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Rachael Robertson

I Was Isolated In Antarctica: Here's How To Prepare For The Post-Pandemic New Normal

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I've been in extended isolation before with nine months of temperatures hovering around minus 35 degrees, blizzards, and months of inescapable darkness. The lack of privacy, the mundane nature of the days, and the interpersonal pressure of living with 17 other people was extraordinary.

Our mantra was "respect trumps harmony" — which simply meant we won't always agree with each other and we won't always like each other and that's okay.

As the Station Leader for Davis Station, Antarctica, I had extensive training prior and was well prepared for leading my expedition team. With over 120 people working at the station, it was a crazy buzz of activity with long days with 24 hours of daylight. I even had to lead a search and rescue following a plane crash. So, I thought I was ready for when the summer team sailed back to Australia and left the winter team behind in complete isolation.

For the first five months, it was a breeze. Everything slowed right down — no back-to-back meetings to get to, no traffic to navigate, no constant list of birthdays, weddings, and parties coming up that I needed to buy a present for. I didn't even have to worry about showering every day (as we're only allowed a three-minute shower every second day!).

For myself and my team, it was such a completely different experience for us that we actually enjoyed the serenity and for the most part, we lived quite well with no privacy or respites. Our mantra was "respect trumps harmony" — which simply meant we won't always agree with each other and we won't always like each other but that's okay. However, we will always treat each other with respect.

I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives just for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect.

The expedition team was the most diverse team I've ever worked with. I didn't recruit them, I was handed them, and we were from vastly different backgrounds, a mix of professional skills including scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots, and weather specialists. The only generalist role was mine: Station Leader.

We were a mix of generations, genders, sexualities, religions, cultures, and personality types. With such a mix of people it was impractical to think we'd all get along with each other all the time. The interpersonal pressure was intense and privacy was scarce. It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony, so I didn't. Instead, we aimed for respect. Simple, professional courtesy and respect.

We all worked hard to build respect in the team. In my new book Respect Trumps Harmony, I express why I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, strives just for harmony at the expense of productivity and respect. It's dangerous for three main reasons. First, dysfunctional behaviors will continue; they will just go underground so the illusion of harmony remains. Secondly, it stifles innovation. People are often too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view or opinion because they don't want to rock the harmony boat. Lastly, it's unsafe — both physically and mentally. People will turn a blind eye to anyone acting unsafe or not wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE). When the overriding focus is on happiness and harmony people won't put their hand up and say, "Actually, I'm not OK right now."

Instead of harmony, teams should aim for respect because "respect trumps harmony" every time.

We prepared well and had a great year, all things considered. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was coming home. We had a full de-brief with a psychologist who prepared us as best they can. But there were so many things I was unprepared for — there were so many things that had not entered my head.

In fact, here is my journal entry from the day we set sail to come home after 12 months away:

Monday 14th November

As I sit here watching the bergs go by again, it's not exhilaration or excitement I feel this time. It's a deep sense of gratitude and a peace of knowing I have led a team in the toughest, most grueling, most intense workplace on the planet. And I've done it well. We all more than just survived. While right now we're spent, in two weeks I think we'll be full of energy, stories, and passion for this place.

But it's the colors I'll miss the most.

I truly believed we'd slip right back into normal mode. What I hadn't planned for, and I expect will be a challenge for many (but not all) when we return from this extended lockdown post-COVID-19 include the following:

Sensory Overload

Noise and smell in particular. After spending extended periods indoors, the noise and smells outside are really strong. On our return home (two weeks sailing in the Southern Ocean) arriving at night, we actually smelt Australia before we saw it. We smelt the scorched earth and eucalyptus well before we saw any landforms. Similarly the simple noise of a city was a huge cacophony for me — car horns, sirens, traffic lights beeping, and bicycle bells. I'd worked in cities for years, and yet suddenly the noise was almost too much. Take your time slipping back to the office if you can. Go back for a morning or afternoon through the first week or so and ease into it.

Speed

Everything seems faster: traffic, having to physically move from one meeting to the next, rushing out to grab lunch, managing school pickups, sports, or study commitments. It's all very fast and intense. Try to slow it down by continuing what worked for you in isolation: a morning walk, mediation, yoga, simply looking at the sky. Whatever worked then, will work now.

Choice

Suddenly we have choices again. Where to go on the weekend, who to visit, what sport or concert to attend, what to wear to work. The list is endless. When you've had considerable time in a personal world that's shrunk, things become simpler in this sense because you have limited choice, so you just accept it. But suddenly the doors of choice are thrown wide open and it's startling. Soon after my return, I recall standing in the breakfast cereal aisle of a supermarket simply overwhelmed with choice. So play the long game if you need to. Plan which days you will visit people, go out to dinner, and give yourself time to assimilate to these sudden choices.

Expectations

In total, we were away from home for 18 months and to some extent, I was thrilled to be back and over the moon to see my family and friends. But my team had a huge range of different responses to returning home. Similarly, people will have different expectations about how we respond on the other side — some will be thrilled to be back to a new normal, others will be scared, some will be ambivalent. There will be a spectrum of responses.

Physical Contact

A year without so much as a hug is difficult, but you do get used to it. I simply shut down the need for physical contact and put it out of my mind. As the leader, I couldn't cuddle my expedition team, so I didn't, and sex was totally out of the question (it actually stipulated that in my contract). It was quite simple. Many people have faced a similar challenge now. For single people living alone and not being able to visit family and friends, it may be months without even a handshake. To be back in the world being touched and hugged again may be challenging. That's perfectly OK.

Overwhelm

As we enter the other side you may feel overwhelmed. I did. Two tools that I used with my Antarctic team held me in good stead when I returned to Australia:

No Triangles

This simply means, I don't speak to you about him and you don't speak to me about her. I used this with my team and have taught this tool to over 200 teams since then. It works. I have extensive research to prove that a culture of no triangles builds respect and innovation. But importantly it frees up time and energy. When you already have enough to deal with, as we all do right now, the last thing you need is to listen to someone complaining about someone else. Or know someone else is whingeing about you behind your back. Have direct conversations, and don't get yourself involved.

Lead without a title

Encourage a culture of leadership at work, and at home. Every person can demonstrate leadership; it's a behavior, not a title. If you see something that needs to be done, do something about it. That's leadership. Take some pressure off yourself by encouraging the people around you to step up.

Mental Health

I didn't know how I would react after extended isolation. So to ensure I had an eye on my mental health, I kept a journal. It allowed me to write about how I was feeling each night and got the emotion out, which meant I slept better and was more resilient. Have regular conversations with the people you care about, and those who care for you, so we can normalize conversations around mental health. In Antarctica, my team had a saying: "NQR," which stands for Not Quite Right. It was a simple way of saying "I'm having a tough day today, nothing too serious yet, but I'm homesick and just not quite right." It built empathy and understanding because every one of us knew how that person felt. We'd all been there.

Coming out of extended isolation is difficult and the hardest part is we just don't know what it will look like. That unknown can be incredibly stressful for many people. But with lots of compassion, empathy, and good humor we will get through this –– we always do.

How to Learn Much More From the Books You Read

It is one thing to read and another thing to understand what you are reading. Not only do you want to understand, but also remember what you've read. Otherwise, we can safely say that if we're not gaining anything from what we read, then it's a big waste of time.

Whatever you read, there are ways to do so in a more effective manner to help you understand better. Whether you are reading by choice, for an upcoming test, or work-related material, here are a few ways to help you improve your reading skills and retain that information.

Read with a Purpose

Never has there been a shortage of great books. So, someone recommended a great cookbook for you. You start going through it, but your mind is wandering. This doesn't mean the cookbook was an awful recommendation, but it does mean it doesn't suit nor fulfill your current needs or curiosity.

Maybe your purpose is more about launching a business. Maybe you're a busy mom and can't keep office hours, but there's something you can do from home to help bring in more money, so you want information about that. At that point, you won't benefit from a cookbook, but you could gain a lot of insight and find details here on how-to books about working from home. During this unprecedented year, millions have had to make the transition to work from home, and millions more are deciding to do that. Either way, it's not a transition that comes automatically or easily, but reading about it will inform you about what working from home entails.

Pre-Read

When you pre-read it primes your brain when it's time to go over the full text. We pre-read by going over the subheadings, for instance, the table of contents, and skimming through some pages. This is especially useful when you have formal types of academic books. Pre-reading is a sort of warm-up exercise for your brain. It prepares your brain for the rest of the information that will come about and allows your brain to be better able to pick the most essential pieces of information you need from your chosen text.

Highlight

Highlighting essential sentences or paragraphs is extremely helpful for retaining information. The problem, however, with highlighting is that we wind up highlighting way too much. This happens because we tend to highlight before we begin to understand. Before your pages become a neon of colored highlights, make sure that you only highlight what is essential to improve your understanding and not highlight the whole page.

Speed Read

You might think there have been no new ways to read, but even the ancient skill of reading comes up with innovative ways; enter speed reading. The standard slow process shouldn't affect your understanding, but it does kill your enthusiasm. The average adult goes through around 200 to 250 words per minute. A college student can read around 450 words, while a professor averages about 650 words per minute, to mention a few examples. The average speed reader can manage 1,500 words; quite a difference! Of course, the argument arises between quality and quantity. For avid readers, they want both quantity and quality, which leads us to the next point.

Quality Reading

Life is too short to expect to gain knowledge from just one type of genre. Some basic outcomes of reading are to expand your mind, perceive situations and events differently, expose yourself to other viewpoints, and more. If you only stick to one author and one type of material, you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn new things.

Having said that, if there's a book you are simply not enjoying, remember that life is also too short to continue reading it. Simply, close it, put it away and maybe give it another go later on, or give it away. There is no shame or guilt in not liking a book; even if it's from a favorite author. It's pretty much clear that you won't gain anything from a book that you don't even enjoy, let alone expect to learn something from it.

Summarize

If you're able to summarize what you have read, then you have understood. When you summarize, you are bringing up all the major points that enhance your understanding. You can easily do so chapter by chapter.

Take a good look at your life and what's going on in it. Accordingly, you'll choose the material that is much more suitable for your situation and circumstances. When you read a piece of information that you find beneficial, look for a way to apply it to your life. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn't all that beneficial. But the application of knowledge from a helpful book is what will help you and make your life more interesting and more meaningful.