The past few years have seen a dramatic shift in how people learn and acquire new skills. From short-form content, like TikToks, to long-form content, like YouTube and online courses, more and more people choose the internet in favor of the traditional classroom, and for good reason.
Studying online is flexible, accessible, and much more affordable than in-person alternatives. There are options for every budget, and you can quickly turn a newly learned skill into a business or source of income. You even get a certificate to display and be proud of.
The pandemic has fueled an explosion of online courses and bootcamps on various topics, from gardening to coding and UX Design. Today, almost every expert in a field is thinking of or has already launched their own course. The creator economy is in full bloom.
Some of these programs are good, some are great, and some are terrible. On top of that, people are just starting to learn how to learn online. This mix can turn your exciting new journey into a rollercoaster of frustrations.
However, despair not! Self-learning is a skill everyone can master if they wish to. This skill will pay for itself in the long term, as you can learn anything you want, as fast (or slow) as you want, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-person training.
I’ve been self-learning my entire life, starting back when computers used cassette tapes to store files. Yes, I’m that old. My insatiable desire to learn more about technology at a time when people were barely adopting it pushed me to learn on my own. I had no other choice, as schools unsuccessfully tried catching up, and in-person courses were rare and prohibitively expensive.
I’ve also been mentoring hundreds of individuals for the past five years, looking to learn more about design while holding a job, taking care of kids, or being a full-time caretaker for a loved one.
Over the years, I’ve developed a series of self-learning strategies that I’m going to share with you below. Before we dive in, let me say this. Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re right. So the success of your journey will lie more in how you approach it rather than any talent you might think you need.
Let’s start with establishing your strategy for learning a new skill.
Understand your context
Your first step should be creating a clear picture of your current context. Failing to do so right from the beginning might cause you to stall or fail later down the road. You need to be drastically realistic with your current time commitments: job, hobbies, friends, family, health issues, leisure, travel, time off, etc.
Learning a new skill will require a lot of resources, usually in the form of time and money, so make sure you have enough runway for both. I’m not going to lie to you. You might need to make sacrifices if you want that shiny new career or to become a master chef. You might need to cancel that poker night with friends every Friday, that barbecue on Sundays or your Wednesday evening Netflix binging.
The best time to start anything is yesterday, but if you feel like you won’t be able to fully commit, then maybe it’s best to wait and work on creating more space before you jump on a new journey. Losing momentum due to lack of time or having to cancel mid-way can be disheartening.
Here are the top reasons I’ve seen people dropping out of online courses:
- Health issues (their own or of a loved one)
- Family (new child or taking care of a parent/spouse)
To map out your current availability, I usually recommend using a calendar app. This could be the default calendar app on your computer or a third-party app. Start by mapping out your recurrent, near, and distant engagements, such as work schedule, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, commute, gym, house cleaning, grocery shopping, haircuts, birthdays, parties, weddings, medical procedures, time off, travels, etc. Make it as exhaustive as possible and keep it updated.
You’ll end up with a visual representation of your busy and available time. You can then start to either identify times you could dedicate to learning, or things you need to give up or compromise on. Make sure you account for rest time, as you can’t keep learning without resting.
Set clear goals and intentions
Motivation sits at the core of what people do what they do. You’ve certainly seen people putting more time into things you wouldn’t care for and sure have thought about why they do so. As everyone is different, we all have our own intrinsic or extrinsic motivations.
Changing or leveling up your career or acquiring a new skill can be a demanding endeavor. At times, you’ll feel ready to quit, having lost sight of why you chose to do this in the first place. So make sure you write down why you’re doing this and what you hope to achieve. Give it a few days and re-read it. Does it still stand true to you? Then go for it.
Later down the road, whenever self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or frustrations start creeping in, go back to your goals and why you started this. Re-read, re-evaluate, and if you still feel the same as when you wrote that, then have patience and trust the process.
A lot of people start out super-pumped and motivated, only to slow almost to a halt a month later. So this is a simple yet powerful tool to keep you going when you’re low on energy and motivation.
Slow and steady wins the race
I’ve seen many students tempted to think that they need large time slots to get anything done, so they wait for that rare moment when they can sit down undisturbed for a few straight hours. But the truth is that we rarely have that many moments. Most of the time, you’ll need to feed the cat, answer the door for a delivery or help out a friend throughout the day.
Instead of aiming for a few hours twice a week, get in the habit of doing a little bit every day. You’ll establish consistency, persistence, and much better momentum that is harder to lose.
Establishing a consistent routine will help you manage your time more effectively and ensure that you don't fall behind on your coursework. Plan out your days and weeks in advance, and make sure to include time for studying, breaks, and other activities.
I would recommend deciding on a time of day that you intend to sit down and study for at least 25 minutes. If anything gets in the way or you’re not in the mood, you can quit after the 25 minutes and come back tomorrow, and if you get in the zone, then keep going. At the very least, you’ll get a minimum of 3 hours of study every week, no matter what.
I would also recommend keeping track of how much time you were able to put in every day, alongside a few notes about that week, as this will not only give you visibility on how much you’ve accomplished but will help you understand what behaviors, situations, and moods influence your study time and progress. Do weeks when you work out help you study more? Bingo! Does going out with friends hinder progress? Maybe skip that Friday night out. For the moment, of course.
Create an environment to foster growth
Ok, so you’ve decided to take up that online coding or design bootcamp. Or you’re studying by yourself. What now?
Like most of us, chances are that you have social and professional engagements that take up most of your time. Going through a part-time study program in addition to your job will mean little time is left for social engagements.
Friends will still call to get out for a drink or go on a weekend getaway. Boss will still ask for overtime and to come in on a Saturday. Colleagues will still ask you to pick up their shifts. Setting up the right expectations with each group will ensure you can focus on your program.
Let your spouse, family, parents, friends, and acquaintances know you’re embarking on this journey, and you won’t be available as much for the next few months. Not having your friends call you to go out will make it easier to focus on your program. Let your manager, boss, or co-workers know you’re taking up a personal project that will require much of your free time, so you’ll be less available for overtime. This might seem the most challenging part, but setting healthy boundaries at work should be the default anyway, so you’ll be doing yourself a favor nonetheless.
Some bosses or managers will even be open to supporting you in your career transition, so it really depends on your context. Sometimes, it’s as easy as respectfully declining that meeting later than 5 PM or that extra shift.
If you’re living with others in the same house, ask for their help and support. Maybe your spouse can take out the trash, wash the dishes and answer the door for a while. Or maybe your roommate can study at the library so you can study at home. Whatever your living situation is, making sure you have the support of the people living with you is essential.
We live in a day and age that has shifted from information scarcity, ten to fifteen years ago, to information abundance. But not all information and materials are created equally. You will have to sift through, categorize, and store articles, files, videos, and books to be efficient and effective.
It might seem very straightforward and simple, but creating a structure to build on, will be critical. And it doesn’t matter as much how that structure looks like, as long as it makes sense to you. It could be a Pinterest board, your browser bookmarks, or a tool like Raindrop.io.
And if you’re old-school, you might be using a filing cabinet. As long as there’s some structure in your learning materials, you’ll be fine.
Get a mentor
If you’re studying by yourself or your program doesn’t provide a mentor, make sure you find one. Mentors are like books. They are full of valuable personal experiences from which you can learn. Most of the time, they can save you time, money, and frustrations by sharing their knowledge, experiences, tips, and tricks, saving you the trouble of going through the same things.
One of the most valuable contributions a mentor can have is to help you sift through the sea of information and help you identify what you should pay attention to and what you should disregard.
You should find a mentor that is open and available to guide you for the duration of your studies, as having too many diverging opinions throughout your learning journey can create confusion and do more harm than good. Having a consistent and cohesive source for feedback is best.
A mentorship relationship is fruitful when you are completely honest and open with your mentor. They have likely been through the same things you're going through, either emotionally or intellectually, so there are no stupid questions to ask and no reasons to be ashamed to admit you feel defeated, burned out, anxious, or fearful.
Your mentor can only help with the things he or she is aware of. So anytime you’re struggling with something, just discuss it with your mentor. And especially if you’re struggling with your mentorship relationship, let them know what’s working or not for you, so they can adapt. Mentors are generally able to adapt quickly to various styles of communication, learning, and collaborating.
Too often, I see students needing to leverage their mentors more and feeling lost or frustrated as a result of failing to do that. Here’s how to make your mentorship relationship successful:
- Prepare an agenda and send it before the call.
- Stay focused on the conversation and talk about the latest adventures of your cat only if the time allows it.
- Be completely open with any struggle, intellectual or emotional. Mentors are not therapists, but they might be able to tell you how they got through the same things.
- Ask any question you might have, no matter how stupid or irrelevant you think it is.
- Balance listening with talking. After all, you’re there to learn from your mentor.
Stop and reflect
Journaling can be a powerful tool for learning, as it allows you to reflect on what you have learned, process new information, and make connections between different pieces of information.
One benefit of journaling is that it allows you to review and reflect on what you have learned. When you write down your thoughts and observations, you can review them later and see how your understanding of a topic has evolved over time. Additionally, journaling can help you to identify gaps in your knowledge and areas that you need to focus on in order to improve.
Another benefit of journaling is that it can help you to process new information more effectively. By writing down what you have learned, you are actively engaging with the material and making it more likely that you will remember it in the future. Journaling can also help you to make connections between different pieces of information, which can deepen your understanding of a topic and make it more meaningful to you.
Journaling also can help you to develop self-awareness and metacognition. It allows you to track your progress, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and adjust your learning approach accordingly. It can also help you to set learning goals and track your progress toward achieving them.
So make it a habit to stop and reflect once every week, every other two weeks, or after each learning milestone.
A lot of people get stuck here as they feel they are not great writers. But no one was born a writer. As with any skill, writing is improved through consistent practice. Moreover, nobody is expecting you to write Pulitzer pieces. Your mere thoughts are more than enough.
Once you feel more confident in your writing, these pieces can also be the subject of online articles or social media posts. If you’re trying to get into any new industry, consistently creating and publishing content can get you noticed faster.
Teach and help others
Complimentary to writing, teaching others can be a powerful way to help yourself learn and retain information. When you are explaining something to someone else, you are forced to think about the material in a different way and organize your thoughts in a logical manner. This can help you to identify gaps in your own understanding and to better understand the material as a whole.
It can also help you to remember information better. When you are teaching someone else, you are actively using the information, which can make it more likely that you will remember it in the future. Additionally, when you are able to explain something to someone else in a clear and concise manner, it can be a sign that you have a good understanding of the material.
Teaching others can also help you to develop your communication and presentation skills. When you are teaching someone else, you need to be able to explain the material in a way that is easy for them to understand. This can help you to develop your ability to explain complex concepts in a simple and clear manner, which can be beneficial in many different areas of life.
Moreover, teaching others can be a rewarding experience that can boost your confidence, motivation, and self-esteem. When you are able to help someone understand a difficult concept, it can give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. It can also help you develop leadership, mentorship, and coaching skills.
You may feel like you’re too much of a beginner yourself to teach anyone, but there will always be people who know less than you do and would appreciate your help.
Consistency over perfection
It is more important to be consistent and make steady progress rather than striving for perfection and risking getting bogged down in the details. This approach can be beneficial in many areas of life, including work, school, and personal development.
One benefit of consistency over perfection is that it allows you to make steady progress toward your goals. When you focus on consistency, you are less likely to get bogged down in the details and more likely to make progress on a regular basis. This can help you stay motivated and on track to achieve your goals.
Another benefit is that it can help you to be more resilient and adaptable. When you focus on consistency, you are less likely to get discouraged by setbacks and more likely to be able to adjust your approach and find a way to keep moving forward. This can help you be more resilient in facing challenges and obstacles.
More often than not, striving for perfection is a source of stress and anxiety. When you aim for perfection, you may be more prone to procrastination because you will feel overwhelmed by the task in front of you. Also, when you are too focused on perfection, you might overlook the small wins and progress you have made, which can lead to demotivation and discouragement.
In contrast, when you focus on consistency, you can focus more on the process than the end result. You can appreciate the small steps you take toward your goal and celebrate the progress you make along the way. This can make the journey more enjoyable and increase your motivation, engagement, and satisfaction.
Know the challenges ahead
A month or a few weeks into your learning journey, after the excitement wears off, it might leave room for a lot of undesirable and paralyzing feelings, such as fear of failure, anxiety, self-doubt, and feeling overwhelmed.
You will start questioning whether you can do this, whether you’ll be good at it, or whether you will ultimately fail. You might even become very harsh and judgemental with yourself.
This is perfectly normal, as your brain is trying to keep you away from change. Change is not comfortable for the mind as throughout our evolution, change usually meant you might not survive. These feelings are there to help you or, better said, used to help you when we lived in caves and hunted mammoths. They are less useful in the modern world, but our evolution hasn’t caught up yet.
There’s no secret potion that can cure these feelings, and the only strategy is to simply go accept them and go forward. With time, your brain will get used to the new context and will see it less as a threat. You will start to enjoy more your new context and journey.
However, failing to accept these feelings and move on can lead to a standstill.
Know that this might come and when it does, greet it with open arms and acceptance.
Stop comparing yourself to others
Comparing yourself to others can harm your well-being and prevent you from reaching your full potential. When you compare yourself to others, you are often focusing on what others have and what you lack. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and even depression.
Comparison can also lead to unrealistic expectations. When you compare yourself to someone who has achieved a great deal of success, you may begin to believe that you should be able to achieve similar success without taking into account the specific circumstances and hard work that led to that person's success.
Moreover, comparison can also lead to a lack of motivation. When you look at someone else's success and think you will never be able to achieve something similar, you may become demotivated and give up on your own goals and aspirations.
It's important to remember that everyone is on a unique journey, with their own circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses. Also, you often don't know the whole story of others and their struggles. Therefore, it's not fair to compare yourself to them. Instead, focus on your own progress and achievements, celebrate your successes, and learn from your mistakes.
It's also important to remember that everyone has their own unique talents and abilities and that success can mean different things to different people. Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on your passions and interests, and work towards achieving your personal goals and aspirations.
Be patient with yourself
Learning takes time and effort, and it's normal to make mistakes along the way. Be kind to yourself, and don't give up.
Connect with others
Most programs offer some sort of community, and this is usually an undervalued and underused resource. Make the most out of it by attending community sessions and connecting with fellow students. If you’re learning by yourself or your program doesn’t offer a community, you can turn to Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups, and even Reddit.
There are many others on the same journey as you. They might be on a slightly different path, a bit ahead or further behind, but you are not alone.
If this list of strategies feels overwhelming, just remember that no single item listed here, or the whole list, is a magical way to achieve success. To achieve success, you need consistency in taking action. And the more strategies listed here you apply, the higher the chances you’ll reach your goals sooner.
And if you feel this helped you, feel free to let me know at email@example.com. I would love to hear about it!