Isolation: Talk for Midnight Runners

Last week an old climbing buddy called me up to invite me to his company’s “Campfire Stories” series – the concept was that in this time of isolation and lockdown it might be cool to hear from someone who has spent plenty of time isolated in remote places to see if there were any transferable techniques and strategies that could help people make the most of their time under social distancing. Challenge accepted!

The company was Midnight Runners – an international group of motivated folks who get together in cities around the world to run at night and be part of a supportive community. This was definitely not my normal audience, but definitely one that I share values with. The talk was delivered via Instagram Live, which was a new experience for me but seemed to work pretty smoothly. You can watch it here. I’ll repost the talk itself here when I get the file, but for now, here’s a rough transcript detailing the main talking points. These are just my own thoughts based on personal experiences spending lots of time away, isolated on the ice.

Transcript:

Intro:

My profession is to develop software and make measurements that allow us to understand more deeply how ice is melting and raising sea levels in a warming world. I work on improving our knowledge about how the most temperature-sensitive parts of the planet will respond to the planet getting warmer. This means I have to spend a lot of time camped out in the remotest environments on the planet, sometimes making measurements manually on the ice, sometimes deploying drones with new imaging systems on board, sometimes exploring new cave systems carved hundreds of meters into the body of the ice to determine how meltwater makes its way to the sea, sitting out polar storms in the winter darkness, all kinds of cold misadventures.

One of many things this has profession has exposed me to, is prolonged periods of isolation. We are somewhat uncomfortable now, not being able to go about our usual lives, but in an ice camp there is really no connectivity at all. A helicopter deposits you, with the food and equipment needed for weeks or months on the ice, and then leaves. There is no phone signal, no 4G – no internet at all, no shops, no pub, no people, no wildlife, no landscape, just the sight of ice to the horizon in every direction, and the sound of the wind and the crackling of the ice.

So, with that as my office, I’m no stranger to isolation and I’ve developed a few techniques and frames of mind to help to USE isolation, to extract maximum value from it and get into the groove of it, rather than suffering through it, and I thought sharing some of these ideas with you now might give you some food for thought as we all collectively experience isolation due to covid 19 lockdown. Let me tell you how I’ve learned to make isolation my friend, to use it as a platform for innovation and find opportunities for growth in solitude.

All of our lifestyles have suddenly changed under the lockdown, I suspect many of you are finding that your range of travel has been greatly reduced, your human interactions have slowed down, and it has suddenly become impossible to plan for the future with confidence. You might be finding yourself with more time, but fewer things to do, and feeling listless or directionless, you might feel like you’ve been decoupled from your goals for the year.

You may be feeling uncomfortable because the rhythm of your life has been distorted, your habits and routines have been disrupted. This may feel stressful, it is tempting to focus on the elements of normal living that we have been separated from and feel a pain of loss. Well let me tell you, some of those things were slowing you down, holding you back. A disruption to normal life is an opportunity to shed those routines and habits that were acting as headwinds, drag factors on your life, and to develop new ones. With the right frame of mind, we can come out of this isolation BETTER than we went in. We can choose to see the isolation as a sufferance, or we can force it to be a new blank slate on which we can make ourselves better. I know this, because I do it every time I leave home to live a basic and disconnected life on the ice. It was hard to begin with, now it is an almost essential part of my year that I look forward to – turning down the volume of normal life to make quiet space for self reflection, introspection, prioritisation and goal and fear setting, shedding the habits that accumulate through the routines of normal life and end up weighting us down.

1) Find comfort in quiet

Even out in the remotest of environments, there is no such thing as objective silence. There is always the sound of blowing snow, gusting wind, the ice cracking and deforming, footsteps crunching the ice, water running in melt streams. But without the noise of normal life, internal quiet comes a little closer into reach. Our world has shrunk in some ways, but in others it has expanded – we have time for introspection, for reflection, for experiencing the present. There will be few opportunities like this where we can shed distractions and turn down the volume of our normal life admin and logistics.

This happens on the ice. Deposited in the middle of an ice sheet, a whole world is suddenly condensed into a few tents, and the stresses of normal life couldn’t be further away. Just like the COVID lockdown, life is reduced, distilled. It feels like there is nothing to look at – there are no hills, no terrain, no landscapes, no buildings, trees or wildlife – just ice all the way to the horizon in every direction.

Quickly, an open mind fills the blank landscape with details. On the ice, tiny nuances like the gradient of shallow slopes, the curves of streams, tiny variations in the pitch of the wind – these tiny nuances that we would never notice when we arrive end up becoming as obvious as the buildings and trees we see in our urban lives – they become the environment that we inhabit.

This is entirely possible a home too, I have a very small garden that I can look out on from my kitchen, and in the past couple of weeks, having spent so much time here under the lockdown I’ve come to notice small changes in the size of the buds on the trees, the time and the frequency that the birds arrive to chatter in which bushes. I’m taking enjoyment from observing places I know from a different perspective, seeing more in less. At home, like on the ice, the mind fills in the blanks and with it come new appreciations and new ideas for how to interact with our little piece of the world.

This also happens with the internal landscape too. A mind that is less distracted by the hubbub of normal, fast-paced life, and sharpened by the sudden shaking of of routines and habits – an open, mind in solitude is free to think in new ways, to process information inventively and productively. This is why isolation can set the boundary conditions for innovation.

Let me give a concrete example – in 2010 I was on an expedition to Greenland where my goal was to set up a series of water level sensors that would be installed on the surface of the ice to help understand the fate of the water generated when ice melts. I painstakingly built these sensors at home before setting off, all soldered and wired and weather-proofed meticulously, and I arrived on day one, and made a stupid mistake in wiring these things up, and when I connected the battery, each one in turn just went up in smoke with a little pop – months of preparatory work wasted, a field season ruined.

At that moment I felt the isolation, the remoteness, acutely. I couldn’t call any collaborators to tell them what I’d done, I couldn’t get any new parts and crucially, I couldn’t leave. That forced me to sit still, isolated, quiet. Throw away the past – the months of work developing my initial plan, throw away fears for the future – the fear of returning with nothing, and focus on the present with an open-mind. I just looked around. Listened to the sounds, felt the wind, looked at the ice – it was quite dark, that’s strange, I wonder why? Dark things warm up in the sun, so the colour could be important, maybe I could measure it? And within an hour or so, I had come up with a new question to answer about the colour of the ice that was not only feasible, but turned out to be far more impactful than the original, has implications for global sea level rise and ended up defining my career for the next decade and counting – I am still working on extensions of that same question of colour today, and it has taken me down a twisted path through biology, computer science, AI, drones, satellites, physics and environmental science – from a seed of isolation, solitude and mindfulness.

That was a turning point for me. I now value silence, isolation is my friend. Not one that I want to hang out with all the time, but in the right doses, one I rely on. In normal life back home, I find it when I go running. I know I am preaching to the converted here, but I find running deeply meditative. I run alone, and I run far, and I focus on my breath and the rhythm of my feet, and I find that when I get home solutions to the problems I have not been able to solve during the day appear in consciousness, or if not they at least feel less overwhelming.

2) Training

Before a long trip I train hard. I rack up miles and meditative minutes. The cliché of “healthy body healthy mind” is really true – and coping with stressful, challenging situations and staying sharp during times that could be mentally draining is just easier when your body and mind are in good shape from lots of conditioning.

Healthy body healthy mind is not a one way street – a healthy body relies on a healthy mind and vice versa – its a self reinforcing loop. You may have noticed that you train better and see better gains when your mind is relaxed and unburdened. And, the mind is more relaxed and unburdened when the body is healthy.

So before a big expedition and, critically, during it, I train with weights and long runs, and train the mind with focused meditation. But even more important is to continue fitness practices through the expedition, during the isolation. This does not necessarily require lots of space or equipment – you can beast yourself with bodyweight exercises with no equipment and without breaking isolation.

The isolation can be flipped around from something that will hinder your training into something that can disrupt it in a positive way- an opportunity to break your habits and routines, blast through some plateaus by trying something new. See this as an opportunity to shake things up, and make the changes that you probably already know you should have made long ago, but didn;t because it was easy to stay in your comfort zone. We’re all out of our comfort zones now because of the lockdown, so let’s embrace it and see what valuable new practises we can find at the fringes.

3) Impose arbitrary discipline

For me, my top coping strategy for long periods of isolation is arbitrary discipline. Make up targets and really stick to them. It can be physical – I normally can’t run anywhere on an expedition because of crevasses, unstable terrain, bear danger, etc, but I can do, say, 500 pressups before lunch, or 30 pages of writing before dinner. I can say, 20 minutes focussing on the breath before I’m allowed my morning coffee. I can say, today I’ll tidy X room, or paint this wall, or write this letter or today I’ll do the washing up before a certain time. These things are small, achievable, but important, because doing them means you end the day with a sense of accomplishment, and the time spent in isolation has been used for some self improvement – these arbitrary things can become habits, stack a few up and you’ve made your life better, you’ve made yourself better.

Knowing these things from my experiences on polar expeditions, as soon as the lockdown cam into effect I started employing some of these strategies, and you can too. COVID19 is an evil beast and the lockdown is challenging for sure, but if we adjust our mindset and look for opportunities within it, it can become our friend. UNLOCK THE LOCKDOWN. When we’re faced with these adversities, we need to ask ourselves where are the opportunities for learning, growth and improvement. Disruption is uncomfortable, but it is also an enforced break point where we can re-evaluate our habits and our patterns of behaviour. We can use it as a reset button and start to engage some positive lifestyle changes that can become habits with longevity beyond the end of the lockdown. Ask yourself – what can I do now to make myself better, faster, smarter, stronger, happier – how can I optimise myself ready to take on the world when the lockdown ends? How can I come back from this better than I went in?

Specific examples

Here’s some specific examples of things I’ve done to help make the most of the lockdown – not just survive it but thrive in it. Three simple, easy things that I’ve introduced into my daily life, inspired by time on the ice.

The first is morning pages. I now incorporate writing into my early morning routine. It’s not onerous, it doesn’t have to be beautiful prose, it doesn’t even have to be meaningful – there are no expectations at all. Just 20 minutes, I set a timer on my phone. However, I’ve found this really helpful – writing stream of consciousness, just scribbling down on some paper, gives you easy access to the subconscious processes that are governing your behaviour, and influencing your decisions and your moods. It also allows you to get through the mixed-up fog of the early-morning mind, and allows the days tasks to precipitate and prioritise, and the words that fall onto the page can tell you something about what is really occupying your consciousness. It sets me up for the rest of the day – something so simple can really have benefits for mental health and help optimising the day. I probably wouldn’t have started doing this had it not been for the isolation – because it has been a breakpoint in life to think about introducing new practises – writing morning pages has been fairly transformative.

Another example has been changing up my workouts – I realized I was spending too much time without getting sufficient results, so I totally changed everything up to try to get more tired in less time. Without the reflection enforced by isolation, I’d probably still be smashing out my same old runs and never getting any faster, still spending two hours working out at the crack of dawn and not actually getting any stronger. So the isolation forced me to rejig things, and streamline, to engage with some literature, seek out experts online and in the literature – that’s bought me time to do other enriching things and also shocked me into getting fitter. So I recommend doing the same – throw away your tired workouts ditch your regular running routes and schedules and do something new – something uncomfortable.

Another thing, borrowed straight from my experiences in field camps is a focus on cooking, cleaning and maintenance. There’s something primal about working on your living space – even small fixes and additions just make you feel good. I’ve learned this from being in camps – there’s a deep sense of purposefulness associated with building and maintaining a field camp, making the people in it comfortable and safe with the minimal resources available. In many ways, the less you have to work with, the more satisfying it is to find solutions to little problems. I’ll make time in the day to go around and flatten out the ice around people’s tents, tighten up any slack in the guy lines, redrill the stakes that pin them to the ground, clean and tidy the inside of the mess tent etc. – not difficult or particularly taxing, but satisfying. This translates directly to home, go paint that wall, go fix that piece of skirting board, go build that window box or mow the lawn, or weed the garden, or tpouch up that bit of gloss – do anything you have the tools and materials for, not because they are important but because it feels good to maintain your shelter – to make your little piece of thr world a little cleaner, a little more pleasant. At the end of the day, you have a dual benefit – you get your sense of accomplishment from achieving the arbitrary task you have set for yourself, and you have a nicer, more comfortable environment to see out the lockdown in.

Summary

OK, so just to recap what I’ve rambled over – some of the strategies that I;ve learned from my time in isolation working in the Arctic and Antarctic that can help you to UNLOCK THE LOCKDOWN

– first, shift the mind into seeing this as an opportunity – disruption can be uncomfortable but it also exposes opportunities to break old habits and develop new, better ones

– impose arbitrary discipline on yourself – make up tasks that you will feel good having completed and then treat them as non-negotiable. Gte them done. Ending the day with a feeling of accomplishment is the most critical thing. Set arbitrary goals and strive to meet them – it doesn’t matter what they are, they can be small, but DO THEM.

– try to stay physically fit and healthy, but try finding new ways to do so. The lockdown has probably impacted where and when you can run, so try some indoor workouts and work some weaknesses – be grateful that the world has forced you out of some training ruts and focus on the things you find hard.

– maintain your cave. Keeping your home clean and tidy and making small improvements where and when you can satisfies some primal urge to keep a solid and safe shelter, and it also means you spend your lockdown in a more pleasant environment and also gets you some of the essential sense of accomplishment.

Every time I go away on the ice, it feels like forever while I’m there, and when I get back it feels like it went by in a flash. I know the feeling of coming home and asking, honestly, did I make the best use of that finite time? The same is true for the lockdown – it won’t last forever, and you want to be able to look back in retrospect and say – I USED that time to improve myself, I held it together and came back stronger and smarter than ever.

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