From March to April 2020, worldwide Google searches for “online courses” tripled. But by the end of the year, they’d dropped to their lowest point in half a decade.

It’s safe to say that the last year and a half of varying degrees of lockdown split the population into two camps: those who decided the forced downtime was the perfect opportunity to learn a new skill, finish a major project, or get in shape.

And the other 99%.

There’s never been a better time to learn a new skill, change careers, or completely reinvent yourself. Unfortunately, it’s also never been more confusing, stressful, and difficult to find the right path for you.

For many people, the daily stress of living through a pandemic was more than enough to derail their self-education. But what if that wasn’t the only problem?

For years, researchers have known that few people finish online courses with some studies finding more than 90% of people abandon them without completion. It’s clear that the failure of online education isn’t purely a problem from the pandemic.

But lifelong learning is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.

So how do you commit to bettering yourself no matter what’s happening in the world around you?

Understand your true motivations for learning

If you start a course for the wrong reasons, you’re probably not going to finish.

The word motivation shares its root with ’emotion’ (both come from the Latin word ‘motere’–meaning to move). At its core, motivation is an emotional problem. Yet many of us try to solve it through a purely logical or rational approach.

For example, let’s say you’ve decided you want to learn how to become a UX designer. What’s your true motivation for making that change?

Are you interested in a career in tech (and the salary that comes with it)? Or are you genuinely interested in talking to and empathizing with real people to help find solutions to their problems?

Both of those are legitimate reasons to learn the necessary skills. However, they have vastly different motivations that will impact your ability to stick with whatever course you choose.

One focuses on an external motivation (more money) while the other is an internal motivation (helping people).

Studies show we’re much more likely to stick with goals that connect to internal motivations. So before you go looking for a course or program, ask yourself why you want to do it. Be honest. Dig deeper. If you don’t have a strong motivating factor to connect to, you won’t make it through.

Choose a structured course to give your motivation a boost

Even if you have the best motivations, you might fall victim to what American psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice.

This is when you have too many options and feel paralyzed by the weight of your choice.

Today, there are hundreds or thousands of options for courses on any subject you can imagine. And even once you’ve done the research and made a decision, you’re plagued with the anxiety of missed opportunities.

Did you make the right choice? Should you have spent more money? Or less? What if this doesn’t teach you what you need? What about all the other options? Surely, you couldn’t have picked the best one?

While there will always be too many options, you can counter the associated FOMO by choosing a structured course.

A structured course is one that has a clear timeline and perhaps even a cohort of people you’ll be learning alongside. While this might seem like added pressure, it’s actually a powerful way to get over what psychologists call the motivation trap:

“Motivation does not precede action, action precedes motivation.”

In most cases, you don’t feel motivated to do something until you’re actually doing it. The problem is few of us have an easy way to get over that threshold. But expectations from others (i.e., your classmates and instructor) can force you to act even when you don’t want to.

Take advantage of mentors and group feedback (even if you’re an introvert)

Many people flock to online learning because they think they won’t have to connect with classmates or speak up in front of a group. Yet the most impactful part of taking an online course–especially a career-oriented one–is building a network and learning from other smart people.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused a ‘mental health crisis’ of anxiety and depression. And for many of us introverts (myself included), the thought of being put on the spot and talking to total strangers is enough to make us what to drop out.

There’s no easy way to ‘get over’ social anxiety. However, the Cleveland Clinic suggests a few small steps to make it easier:

  1. Don’t worry about doing things ‘right’: If you’re afraid of being awkward or messing up social norms, just know that everyone is in the same boat. We’re all relearning how to act around each other and it’s only natural that it will feel weird to start.
  2. Point out your discomfort: There’s a good chance the person you’re speaking with is feeling the same as you. Sometimes expressing how you feel uncomfortable can break down the wall and make you both feel better. Remember, you’re all there for the same reason–to learn.
  3. Take it slow: You won’t be able to come back at 100% energy right away. And that’s ok. Do what feels comfortable and build from there. Exposure is a powerful tool when trying to get yourself back in a positive place.

Lastly, always remember that if your feelings have become unmanageable, there is help available. The CDC has a list of mental health resources here.

Know what you want to get out of it

Focusing on the future is another powerful way to stay committed to your weekly coursework and overcome your anxieties.

Researchers have found that thinking about the future–what some call ‘prospection’–can motivate us to hit our goals. But only if you expect the outcome.

For example, people who expect to lose weight in the future are more likely to actually lose weight. While students who expected to get a job when they graduate were more likely to land one.

The same goes for your online course. You need to know what you want out of it and believe you can achieve it. If you’re an aspiring project manager learning the steps of the project life cycle, know that you can put that knowledge to practice and land a job.

Believe it and you’ll make it a reality.

Put what you’re learning into practice before your finish

We learn by doing. When theory becomes action and you see yourself doing something you couldn’t just a few weeks ago, it builds your self-efficacy–the belief that you can learn and better yourself.

Don’t wait to ‘finish’ your course to start putting those new skills to practice.

Start now and keep your motivational fire burning.