Studying Online: How to Stay Productive During Quarantine

Zach Clenaghan
March 22, 2020

We’re currently undertaking the biggest experiment in distance learning in the history of education. Millions around the globe have been impacted by school and university closures because of COVID-19. 

For many students, this is uncharted territory. We’re conditioned to be productive predominantly under the surveillance of teachers in classrooms. Now, left to our own devices, it’s pretty easy to get distracted by literally everything around us. Netflix, video games, social media, online’re not alone if you find your mind wandering when trying to study from home.

So how can you stay productive while studying online? 

Participants of our Edumadic Programs are all online students, so we know a thing or two about balancing self-directed online learning with leisure time when there’s nobody to enforce study hours but yourself. 

Follow this advice and you’ll be able to do the same. Yes, you won’t be spending your free time seeing the sights of Europe or surfing in Bali. But you’ll be able to keep on track, and have downtime to work on other areas of your life that you may have been neglecting before COVID-19.

1. Create and stick to a daily routine.

This is the cornerstone of an online learner’s productivity. You only realize how important a daily routine is once you don’t have one imposed upon you. 

Ideally, you visibly plan your daily/weekly routine on a calendar. You can easily do this on your Apple iCal or Google Calendar. You don’t want to get too specific, as life always happens and accounting for every minute of every day sets you up for failure. But setting your intentions is important so you have a “default” day to revert to without thinking. 

Here’s an example:

As you can see, on our most productive days, we’re aiming for 6 hours of study, cut into blocks spaced throughout the day. There’s a block of 1 hour for exercise, and time for socializing. Both are very important at a time when we’re spending the majority of time in our homes away and physically apart from our friends. 

These are the minimum things I want to accomplish each day. You may have additional things that you need to include that are unique for you, but be careful not to overcommit, you can always add more things incrementally. And it’s important to leave lots of time free, this can be for watching Netflix, spending time with family, or catching up on social media. Free, “unproductive” time is not evil, it’s crucial so that we can decompress and turn our mind off.

You’ll notice that we haven’t scheduled meals, this is deliberate and goes back to what we said about being flexible. Even if you have specific meal times, entering them on your calendar isn’t necessary. 

This is not the gospel of daily schedules. As you implement any routine you’ll start to notice how you feel at different times of the day and you can adapt your routine accordingly. Maybe you can do 3 hours of pure study first thing in the morning, maybe you’re a night owl. Maybe you feel most motivated to workout in the evening. Fortunately, now that the way you spend your day is up to you, you can adapt it to perfectly match your natural rhythms.

2. Get rid of your distractions so you can work more efficiently.

Your phone is the big one here. Every time it lights up with a text or notification is an interruption that is ready to knock you off track. There are many apps that can help you with this, monitoring and limiting phone and app use, as well as blocking notifications for periods of time that you choose.

Besides your phone, keep the television off (it’s not “background” noise), and make sure the only open tabs on your internet browser are relevant to your schoolwork. Don’t depend on your willpower to stay focused, set yourself up to succeed.

Even if you take these steps, your attention can still drift to an article or a YouTube video that you came across by accident. For distractions like these, create a “bucket” to put them in. This can simply be a note on your computer (try Evernote for syncing between devices) where you drop the link. You should come back to this “bucket of distractions” at the end of each day. You can read/watch these then, but not while you’re trying to spend quality study time. Ideally, you clear out this bucket each day so it doesn’t start to overflow.

3. Track your tasks and time.

To capitalize on your new found freedom as an online learner, it’s important that you track both the tasks you need to complete, and the time you spend completing them. You want to avoid half studying, half relaxing, and not getting the benefits of either. 

First, track your tasks. Create a list of your assignments/projects/tests at the beginning of each week with deadlines to complete. Then break down the specific tasks associated with them. Often as a student, you don’t necessarily have easily defined tasks to complete. When this is the case, you should assign time to specific classes, essentially turning them into tasks. For example, have a task which is “spend x hours studying for this class”. If you don’t finish all the tasks for a day, make sure to carry incomplete tasks over to the next day's task list.

And now track your time. The Pomodoro Technique is widely regarded as the best way to split your time up throughout the day. This technique has you split up your time into 25-minute chunks, with 5-minute breaks in between each. The idea is that 25 minutes is a short enough amount of time to focus on one task that it isn’t daunting. Anyone can focus for 25 minutes, right? Once you’re 25 minutes in you have momentum on your side and it becomes much easier for that one Pomodoro to turn into three or four. If you’re really flying after one pomodoro, skip the 5 minute break!

It’s important to treat these pomodoros with respect though, otherwise you’re only cheating yourself. While you're timing a pomodoro aim for pure focus on the task at hand for 25 minutes, not distractions whatsoever. You can make it a mission to slowly squeeze more pomodoros into each day. Start at 6 for your first day, and work your way up day by day. 6 pomodoros is only 3 hours of studying but when it’s pure focus, it’s amazing both how draining and how productive it is. 

There are many pomodoro timers all over the internet that you can download to your computer. My choice: BeFocused.

If you’re in a full house with parents working from home and/or siblings who are also studying online, try to get everyone on the same page with work intervals so you can take breaks together without interrupting anyone’s workflow.

4. Create a designated study space.

Setting up a separate workspace at home is going to be a huge game-changer to help you stay productive while studying online. Personally, I can’t go from chilling in bed to focused on studying. My brain needs external signals that it’s study time.

When studying from home, this means a dedicated study space. If possible it’s a room in the house that is set up specifically for that purpose and nothing else, but it can just as easily be a desk in your bedroom, or your kitchen table. What it shouldn’t be is your bed, or the couch you relax on at the end of the day. Your brain is a powerful thing and it’s already been conditioned to know that it can switch off in those two places.

5. Make a list of break-time activities.

You’ve got your daily routine set, and you’ve got your pomodoro timer downloaded, but what to do with those 5-minute breaks between pomodoros? 

Firstly, it’s important that you step away from your laptop, get up and physically move away from it. Otherwise, your break isn’t going to feel like a break. I would also advise against switching from your laptop screen to your phone screen, although quickly answering a few messages isn’t the end of the world.

Making a list of small activities that are going to boost your mood and energy, that you can complete in 5 minutes will be useful. Here’s ours:

  • Move your body. This can be a few pushups or squats, or holding a couple of yoga poses. If you’re lucky enough to have a dog, go and play! It could even be learning to handstand or juggle! Anything to engage your body and get the heart pumping even if it’s ever so slightly.
  • Make a cup of coffee or tea. 
  • Complete a chore. Whether it’s washing some dishes, or doing a load of laundry. 
  • Get outside! Take a walk around the block, around the house, or even around the garden. Absorb some vitamin D, breathe some fresh air, and feel a little bit of nature.
  • Prep your lunch and/or dinner. You can split the prep of the meal into 5-minute chunks so by the time you finish that 4 hour block of studying, it’s ready for you to eat!
  • Play an instrument. If you can’t, start learning! There are many cheap, small, and simple instruments that you can get your hands on, such as a harmonica or ukelele.

All these activities are likely totally unrelated to whatever you’re focused on during your pomodoros, which is exactly what you want. We’re aiming for 100% focus on our studies during pomodoros, and 100% removing ourselves from it during our breaks.

6. Keep in touch with your classmates.

If you’d normally be sharing notes or collaborating on homework, why not keep it up when you’re at home? Try and keep your conversations off of social media though as a slip of the thumb might have you down the black hole of an Instagram feed!

As with your family, it’s a good idea to try and get the classmates you’re collaborating with on the same schedule as you. Maybe one of your study blocks you can organize to overlap with your classmates and use that time for group discussions.

7. Make a playlist.

Music is so powerful, particularly when it comes to productivity. The right playlist can make the difference between jamming out with your head in the clouds, and getting into flow state like the finely tuned study machine that you are. I find that music without words helps to sharpen my focus to the point where I easily lose track of time.

There are plenty of ambient sound playlists to find on Spotify - piano versions of pop ballads, lofi hip hop, even relaxing nature sounds. My favorite is the Productive Morning playlist.

8. Remember that you aren’t on summer vacation yet!

If you’re traveling while studying online, your brain sometimes goes into vacation auto-mode and you start putting your focus on all of the fun instead of on all of the studying. Neither one is great, actually, so it’s all about finding the right balance between student and explorer.

If you’re studying online due to government-mandated school closings and quarantine, it’s also easy to allow yourself to slack off the remaining months of the school year. But it’s important to keep your educational goals in sight - whether you’re finishing high school or moving along through college courses - there’s a greater reason for finishing school and finishing it well. Your diploma, your degree, or the new skill set you’re learning is going to open a lot of doors and potential for the future you’re working toward. 

Have we missed anything? Let us know if you have any tips that are working for you and we’ll add it to the list!