Spring 2020 Issue
As I write this article, I am quarantined in my white house, with its small front porch. The days are warm, spring is well and truly here. It’s green outside, and flowers bloom everywhere. The ocean tides come and go as they always have, just a short walk from my street, and I look forward to the day when I can take our dog there.
The news, the sadness, and the feeling of being overwhelmed come and go, as you may also be experiencing. I am doing my best to feel grateful and to find the gifts that come from this strange, socially distant reality that we are all experiencing, together.
My family took a one-week trip to Mexico just before COVID-19 became a pandemic. There were no national travel restrictions when we left, but we were keeping tabs on what was happening daily in Canada. We had planned to self-quarantine for 14 days upon our return. What we didn’t know when we left was that the rest of the country would be doing it with us. At least the physical distancing part.
As someone who has a home office, when I am tucked away there, I’d hardly know the difference between a normal workday or a “lockdown day.” But my work has now changed significantly—all of my workshops and keynotes have been postponed so there will be no travelling to clients in the near future. There is some obvious anxiety, and so I refocus, breathe, reframe. And in those quiet moments, I always reach the same conclusion.
What a gift this time is — and has been. I am choosing to truly appreciate this period for all it is worth, and to revel in the days of isolation and social distancing. This will pass.
If I look at our life in quarantine, the gifts we’ve received far outweigh the drawbacks for us. I know that all our situations are different — some people have lost jobs, others are over-worked, some are working at home for the first time, while some are on the front lines. My experience is not yours. But the 10 gifts below are what I’ve personally experienced. Yours will be different. But I hope you’ve found some gifts in this situation.
When I look at these 10 gifts, the common theme to me is time. Time to plan, to write, to sleep, to read and to work “on” my business instead of “in” my business. Even if your workload didn’t decrease, but you shifted your work to home, you have the gift of your commute time. Think about that—is that an extra 15 minutes? 90 minutes?
How many times have you heard yourself say that you want to implement something new within your team or organization, take a course, or get some coaching on your management skills, but you “just don’t have time”?
How many times have you said you’d like to read a new business book, focus on shifting the culture of your team, or learn to meditate, but you don’t have the time? There is a gift being given to many of us right now. The gift of time.
But here’s the reality: If you try to do it all, it can overwhelm to the point of immobilizing you. Just pick one of those things you haven’t had time to do. And do that one thing!
Here are my 10 Gifts:
1. The Gift of Slowing Down
Do you ever hear people describe their day as crazy, hectic, busy, or nuts? I hear this all the time. It has become the norm in North America—harder, faster, fuller days. There is so much busyness. But as one of my favourite authors, Patti Digh, says, “You can be busy, or you can be remarkable.”
Sometimes we get so busy managing crises that we’re too busy to look upstream and see why they’re happening.
Now is our time to be less busy and more remarkable. We actually do better work, make better decisions and make fewer mistakes when we slow down.
Robert Quinn suggests the practice of reflective action, which is finding the sweet spot between being too reflective (can’t make decisions) and being too active (make decisions too fast). He tells us that most companies err on the latter–making decisions too fast and making mistakes. We have a great opportunity now to practice reflective action to slow down for great decision making.
Over the past couple of weeks, I would have normally been flying between speaking engagements. I’m now taking the time to be reflective and to write (as I work on the early draft of my next book). And because I always seem to need to “live my research,” I’ve had a few other things happen to slow me down even further. One of them is that my back decided to go into spasm early in the isolation period, when I could not get out to see a practitioner. This meant that “all those things I was going to do in isolation” didn’t get done, as I slowly and deliberately went about my days. But I let it go—and it’s given me more time to reflect and get focused.
2. The Gift of Creativity
We’re in a whole new ballgame. We’re playing a team we’ve never played before. We need a new game plan. Fortunately, these situations bring out creativity. I guess that’s where all those sayings came from, like “the obstacle is the way” and “innovation is the mother of necessity.”
I was on a call today with someone who works in healthcare. He told me about doctors in a particular health authority who have been asking for years to get telehealth and tele-billing, and had been told the process was too difficult. Three days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, these same doctors have telehealth and tele-billing capabilities. Organizations who didn’t think they could manage having their employees work remotely, are doing fine with all the telecommuting and working from home.
In what ways have you noticed creativity in your own life and in others through this pandemic? I’ve learned to deposit cheques online. My daughter and I had an online appointment with a medical specialist. Our family has been working out how home schooling and working at home will work (we all have our own corners of the house). It was also important to us to figure out how everyone could get a workout in. We had to get creative. We have a piece of plywood leaning up against the garage at just the right angle for our daughter to practice her volleyball serves and hits.
My husband and I have set up a gym outside our back door, under a roof top so we can be outside, but out of the rain. We pulled an old weight machine and bench out from the garage, gathered up all our hand weights, a skipping rope and bands. There is a set of stairs out there for some cardio. It’s actually kind of heavenly going outside at noon each day!
3. The Gift of Sleep
Have you been wanting more sleep? Better quality sleep? I sure have. I like the idea of setting one big personal goal each month versus setting a bunch of resolutions at the beginning of the year and only achieving a few of them.
My goal in January was sleep! Getting enough. Finding ways to wind down earlier, disconnect and let my body and mind get the sleep it needed. I was only mildly successful.
But since our self-quarantine started, I’ve slept better than ever. I don’t go to bed earlier, but with no school, no early-morning volleyball practices to drive my daughter to, and no early meetings for me, I have not been setting an alarm. I let my body wake up when it wants to. I really like what this has done for my well-being, alertness, creative thinking and productivity.
There is such a lack of value on sleep in this society, and it often ranks below social media, exercise, other tasks, and most definitely, below work. Losing sleep to get more work done is perceived as being OK. And yet, research shows that sleep deprivation is leading to many negative consequences, including bad decision making, decreased immunity, increased errors and accidents at work, and mental health issues like burnout.
As employers, there has never been a better time to encourage employees to get enough sleep. Just like we’ve done with mental health, we could talk about it more, and make getting a good night’s sleep normal. Instead of extra time on Netflix and social media, what if everyone—in all virtual workplaces now—all over the world took extra time to sleep? What a difference that would make!
Does the flexibility in your schedule now allow you to prioritize sleep? I can tell you that as my relationship with sleep has changed over these past couple of weeks, I can’t really see a downside.
4. The Gift of Planning
Are you one of those people like me who has a list of ideas as long as a football field? Mine include speaking all over the world, writing that next book, creating a self-directed online course that people can work through on their own time, doing a TEDx Talk, cycling across Canada, you get the idea. And yet any one of those ideas takes a lot of planning.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of what it takes to run a business, travel for speaking engagements, look after family commitments and have some personal time, and just never get to the planning of any of those big goals.
Our isolation at home (and my personal isolation, lying with an ice pack on my back, or sitting in an Epsom salt bath) gave me a lot of time for reflection and planning. Without the big boulder in the way (or any of those other metaphors for the COVID-19 challenge) I would have been on that plane coming back from two engagements in Toronto, and not slowly moving through my days here in the neighbourhood, contemplating and planning.
5. The Gift of Home-Cooked Meals
As much as I like room service and the way they bring my fruit all sliced up perfectly, there’s also something really great about a home-cooked meal. We try hard to make healthy, home-cooked meals at the best of times. We hate fast food (unless it’s Freshii or The Chopped Leaf), but many a night we would find ourselves making a quick dash to Subway between basketball and volleyball practices. Or a fast sprint into the grocery store (back when we could do that), for something to pull together a meal quickly.
In our first week of isolation, we divided up the week between the three of us and each had a couple of nights to make dinner. We have wonderful friends who grocery shopped for us and dropped off food. We cleaned out our freezer and tried to use the things in our cupboards. I didn’t ever feel that sense of urgency to get a meal on the table quickly so that we could bolt out the door for a drop off. Nowhere to go. It was enjoyable. We felt blessed.
6. The Gift of Reading
My daughter is a voracious reader. She has probably read a book a day since this all started.
I was going to finish all the books in my library that I’ve started at one point or another. But, have you seen my library? That was an unrealistic goal.
I have definitely done more reading during this time though. I’ve gone deep into some of those business and psychology books, books like “The Psychology of Meditation” and “The Economics of Higher Purpose: Eight Counterintuitive Steps for Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization” (co-authored by Robert E. Quinn who will be a guest on my upcoming 8-Weeks To A Better Place To Work online course.)
I’ve also been reading Barbara L. Fredrickson’s “Love: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.” Such a good message at this time. These are all books I’ve had for a while and “haven’t had time to read.” Yes, I’ve watched my share of Netflix and spent too much time on social media, let’s be real. But having this time has enhanced my reading time too.
7. The Gift of Meditation
How many times have you tried to get in the habit of daily meditation? Maybe you already meditate daily. Maybe you’ve never meditated. Maybe, like me, it’s somewhat sporadic.
I found that being in isolation helped me to get into a regular habit of meditation. I know how good it is for me. Meditation is one of those practices that increases positive emotion, something we could all use a little more of these days.
The research shows that there is a tipping point of 80-90 minutes of meditation per week, over which our positivity, optimism, possibility-thinking and creativity starts to soar. Just a little a day can go a long way.
There are many kinds of meditation, and I have tended to be drawn toward using the body scan when I meditate. But given the state of the world I thought I would try the Loving Kindness Meditation. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a well-known researcher on positivity, found that having people do this type of meditation regularly helped them to self-generate positive emotions that lasted. It didn’t matter if they were experienced meditators or new to the practice. Individuals who practiced this meditation regularly, measured higher on the scales of love, engagement, serenity, joy and amusement.
Through this practice, you repeat the mantra:
May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live with ease.
Who doesn’t need to hear that over and over right now? I found it particularly calming. And you then move on and, thinking about someone you care about, repeat the above mantra, replacing the “I” with “you.” Just Google “Loving Kindness Meditation” to find many guided meditations of this type to follow.
8. The Gift of Calm
The beginning of self-isolation takes some adjustment. Those who identify as being extroverts were complaining about feeling stuck, and I have read countless comments about how this situation “must be so nice for those introverts out there.” Of course, introversion—extroversion is a scale.
You aren’t one or the other. I identify more with introversion, being that I get my energy from being on my own. I love being out with people, speaking, facilitating, and having fun. But it’s when I’m alone that I get the great ideas and the motivation for the next thing.
What the extrovert’s comments don’t take into account is that for people like me, being isolated with others isn’t really being isolated. There is never any alone time anymore. There’s always someone in the house. As much as I love my family, the best part of my workday, pre-pandemic, was when they walked out the door to work and school. Just me, here with the animals, dreaming up my next big thing.
It’s true, we can all go to our own corners of the house, but we’re never truly alone. I found as the days went on that I just settled into the new normal. It just took some getting used to this new way of working, and then it became easy. And calm.
9. The Gift of Connection
Sometimes I go three weeks without seeing my next door neighbour. During our isolation, I think I saw her every day. From a distance of course. I worked on our front porch quite a bit where it gets sunny and warm in the late afternoon, and where I can watch the world go by.
We had a few happy hours with friends when they delivered our groceries, from a distance of course. They would sit 20 feet away out on the sidewalk, on their own lawn chairs, with us on the porch. Everyone brought their own drinks. Perfectly safe, but within yelling distance.
We connected with our older daughter on Facetime almost every day—she, in isolation too, but in a studio apartment in Vancouver. She watched a movie with us that way one night and she had many Netflix watch parties with her friends. It all helps to keep connected. Our younger daughter’s best friend got her driving learner’s permit (the day before the Driver’s Licensing Office closed for the pandemic) and drove by our house with her Dad, honking the horn.
My husband and I talked to our parents every day and texted with friends, some who we don’t connect with that often. Others have mentioned this too—how they really connected with others. How conversations changed, became deeper, more meaningful, and kind.
It hasn’t really been social distancing at all—just physical distancing. What we’ve experienced has actually been more social connecting.
10. The Gift of Gratitude
Gratitude is one of those practices that I have implemented regularly in my life. It’s like exercise, I just do it. For those who are not familiar with the practice, it is not just about thinking positive or feeling grateful. It is about sitting down every day with pen in hand and writing down at least three things that you are grateful for.
It sounds so simple, but we know from the research that when people do this regularly it starts to change their brain chemistry. We have a negativity bias, which means if we’re not doing things to increase our positivity, we will tend to look for the negative more often. Just have a look at any regular newspaper and you’ll see what I mean.
But when you start a daily gratitude practice, after a couple of weeks you feel more positive. Your brain starts searching for the positives. You start seeing more possibilities. You feel more engaged, creative, innovative and productive. These are all really good things to help people keep motivated when they’re working from home. Every team should be doing this. But, I digress.
What I found in the past two weeks is that I started feeling incredibly lucky and grateful for what we have. Perhaps this is because I do this practice regularly so my brain automatically looks for those little things to be grateful for. But it was more than that.
There were all these gifts everywhere. I found myself being so grateful for that front porch where I could be out in the sun, even in isolation. I had such extreme gratitude for the friends and neighbours who brought us food and flowers. For those who walked our dog. For being able to workout at home. For sleeping well. For the nice meals we made. For blossoms. For the Internet. For availability in my calendar. Even a good cup of coffee. And finally, as this article draws to a close, for getting out of isolation! (Although not much changes with that, except we can buy our own groceries and go for walks, but I’m sure grateful for that).
What are the gifts of isolation for you?
Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. A captivating speaker, storyteller, author, and workplace coach, Deborah researches breakthroughs in organizational health and culture around the globe. She has interviewed many of the leading thinkers, which forms the basis of her latest work, “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.”
Deborah is a prominent figure in the story of how Canadian workplaces have adopted practices to become better places to work, through her development of The Better Workplace Conference. This powerful initiative, which she successfully led for 17 years, created a whole generation of workplace health professionals and a huge community of practice. She has distilled the knowledge from in-depth interviews with ten featured influencers and combined it with her own leadership experience to bring you the best of what we know to date on shifting workplace culture, and how it benefits the organization and the individuals who work there.
For more information about Deborah's work, visit: https://deborahconnors.com/