Coronavirus: Expert tips for productive confinement
The lonesome masked figures of security guards in empty streets have become an eloquent social media meme in China’s cities
The lonesome masked figures of security guards in empty streets have become an eloquent social media meme in China’s cities during the current Coronavirus outbreak. Expats merrily selfie away in deserted shopping malls and airport lounges. Well done everyone who is missing from the picture: health authorities remind citizens to avoid crowds (easily done these days) and keep their social interactions to the minimum. But while we stay out of harm’s way at home, confinement itself can become a problem.
During the past couple of days, I share tips on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, on keeping healthy, productive and even happy during extended periods of confinement: living one’s life in a relatively small and enclosed area. I learned some of these at my previous crisis management job, from UN Peacekeepers, survival specialists, emergency responders and so on. Others come from my experience as a coach for executives in expat jobs more recently, whose circumstances are often surprisingly similar to those of my previous colleagues at international organisations.
Confinement is a stressful situation, even when we do not admit that. One reason why it is hard to handle it is the diversity of human needs. When physically and emotionally isolated from the outside world, people experience the situation differently, hate it for different reasons and long for different things depending on their personal temperament. In an old joke, four people are asked which book they would rescue from a sinking ship to accompany them on a desert island. One opts for the Bible, another Moliere’s comedies, the third a summary of world history, and the last one a handbook on boat building. To account for that diversity, my suggestions are based on the DISC-based Oriented Strategy Matrix, a system that has has proved useful with managers and leaders from various backgrounds, in all kinds of situations.
Picture: My DISC-based Oriented Strategy Matrix
BLUE: Prepare & Plan
Starting your confinement survival programme with the BLUE corner as we often do: Make sure you have the basics such as water, food, hygiene supplies and medicine for yourself and those who rely on you. This will not only increase your chances of weathering a challenging situation successfully, but also help you calm down and evaluate your circumstances. As brain scientist Helen Fisher suggests in her book, counting and organising your cash, bottles of water and pots of instant noodles triggers a neurotransmitter called serotonin in your brain, balancing out stress hormones caused by the unpredictability of your circumstances. (This is also why people count imaginary sheep to fall asleep.) Then, make sure you can stay calm and organised: create a daily plan. Schedule getting up on time, grooming, meals, tasks and errands, exercise, entertainment and rest. Keeping busy, both mentally and physically, is the best boost to your mood, immune system and health.
RED: Don’t go with the flow
Survival and mental health experts agree: the secret of staying healthy and productive in confinement is to keep a steady but motivating routine. Moving on to RED: Don’t get lazy! For most people, work or study provides a daily routine that suddenly disappears at times like the current Coronavirus measures. That often leads to a downhill cycle of excessive eating, resting, television, game- and phone-time, perhaps even too many drinks and cigarettes. That is why it is essential to stick to the clear-headed plan you crafted yesterday when you started from BLUE, or should today. You can play games or binge-watch TV shows, but schedule them between a meal and some exercise. If you’re not the disciplined type, get your spouse, friend, kid or phone calendar to remind you. When you go to bed, mentally replay your day and decide how well you did on a scale from 1 (a wasted day) to 10 (today was time well spent!).
Picture: With my team in Bosnia in 2000
YELLOW: Create mental diversity
The Coronavirus disrupted our lives in late January, at a time when millions of people had already failed in their New Year resolutions. Why? Because most resolutions imply making your life either a bit harder or a bit less interesting. This applies to your confinement survival plan too: air-tight and iron-clad action plans guarantee failure. That is why you must respect the YELLOW in your life and include diversity in your plan. Follow your routine for a few days, then find its weakest (usually the most boring) spot and create alternate plans. Eating at regular times is good, eating the same stuff every day is destructive. Do exercise daily, but definitely not the same repetitive movements: strength one day and cardio the other works well. Also, make sure to alternate sedentary and dynamic tasks: interrupt office work or TV with sports, cleaning or trying to get your slippers back from your dog. To get away from screens, to housework or play music. Be systematically spontaneous: interrupt yourself after 1-to-1.5 hours even if you enjoy what you’re doing.
GREEN: Give help, get help
Okay, you have drafted, followed and fine-tuned your plan for a few days, so there are two options: you either feel like a champion or like a failure. In either case, don’t do it alone: reach out! Statistics say that most people fail to follow lifestyle plans even if their lives literally depend on it, like people recovering from organ transplant. The average couch potato has much less to lose if he lets things out of hand. But our interconnected world is full of people who struggle with exactly the same problem as you do, and reaching them has never been easier. Asking friends and family for personal support is best, asking them for virtual help is a close second. Should you be separated by geography, time zones or attitude, find online forums for specific issues you’re struggling with. Finally, don’t forget to engage even if your productive confinement plan has been working like a Swiss watch! GREEN is about offering as much as about getting help. Share successes and quick-tricks to inspire and support others. In turn, they will help you take your own effort tot he next level.
NEXT ROUND: Vicious circles, virtuous circles
And the cycle doesn’t end there! Albert Einstein brilliantly explained that since our Universe has three spacial and one time dimension, we cannot run around in circles: what looks like a circle is actually a spiral in time. In critical situations like physical and/or social isolation, make sure to make that an upward spiral rather than a destructive nose-dive. Start from BLUE and complete the cycle as above. When you get back to BLUE, don’t just check the box: raise the bar for yourself! Use RED to challenge yourself to do more, or do it faster. Let your YELLOW shine with dirty dancing while you clean and entertaining others at home or online. Go GREEN: have you forgotten a friend who might be quarantined or stuck at home with kids or sick relatives? The cycle goes on and on, and upwards spirals can make miracles happen. Remember people like Galileo Galilei, Nelson Mandela or Zhao Ziyang, who turned their imprisonment into great books. Learn from astronauts who do their best work in confinement.
As always, I hope this helps. Cheers from Shanghai, stay safe!