My experience of isolation has taken many forms over the years. It comes in working for myself, and the isolation of challenging environmental norms. There’s the loneliness of leadership where you internalise questioning and self-doubt, and, of course, undertaking expeditions to some of the world’s most remote regions.
In 2007 I embarked on an expedition that would push me to my absolute physical and mental limit. Retracing Sir Douglas Mawson’s 500km solo trek across Antarctica, I was alone on the ice for a month. To compound things I was surviving on a starvation diet and using 100 year old clothing and equipment to recreate the conditions that Mawson had faced.
Each day brought with it new challenges – extreme weather, cold, equipment failure, personal injury and navigational challenges, all compounded by the dangerous terrain through which I travelled. And of course the physical and mental isolation.
That situation can’t help but teach you a few things.
The different forms of isolation
I got through the Mawson expedition using a combination of attention to routine, framing the expedition as a challenge to rise to rather than as a problem to deal with, breaking the enormity of the challenge down into manageable pieces and keeping a diary that enabled me to have a conversation about my concerns (albeit to myself).
By writing feelings down it enabled you to see them for what they were rather than as how they sometimes felt – an intangible feeling of dread.
However, and this may sound surprising, I’ve felt as much loneliness dealing with major problems as a leader. When others looking to you for guidance you end up in a position where you feel you cannot share your problems. The solution is to embrace such feelings – accepting that being self-aware enough to have them is ironically part of the skillset good leaders need to have.
Such feelings are also part of the mental process of your coming up with a solution. It’s like a child saying they’re bored before being at their most inventive and coming up with a new game. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.
Other techniques include interacting with others who share your experiences to compare notes – in our case today we can do it remotely via digital means. This is extremely important to overcome the feeling that you cannot share your issues or concerns with anyone. It also provides you with the perspective and new insights that stop problems from feeling like they’re spiralling out of control. Everyone has those feelings, but digitally connecting is something we can do almost as easily as face to face contact, and is something we should routinely do in these times of physical self-isolation.
You can also focus on controlling what you can. I found on my expeditions that focusing on things like a routine of personal hygiene and repairing of equipment could help give a sense of getting things back on an even keel. This was a complete illusion of course as the scale of my problems far outweighed anything I was able to do to balance them out, but it brought about a disproportionate sense of calm.
Nine ways to beat isolation
So of all the occasions where I’ve experienced isolation, they broadly fall into three categories: actual physical isolation, loneliness that is part of day to day life in the modern era, and the loneliness and isolation of being in a position of leadership or feeling that you are alone contending with unique pressures or problems.
All have their challenges, but there are some techniques, common to all of them that I have applied that work for me.
- Give yourself goals – In current circumstances, goals might include making time to contact people, time for exercise, working on jobs around the house, reading the book you’d always been wanting to read, learning a new skill etc. Keep it varied to maintain your interest levels and adjust it until you’re happy with it. Continue to learn and grow.
- Re-framing – Try to reframe your new isolated existence as an opportunity rather than a burden. Think of the times in the past where you wished the working week was over and you could spend more time at home, working when YOU felt like it, to your rhythm and pace rather than having it dictated to you by others. This is now your reality and you should try and enjoy it.
With expeditions I try to frame them as a challenge to be overcome with upsides if I can successfully win through, rather than being something just to be endured. In other words, if I get through them I will be better for the experience rather than just in the same net position as I was before I took on the challenge. The more problems you experience and overcome, the greater the sense of satisfaction and upside you experience if you can pull the expedition off. You can’t lose!
- Structure – Devise a routine that helps you to achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself and try to stick to it. Where it continues to be disrupted due to circumstances beyond your control, modify it as required without dwelling on the fact that it keeps changing. Routine has a momentum of its own in that it allows you to relax into whatever activity you’ve scheduled for yourself at that particular time without feeling guilty that you should be doing something else. It works even better if it’s a part of a plan to get you to a broader goal too.
- Break your day down into manageable pieces – Related to routine but different in that it applies to setting small targets that contribute towards achieving a larger goal. Stand back and periodically re-evaluate whether the small steps are getting you to your end goal. For example set daily health and fitness goals that contribute towards achieving a bigger fitness outcome; learning a new skill, renovating a part of the house etc.
- Engage in something worthwhile like helping others in some way – Often isolation can lead to a feeling you’re not contributing towards anything and this can start to affect your sense of self-worth. I know some volunteer tree growers for example who are growing seedlings of tree species lost during the recent bushfires or constructing bird boxes to encourage native birds lost during the fires. The sense of doing something positive that still allows you to contribute back to society remotely is very satisfying. It is also tangible which is important as it gives you something to show for your effort.
- Look at problems as opportunities – similar to reframing something, like an imposed period of isolation is to look at the positives associated with problems. A period of isolation is a rare opportunity to re-evaluate things in your life more broadly.
Certainly as a society this coronavirus crisis is a unique opportunity for us to collectively re-evaluate where we are going from an environmental standpoint. (The reduced atmospheric pollution from flying and driving, and reduced consumption more generally are also positives we can learn from).
- Ensure you sleep well – Keep to your normal sleep patterns, unless of course the ‘normal’ working sleep pattern for you was too little sleep. Sleep is tremendously important in helping you cope with change and challenges generally. It is the brain’s way of ordering our experiences and making sense of things. Don’t underestimate it.
- Engage with others online – Skype, chatrooms, Zoom and various other communication platforms allow you to maintain regular contact with people and to share problems and challenges. Many people in challenging leadership positions share their experiences with others in such ways to help them deal with the isolation that leadership can bring in their own workplace.
- Accept that there’ll be ups and downs – Regardless of the above techniques there will be mood swings along the way and that sometimes isolation will weigh heavy on you. Other times not. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
The importance of goal setting
Goal setting and structure are all-important. I would go as far as to say that if you don’t have it things can start to decline very quickly.
When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance sank at the beginning of his Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition in 1915, he relied on routine and goal setting to keep the morale of his 27 men going, even though their chances of survival in Antarctica without their ship were very slim. Considering they lived on the stricken ship and then on the pack ice for a total of 13 months, this was a powerful way to keep them going.
They had lectures, slide nights, played soccer, gathered food and maintained camp in an orderly way throughout. This simple approach maintained everyone’s belief that they would get through things. It also provided a welcome distraction from the circumstances in which they found themselves.
The fact that Shackleton felt they had time to have lectures and play soccer also sent the clear message to his team that, as leader, he had circumstances under control. That soft signalling was a clever move by him.
Goal setting with teams in situations of isolation is important as it helps to have everyone work towards the achievement of something, focusing their energies on that rather than infighting.
The danger of deviating from the plan
These are the techniques I stick by, and when I’ve deviated from them, I’ve made things worse for myself. I made that mistake during my 1999 expedition to cross Antarctica.
On that expedition I took music with me. I thought it would help mentally transport myself away from my circumstances and make me remember the world I’d left behind.
Ironically it just made it harder to re-focus on the mindset needed to deal with the isolation I was actually in.
Because even though things might seem bad, sometimes it’s better to remain there.
This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.
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