisen Deshimaru

The Power of Now

How to learn Spanish

Hand holding smartphone with Spanish app

Before you start learning a language, you should ask yourself: Why do I want to learn this language? In others words, am I motivated enough to learn this language over the long term? Go hard or go home and I am not talking about the Roy Jones Jr. song. It is easy to watch La casa de papel at home and be inspired to learn Spanish for a week, but it is probably not enough to keep motivated for months of language learning.

When you feel sure about learning a language and your willingness for a massive time investment, then it is time to create a language study plan. 99% of people (so-called dabblers) don’t do this, and this is why almost all of them fail. As a reader of my blog, you are probably not a dabbler though. My motivation to learn Spanish is immense because I am planning on traveling in South America and living in Barcelona long term.


The traditional language learning process is broken because it ignores the different language activities. Schools and universities force students to exclusively learn grammar and vocabulary for years, and as a result of this students often fail to formulate a coherent sentence in Spanish, because they have zero interaction skills. This strategy makes sense from an institutional perspective in that you can teach large classes of people grammar and vocabulary and test them accordingly. The downside of this system is that it is incredibly inefficient and nerve-wracking for the students.

When you learn Spanish, there are three common pitfalls I see people doing time and time again. Ordered by relevance:
1. People avoid talking Spanish because it feels uncomfortable in the beginning. Practice is the most crucial part of learning a language, and I am going to elaborate this point later on. What is the point of learning a language when you are not using it actively?
2. People do not put in the work to learn the different Spanish modes and tenses. Some people go to the other extreme and talk Spanish nonstop without learning the basics. You have to do both simultaneously, but if I had to choose I would still bet on the talker in comparison to the bookworm.
3. People do not put in the work to learn the Spanish vocabulary to a sufficient extent.

Learning Plan

An effective learning plan consists of four elements:
1. Your goal
2. Timeline
3. Time investment
4. Monetary investment

Let me give you an example:
I want to achieve a B2 Spanish level CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, not the China Experimental Fast Reactor) in the next 6 months (final date 31.12.2018) and I am willing to commit 364 hours (2 hours per day) and $670 in total.
According to the CEFR, level B2 is upper intermediate level, and you can hold a conversation fluently. That’s a good benchmark. Personally, I am aiming for C2.  

In order to explain how to achieve this goal I first have to make a small excursus about the different language components. I am breaking it down in layman’s terms for you. The CEFR differentiates between four language activities:
1. Reception (listening and reading)
2. Production (spoken and written)
3. Interaction (spoken and written)
4. Mediation (translating and interpreting).
Mediation involves both reception and 
production and consists of translation and interpretation (such as summarising, reporting, or (re)formulation of statements)”

My language learning plan is based on current cognitive research and integrates all four language activities and considers the challenges described above:
1. Reception (Readlang, Netflix)
2. Production (Anki, Babbel, Conjuguemos)
3. Interaction (Italki, Intercambio)
4. Mediation (Italki)


My first recommendation for reception is Readlang. It is a minimalist software, which simplifies reading texts in a foreign language by translating word and phrases immediately when you click on them. Before I discovered Readlang I never read Spanish texts, because looking up words constantly was simply too annoying. It is free, and I use it as a chrome extension. Heavy users might consider the premium version with unlimited phrase translations for 5 Bucks a month. I read one or two articles on BBC Mundo daily, and the free version is plenty for me. BBC Mundo is excellent because they write in neutral Spanish and they have business news as well.

My second recommendation for reception is Netflix. The beauty of watching Netflix is that you turn an unproductive activity into language learning and you can focus on specifics accents. You can choose three different levels of difficulty depending on your skill level.
1. Spanish audio with English subtitles
2. Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles
3. Spanish audio without subtitles

As a starting point, I can recommend Narcos (Colombian Spanish), Club de Cuervos (Mexican Spanish) and La Casa de Papel (European Spanish). I suggest that you limit your Netflix consumption to your target language and do not count it as active learning time. 


To learn a language, you need to learn the basic grammar first. Personally, I started learning Spanish with Babbel, and it worked great. The biggest advantage of Babbel is that it breaks down complex grammar into small 10-15 minute lessons. The courses are designed by language experts and well structured. The price depends on the length of your subscription. Babbel also has an app, so you can learn Spanish while commuting to your soul-destroying job. It’s $44,70 for 6 Months. Babbel has an integrated vocabulary trainer, but the options are limited, and I recommend using a separate vocabulary trainer like Anki.

Let’s take a look at the alternatives. Rosetta Stone is the market leader, and it offers a 6-month Spanish subscription for 119$. Pimsleur is the runner-up regarding market share, and it offers two different courses for Spanish (Castilian and Latin American). The complete course Spanish Latin American (80 hours) level 1-5 costs $575 (sic!). The Castilian course is limited to level 1 and mp3 and costs 120$. Duolingo is a popular free alternative. The main downside of Duolingo is the lack of structure and the gimmicky approach. All things considered, Babbel offers the best value for money, IMO.     

As you probably know, Anki is Japanese and means memorization. It is an open source flashcard program, which uses spaced repetition. The most efficient way to learn is when you create your own decks, but you can also use existing decks. I created my own deck for irregular verbs, and additionally, I am using a premade deck with the 5000 most frequent Spanish words. You can add sound, pictures and examples to your flashcards. As a numbers guy, I like the integrated statistics function in particular. Anki breaks down your learning journey and shows your progress in tables. Learning vocabulary is not fun per se, but it is nice to see your progress of mastered vocabulary. Memrise is a popular alternative. It has a sleeker design, but less functionality in terms of card creation.


Interaction is the most important component in my humble opinion. Too many people hide behind their textbook to avoid talking to real human beings. When you start learning a language, you have to leave your ego at home. It is called beginners hell for a reason. You are going to sound like an idiot for some time, and that is okay. It is the prize you have to pay for mastering a new language. Switching back to English in a conversation is a popular cop-out. Too many people think they can skip this phase by learning everything beforehand. But that is not how it works, just get it over with it. Nobody cares that your Spanish is not perfect. The people who learn the fastest are the people who are not afraid to make mistakes. It is a common theme in my blog.

I have attended Spanish classes and individual teaching, and I can say with certainty that one-on-one teaching is ten times more effective. I recommend Italki for finding a teacher. You get $10 credits for free when you sign up with my link. Italki is an online marketplace for language teachers, and the lessons are conducted on Skype. Italki differentiates between tutors and professional teachers. I have found two excellent Spanish tutors with Italki.

Italki has four massive advantages:
1) The Skype format facilitates speaking.
You are forced to speak because you can not hide behind a textbook in a one-on-one lesson. 
2) Typically, individual teaching is quite expensive, but lessons on Italki are affordable, especially in Spanish. 
3) It is effective. You do not waste any time commuting to a language school or a meeting point. You can stay at home for your lessons.        
4) You can find the perfect teacher for your individual needs. If you want to live in Madrid, you can find a Madrilenian as a teacher.

I recommend establishing a weekly routine with your teacher to make it a habit. I talk weekly to both of my Spanish teachers, and it feels
 more like talking to a good friend than a teacher.

On Italki you can also find a language exchange partner, where you teach English and learn Spanish in return. Personally, I prefer a language exchange in person in a nearby café. Just write what you are looking for and what you can offer in a local Facebook group, and you will find a language exchange partner in no time. I recommend that you establish a structure where you split the time of both languages evenly. An alternative would be a weekly language exchange organized by organizations like Mundo Lingo in various cities. A language exchange has the upside that it is free and the downside that you learn your target language only half of the time. I think it is a good and fun addition, but I would not necessarily consider it active learning time.
Spanish has a reputation for being a relatively easy language, especially in comparison with languages like Russian, Chinese or German. While true, you still have to put in the work. Spanish has four different modes and plenty of tenses, and it takes some time to learn them all. I recommend using Conjuguemos. It is a free website with an integrated verb conjugator. It is critical to learn the active application of the different verb forms as well.  


Mediation means that you can mediate between different parties, who can not communicate directly. To do so, you need to be able to summarize and reformulate statements. You can practice this skill with your Italki teacher. For example, you could summarize and paraphrase a BBC Mundo article. This skill is quite advanced, and I recommend focusing on the other meta-skills first.   


Let’s go back to my example of a learning plan. Let’s assume you follow my learning plan. You have two individual Spanish lessons and one language exchange per week. You learn grammar with Babbel and vocabulary with Anki on a daily basis. You also read one article on BBC Mundo with Readlang every day. Additionally, you watch a Spanish movie/series three or four times a week. You have to allocate your learning time to the exercises, according to your current strengths and weaknesses. It makes sense to focus on grammar in the beginning and switch to reading comprehension and speaking later on.  If you follow this regime, you can achieve Spanish level B2 in six months, depending on your learning capabilities.

Italki52 x $8 = $416
Netflix basic plan6 x $8 = $48
Total monetary investment≈ $510
Total time investment364 hours


With a $510 investment, you can learn a new skill over a six months period, that is an incredible ROI in my book. Assuming you already have a Netflix subscription, the investment would be only $462. I think the problem is the time investment and not the monetary investment. A lot of people start learning Spanish, but only a minority of these people stick to it and put in the work consistently. The best “learning hack” I know is to put in the work consistently. You need a big enough reason for learning Spanish, so you stick to it when you hit a plateau. The easiest way to stay consistent is to develop habits based on solid routines. It’s like going to the gym; you have to get the reps in. Like everything in life, you get out, what you put in.

My learning plan offers a systematic approach to learning Spanish, but you can also add elements based on your personal preferences. If you like music, you can listen to Spanish playlists on Spotify. Calle 13 is always good for a banger, IMO. Spotify also has top-notch Spanish audio courses like Coffee Break Spanish from Radio Lingua. I can also recommend Radio Ambulante. It’s a monthly podcast with stories from all parts of Latin America and the episodes have corresponding transcripts. As you can see, you need a mix of different tools to cover all four language activities.

But it is also important to not get lost in the excessive supply of language learning tools. The focus should always be on speaking, and you will be fine. I think motivation is not enough though, you also need to make the learning experience fun, or you will quit eventually. I designed the learning plan for myself in a way that I enjoy learning Spanish. For example, I am always looking forward to my Spanish lessons with my tutors, because they are awesome.

Now you know everything you need to know about learning Spanish and the only thing you have to do is to put in the work and execute. The rest is up to you,


Recommended tools

501 Spanish Verbs
Mundo Lingo   
Spanish Verbs (Laminated Reference Guide; Quick Study Academic)

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