If your friend's highscore is just a little higher than yours, do you spend some time trying to beat that score? Not everyone is like this, but if you are, you need to check out language challenges. They take advantage of your competitive nature in order to help you make progress in your languages. And most of them are completely free. Here's a list, in no particular order:
This is a long-term challenge, it lasts 20 months. During that time, you try to read 100 books (well, 5000 pages, as each 50 pages count as a book) and watch 100 hours of movies in your target language. There is also another version of the challenge where numbers are cut in half, which I'm currently participating in for Serbo-Croatian. If you are currently stuck on the intermediate plateau, the Super Challenge is the perfect challenge to reach C1 or C2 level, because it forces you to consume a metric ton of native content. You are also allowed to read easy readers, watch TV shows with subtitles and so on, so this challenge is also suitable if you're an upper beginner. Be sure to read my article on how to get started on books in foreign languages. The Super Challenge started not so long ago and will last until the end of 2023, so read about it and sign up now! (It's free) Use the website in order to see how fellow challengers are doing.
6 Week Challenge
The 6 Week Challenge starts every 1st of August, 1st of November, 1st of February and 1st of May. It is intended for beginner languages and the challenge is to put in as many hours as possible for six weeks. The website has a highscore that tracks how many minutes everyone has put in. I often find that if a friend of mine has studied 5 minutes more than me, the urge to study a bit more myself becomes irresistible. Also, when you click through to someone's personal challenge page, the website provides neat graphics to visualise their study style. Sign up for free - joining this month's challenge is still possible and you may backfill your study time until now - and enjoy competing with friends and known polyglots alike.
Tadoku - "Read more or die"
The Tadoku Challenge is about reading as many pages as possible during a defined period (typically 4 weeks). Many participants study Japanese and you have to respect their determination to plow through books in a foreign script. Like the 6 Week Challenge, the Tadoku challenge runs an online highscore, only that it tracks pages read, not minutes spent. Obviously reading a page of a manga is not nearly as much text as the page of a novel, so there are conversions to "standard pages" for various types of reading materials. Even story-based video games count! And of course anything read with the Reading Tool counts as well. The next Tadoku Challenge runs from September 1st for a month and further editions start roughly every other month. Further info and free signup here.
30-Day Speaking Challenge
Many people can "win" this challenge because the goal is simply to record an audio of you speaking your target language every day for 30 days. You're not competing in how many minutes of recordings you manage to do; this challenge is simply about showing up. Instead of a highscore, there are neat communities on Facebook and Mighty Networks that motivate each other to keep going and sometimes provide corrections. You'll also receive daily prompts so that you don't have to wreck your mind trying to think of what to say - though if you don't like the prompt, you can also talk about something else. This challenge has a registration fee of $10 in order to cover the costs of the organizer, who is very actively involved. The challenge runs every month, always from the 1st of the month. Read more here.
Fluent in 3 Months Challenge
In this challenge, which is linked to Benny Lewis' Fluent in 3 Months blog, you are not actually trying for fluency but rather the ability to have a 15-minute conversation in your target language in 3 months. This challenge will work even if you are starting from zero - like me, when I was studying Russian just now. I have completed several of these challenges over the past decade, the format works for me and I find that they set me up for a very good start when learning a language from scratch. That being said, the registration fee is quite a lot higher than when I first participated and will be unaffordable for some ($397 without discounts last I checked). You can of course use my Roadmap to Quick & Dirty Conversational Ability in order to try to achieve the same goal without registering for the challenge. You'd miss out on a community of people who start at the same time as you, several experienced coaches whom you can ask all your language questions and who will cheer you on, mini-challenges to keep you on track, many pages of tips for each week, free access to some of Benny Lewis' online courses, and, if you come out on top, significant prize money. Challenges start every month or two, whenever the waiting list is long enough.
Lingua Franca Challenge
Having a community that starts to learn the same language at the same time as you is a powerful motivator, even if you don't all share the same goals or pace and don't compete in a highscore. The Lingua Franca Challenge is dedicated to this idea: a Facebook community that votes on a language to learn and then learns it together for six months. In order to give everyone a greater incentive, only the target language may be used in the community forum during the final three months of the challenge.
Without an exam or other definite deadline looming over us, it is easy to put off studying today, and tomorrow, and the next day... The above challenges introduce some artificial urgency. Even when there are no prizes and nothing seriously bad happens if you fail, it is human nature to be competitive, so you will find yourself putting in extra hours and making progress faster than you otherwise would.
In my case, the first time that I participated in the Tadoku challenge, I found myself re-evaluating my days to try to squeeze in more reading time and I found many opportunities to do so. Some of these habits have stuck with me. So while the challenges don't last very long, the positive effects on your study habits may be permanent.
Admittedly some of these challenges sound insane. Reading 100 target-language books in less than two years for the Tadoku?? The only advice I have is to shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.