Productivity in isolation: Don’t waste a crisis

Susie Stokes

As our nation starts to peer over the horizon of what may have been the peak of coronavirus in Australia (but I dare not speak too soon) it is an interesting time as we contemplate ‘going back’, ‘not going back’, ‘moving forward’ and a rather uncertain ‘now what?’

I know for me, over the past couple of months in lockdown I’ve not had to contend with home schooling kids or juggling competing priorities…at least not externally. But what I have battled with, is an internal dialogue on how best to use time. My time, spare time, down time.

This pause has created a gap where I wasn’t expecting to find one. For over 6 months I had been considering a course via CXL Institute but didn’t have the time or money to put it into action.

The Founder of CXL Institute, Peep Laja, is one of the many institution leaders and entrepreneurs that has made online courses available during the COVID-19 crisis at a reduced fee, via scholarship or free, pushing the e-learning marketing into rapid growth which is predicted to hit $315 billion by 2025.

So if you find yourself with the time and inclination to learn something new right now, here is a guide to the Top 10 eLearning websites. The top 5, ranked by web traffic are:

  1. Udemy  74.5M
  2. Khan Academy  51.8M
  3. Coursera  37.2M
  4. edX  22.4M
  5. Udacity  16.2M


The hard part might be narrowing down what you’re looking for. I’d recommend asking yourself a few key questions about how much time do you really have that can be dedicated to learning (factor in offline reading time also!) Is there any cost involved? What am I hoping to get out of the learning experience?  

I was lucky to know what I wanted to study and landed a scholarship for the course Psychology & Persuasion by CXL. But now comes the part that really counts. The doing.

If you’re used to a 9-5 job, you don’t realise until it’s gone the routine instantly provides you with a structure for your day, like scaffolding on a building take it away and you feel naked. 

My old routine was get up at 7am, get ready, commute, in work for 8.30, lunch at 1pm, leave work 5.30pm, commute, dinner, chores, relaxing and 10pm bedtime, and rinse and repeat for the whole week/month/year. So what do you do now looking own the barrel of an empty day how do you structure your time for productive work/learning? 

Do you multitask like crazy and hope at least one task gets done? No, because it turns out multitasking actually hinders us and we’re not really ‘multitasking’ in the true sense of the word. All our brain does is switch really quickly from task to task draining our valuable energy in the process. 

In his TED Talk ‘Are you multitasking your life away?’ Stanford Professor Clifford Nass argues that multitasking is bad for your brain and we actually work best when single-tasking. 

But there is still an art and skill in structuring your day. 

Heard of Parkinson’s Law? “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” 

This phrase coined by twentieth-century British scholar Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s illustrates how tasks take as long as the time we have allotted to them. Allow a day, it will take a day. 

So how was I going to learn the course I’d committed to without a structure in my day and to finish it successfully? Faced with this dilemma I did some research on how I could break my day into smaller sections because surely I wasn’t the only one to face this issue?

And I wasn’t. In the late 1980s, a man named Francesco Cirillo developed a time management method called the Pomodoro technique. This was a game-changer for me (I’m using it right now to write this article), it reduces your day into blocks of 25 minutes which means you narrow that window of available time to complete your task, getting more done (hopefully). 


The original technique had six steps: 

  1. Decide on your task.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
  3. Work on your task.
  4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
  6. After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.


I am now in week 4 of 12 doing my ‘Minidegree’ and due to the nature of the topic, it takes time to digest, process and retain everything I am reading and learning. Applying the Pomodoro technique, I’ve created a structure that works for me in isolation – 4 x 25 minute blocks each day because seeing the material every day helps, as opposed to only twice in a week e.g. cram sessions over a weekend! 

With my time now structured, I feel more productive and have started writing a blog on what I am learning each week. 

So why put in all this effort? This pandemic and the way it is reaching each of us is a very personal journey. For me, I’d like to be able to look back over my time spent in isolation and see something tangible from it. A sense of a crisis not wasted. I guess I’m hoping that will somehow make me more ready to slot back into our brave new world.

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