Finding focus through self study

Jonny at his desk

Like many organisations, Brightec were introduced to a new word earlier this year - ‘furlough’.

As the March lockdown went into full-force, we realised that we might need to start taking the necessary precautions to protect the future of our agency, and accept the sad reality that we needed to furlough some of our staff. I ended up being the first to experience this (I actually volunteered!), deciding to take the rare opportunity to do some self studying. This is what I learned from my four weeks on furlough…

A solid focus

How often do you get to take a 3+ week sabbatical from work to do whatever you want? That’s the way I was looking at my furlough at the start of April when I left the (virtual) office. I was keen to utilise this time to improve my skills and learn something new - but where to start? There is so much material available at our fingertips these days, it can be daunting when choosing an area to study.

Having a clear thing to focus on was important for me. I decided to try out Udemy’s ‘Complete React Developer’ course, as I knew that it was an achievable thing to get my teeth into within the time I had. There are so many great courses out there (just google ‘development course 2020’ and you’ll see!). Some are paid for, some are free, but take a bit of time to choose something that you are interested in, and you feel you can commit to doing in the time you have.

Some pros of doing an online course:

  • It feels great to learn something new!
  • It gives you a clear area of study to focus on.
  • Many courses have an online community of fellow learners which you can easily get involved in. The React course has a whole host of channels on Discord through which I found several people to chat about the course with, and to share progress.

Sharpening your skills

Online courses are great, but it can get a bit tedious watching video after video of content. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of copying code - line for line - as you watch! Another big part of self-study is practising what you already know, and pushing yourself to try new things.

Programming ‘Katas’ (quick problems to solve as an exercise) are a great way to ‘sharpen your skills’. This could be diving into a problem that’s been on your mind, or going off on a tangent on a topic mentioned in your course. You can pick one of the many ‘katas’ online from sites like Codewars or the Coding Dojo kata catalogue (‘Katalogue’?). One of my favourites was the Bowling kata, which I used to sharpen my TDD skills.

Another great thing to do is build random stuff! You really liked that loading animation when signing up to that new website? Try and build it yourself! Make it better (or make it worse 🤷‍♂️), tweak things, adjust things, play around with it. One of the best ways to learn any new skill is to copy from the greats. I spent an afternoon building a copy of Spotify’s ‘Your Library’ tab from their iOS app (watch out for a blog post on how I did it!)

And if you get bored… try it again in a different language!

Keep calm (and find a way to carry on)

Motivating yourself to study can be daunting. Remember that you can’t do and learn everything in one go, so decide on a few things that you want to work on and focus on those. Sticking to a routine can be helpful too. I decided to stick to my 9-5 work routine.

Stay active, and give yourself more breaks! Learning is tiring, and can really take its toll. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, then it might be time to stop and take a break. Go for a run. Climb a tree. Make some pancakes. You’ll probably find that when you come back to the problem after your break, the ball starts rolling again.

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