Picture the scene for a moment if you will… it’s night-time, the wind is howling, rain is lashing horizontally, I’m huddled together with three others on the exposed wilds of Dartmoor after being dropped in the middle of nowhere and we’re pouring over a map and compass with head-torches deployed, trying to figure out what to do next.
We’d been set a deliberately unachievable task, we were caught in a storm following a sustained period of limited sleep and tensions were rising.
This is what happened during a training exercise I took part in some years ago when being assessed to become a member of the Response Team for international charity, ShelterBox, who oversee distribution of emergency humanitarian aid to those affected by natural and man-made disasters around the world. The training is designed to create stress in unfamiliar environments and to see how people cope when the pressure ramps up before clearing them to be sent out into the field.
In this case, cool heads were needed. We needed to accept we wouldn’t be able to complete the task we’d been set, formulate a new plan, and then keep moving by putting one foot in front of the other. Standing still wasn’t an option.
It feels like a fitting analogy for where a lot of us are right now.
So many people out there are juggling working from home and homeschooling while trying to keep some semblance of normality and not collapse under the strain.
It’s hard - and this time of year feels very different to any other. Some people are working flat-out simply trying to get by, others are excited and motivated, many are frustrated and there’s an awful lot of division out there.
When the storm rages, we all deal with it in different ways. There’s no right or wrong answer for navigating your way out of the storm but, just like the training exercise above, standing still and letting the storm batter you into submission won’t achieve anything.
Increasingly, I find myself drawing on a range of different ways I use to guide me to calmer waters in other contexts.
These are techniques and tips I’ve picked up over nearly two decades of running my own business - and travelling to some of the less glamorous parts of the world. They might not be for all of you out there but I hope that, by sharing them, some of you will find them useful and they’ll help you as they’ve helped me.
1. Focus on taking the next step
If we stare up at a mountain, the summit can seem a long way off. It seems like a place we’ll never reach. Some people might give up before they get started. But if we look down at our feet - and put one foot in front of the other, that summit gradually starts getting nearer and nearer until we’re eventually standing on top and taking in the commanding views.
In the UK, we’re currently in the middle of a national lockdown, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic. It can be overwhelming and we may not have sight of the end. In which case, don’t focus on the end. Focus on the next step and do the things you CAN do.
Control the things you can and let anything outside of your control worry about itself.
Personally, lists and deadlines are a big help for me. Checking items off my to-do list brings satisfaction and I work well when I have deadlines in place, even self-imposed ones. The trick is to keep your lists manageable, by breaking bigger tasks down into smaller tasks, and ensuring your deadlines are realistic. I find both of these are perfect for helping move forward and not get stuck.
2. Form positive habits
Small changes can add up to big differences and forming, then reinforcing, habits can be real game changers. The reason so many people fail with their resolutions is because they are completely unrealistic about them and then fail to approach them with any kind of plan.
Look at how initiatives like ‘Couch to 5km’ work. For most people, going out of the door and running 5km is seemingly unrealistic. Yet, with a structured programme that lasts for a month or so, with different paces to follow each session, it all of a sudden becomes much easier to achieve because your body adapts to the habit of running.
The author James Clear writes about Atomic Habits and how small (and what can seem to be insignificant) changes will compound over time to make big differences. Maybe it’s something like cutting out sugar from your tea or coffee, walking for at least half an hour a day, making sure you have screen-free time before you go to bed, or muting notifications on your phone. Experiment, have fun with it, see what positive habits you can form then watch the difference they’ll make.
3. Manage your downtime
Now, given the current situation, this one can be tricky. But, if you can, try and make best use of your downtime. Do whatever makes you happy - it might be relaxation, a change of scenery, or doing those jobs that you never seem to get around to doing but know will make your life easier in the long run. It might be a walk in the fresh air, an online fitness class, reading a book, chopping fire-wood, or even binge watching a show on Netflix.
Downtime is precious right now so when you get it, try not to waste it. It’s only recently that I’ve given myself permission to indulge and to relax without feeling guilty about it. I’ve found doing this has given me more focus, energised me, helped me make better decisions and made me feel like I’ve become a better person.
I find these three things work wonders for my own positivity and mental wellbeing. They are only small things but they help me navigate my way through the storm. My best advice is to find what works for you. If being busy helps then keep busy. If you need to take time to stop, then pause and enjoy a moment of stillness. What’s important is you don’t neglect your own wellbeing because then the storm will only get worse.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. It might seem far away at times but every day brings us a little bit closer and the light shines a little bit brighter.