Five ways to approach online learning during lockdown and beyond

How to avoid stress overload and focus on value-adding training.

When lockdown first kicked in, the initial shock for many was followed by the self-promise to do something good with this time; the old adage about life giving us lemons, we make lemonade. This would be the opportunity to learn to ‘do that thing we’ve always wanted to’, but never had a chance. Even furlough for many of us, both employer and employee, meant training, training and more training.

Man sitting at table with book, laptop and coffee

A recent free webinar in our AbilityNet Live! series covered How to access online learning during lockdown. On the webinar we shared free online learning opportunities to stay sharp and keep motivated. Many of these options can help those who are feeling socially isolated during lockdown (or at other times) or those who want to develop their skills while they're on furlough and beyond.

Time management or managing time?

But now, eight weeks on from when lockdown began, many of us have found ourselves overloaded, with too many good intentions and simply not enough time to do it all, and a phenomena that many of us have discovered during lockdown; the complete inability to focus, certainly not for sustained periods.

For others the worry has set in that they are wasting this ‘opportunity’ that everyone seems to be talking about, that somehow they’ll emerge from lockdown and be quizzed on how self-improved they feel and can they please show the badges and certificates to demonstrate this.

So, here are my (possibly somewhat belated) five nuggets of advice, based on personal experience, of how to avoid signing up to every possible opportunity, every webinar, and every free online event then going mad in the process:

  1. Be specific with your goals - try to avoid to-do items that read things like “Do Spanish course” as this will mean at the end of the day, no matter how much progress you’ve made, you’ll be moving it on to the next and the next, and denying yourself that little dopamine hit of satisfaction as you tick it off. Instead try something like “Do module 1 of the Spanish course,” or “Learn numbers 1-10 in Spanish."
  2. Make goals achievable - similar to point 1, but this is more to do with how you measure your productivity. Say, if you sit down to write someting, the average person can type at around 40 words per minute, so if you have an hour, that's 2,400 words. Highly unlikely something you'll be able to achieve. So, setting it as a goal is unlikely to be a good motivation. Instead, try setting it at 400 words, it will feel good when you hit this and if you’re on a roll, there’s nothing stopping you from keeping going and if you find the 400 word hourly goal is something you hit with time to spare, bump it up a bit.

    Person typing at keyboard
  3. Don’t try to do too much - the business model of most online trainers is to keep you on their site, so just like any good retailer, they will offer options that ‘You might be interested in…’ or ‘People who studied this also studied…’ (which is why there is value to the data you give them when you browse and sign-up for things). The risk is you become like a kid in a candy shop, enrolling for every course that looks remotely interesting and is offered for free. The result is that when you now log on to a learning dashboard or check your emails, you are hounded by hundreds of helpful reminders about courses you’ve signed up for; ‘You started this course, don’t get left behind!’
    So, depending on your other time commitments, it's best to pick one or two courses at a time. Most sites regognise this and offer a 'wishlist' or you can 'bookmark' the page to come back to later. As a bit of an aside to this, Microsoft's latest version of its Edge browser comes with a feature called 'Collections' which will, as its name suggests, allow you to put together collections of articles, page snippets and bookmarks, so you could create an 'online learning collection' for all the courses you might want to line up for some time in the future.
  4. Consider a bit of variation - you might think that having decided to use this time to say, learn a bit of Social Psychology. Whilst you’re doing that you may see one on Cognitive Psychology, so you think that will run alongside, and then maybe an intro to CBT course sparks your interest. The risk with this is that often, especially as many of these courses are broken into smaller chunks, the themes and ideas and can become pretty confusing. If you feel like you want to do more than one course, consider doing something a bit different; a Major and a Minor; Social Psychology and 18th Century Pottery.
  5. Plan your day - Peter Bregman in his book 18 Minutes: Find your focus, Master Distraction, and get the right things done (if you order from Amazon, please consider showing AbilityNet some support with Smile) suggests taking 5 minutes at the beginning of the day to set your (achievable, specific) goals and then 5 mins at the end of the day to review them, with a minute every hour (in an 8-hour) working day to review and re-focus. This tends to work well if you have that level of control over your working day, but for many of us, especially at the moment, an 8-hour working structure is fairly absent. 

Write an achievable list

List writing
The notion of taking time to plan what you want to achieve is key. Personally, I use Microsoft’s To-do; I keep lists of general, broad tasks (for example, ‘Learn Web Accessibility 101’), chunk them into smaller pieces and then use the ‘Add to my day’ feature to give me a short, achievable list of items I can tick off (for example, ‘Do module 1 of web accessibility 101’).

The nice thing is that although they may disappear from the ‘My Day’ list, they appear as crossed out in my Tasks list (or any other list I create), which not only gives me a nice sense of what I have managed to do, but also allows me to untick and re-use if it’s a task I want to repeat (you can delete them completely if you’d rather keep your list clear).

For time management I use pomodoro; a technique that divides time (typically 2 hours) into four 25-minute focus periods with a 5-minute break between each one and a longer break at the end of four.

I (try to) switch off email pop-ups and other reminders and avoid the temptation to touch my phone during the 25 minutes (the app will run with ‘do not disturb’ active). This chunk of time to focus is somehow a more manageable period even with a magpie-mind like mine (constantly looking for the next interesting distraction). I also use a pomodoro app to track progress through each pomodoro, but a kitchen timer is fine.

Further resources

Watch the webinar playback (transcript available): How to access online learning during lockdown

Further reading