UCL Alumni


UCL Wellbeing Blog #7: Where to draw the line

UCL alumna Nicole Brigandi
Nicole Brigandi is a UCL alumna, leadership coach and organisational development specialist. Here, she gives her four top tips for coping with changes in routine during the COVID-19 crisis or any other period of uncertainty.

By now we have shifted to a new way of living and working; a unique limbo between the world we knew and a new normal that continues to emerge.

It’s a slow burn. Each of us is riding our own version of the “coronacoaster”, simultaneously adapting our way of life whilst anticipating the next wave of change and challenge. Our collective stories will speak to the ecstatic highs and painful lows of the human condition.

For many, our experiences and emotions will still be shifting from moment-to-moment. We are constantly recalibrating our equilibrium and seeking to anchor ourselves to stability and safety in this time of prolonged uncertainty. This is part of our natural process.

We have adapted quicker than we thought could be possible. Previous barriers, such as no childcare, tech-enabled home working and daily home-cooked meals, have become part of the routine.

COVID-19 has called on most of the world to immediately change individual, organisational, and societal protocols. Many of the routines and norms we used to have are out the window. And it’s not just one aspect of our lives. We are re-establishing the ground rules of how we negotiate common practices like celebrating birthdays, connecting with colleagues, and visiting relatives.

In March, I teamed up with a few fantastic coaches to provide pro-bono coaching to help people who could benefit from a bit more support. We were humbled by the uptake and the common themes that emerged in response to ambiguity, which included:
  • Lack of goal clarity or how to contribute
  • Inability to stay focused or complete tasks
  • Decreased energy or motivation
  • Lack of ownership 
  • Blaming others 
  • Overwhelm
  • Feeling out of control

Sound familiar? These are normal reactions, but with a bit of intentionality we can start to draw some lines in the sand to take care of ourselves and cope with uncertainty in the long term.

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You can’t pour from an empty cup

Setting boundaries around how you care for yourself is fundamental to establishing your resilience in uncertainty. Boundaries are personal commitments we make to ourselves that help to prioritise self-care, good relationships, and healthy interactions. They help to avoid reaching your mental or physical limits, conserve emotional energy, increase feelings of independence and make you feel good about yourself.

In a home-working scenario, it can be tempting to use the time you would have spent commuting, grabbing a coffee or popping out for lunch to respond to emails or fit in a few more calls. Sooner or later the lines between work and life become so blurry that you’re spending all your time working, eating and sleeping in the same room with no mental breaks.

Make the effort to carve out some boundaries to take care of yourself, such as:
  • Taking a shower and changing your clothes
  • Eating meals away from your working space
  • Standing up for at least 1 minute every hour to change your posture
  • Exercising for 30 minutes a day
  • Taking 5-10 minutes to meditate or take a few deep breaths 
  • Setting a limit on daily screen time 
  • Opting for an email over a video call where possible
  • Getting a little fresh air everyday
  • Intentionally setting aside time to connect with loved ones 
  • Restricting your news and social media time to certain periods or having device-free periods throughout the day
  • Leaving devices out of the room where you sleep
  • Taking scheduled time off and putting up your out of office 
  • Asking for help when you need it

Give yourself permission to prioritise your wellbeing – even in small ways - so you can contribute to the other commitments that require your attention.

When we act with compassion to ourselves, we strengthen our resilience and are more likely to act with compassion to others. Sometimes this means saying ‘no’ or resetting expectations in favour of avoiding burnout and ensuring a sustainable long term contribution.

Setting boundaries is especially important for leaders of organisations, households, or communities to signal the importance of wellbeing to the people who most rely on you. Let’s face it – it’s likely you are wearing many hats and struggling to be all things to all people. By focusing on how to nourish yourself, your ability to replenish your energy becomes abundant. Instead of trying to pour from an empty cup, your cup will runneth over.

Focus on known knowns

There will be plenty of ‘unknowns’ demanding our attention, leaving us paralysed with doubt or constantly firefighting. Try to start with what you know to be true in the current circumstance despite everything that is uncertain.

Take a deep breath and focus on:

  • What is the task at hand?
  • What time, resources and experience do I have available to me?
  • What do I know about my strengths and how I typically solve problems that can help face any new challenges that come up?
  • What else can I be certain about (however big or small)?

Starting with what is in your control will help to anchor your focus and start to generate momentum towards your desired outcome.

Adapt what good looks like

A recurring theme with many coaching clients has been the pressure to be more productive or achieve everything on the To Do list. In adapting to a new way of living and working, many are likely to have had seen and unseen pressures on their attention claiming precious energy and capacity.

These can come in many forms: from impromptu calls to loved ones and home responsibilities to distractions relating to deep worry and anxiety. Failing to take these circumstances into account can warp one’s perception of what’s achievable.

Notice when you start pressuring yourself to “do more” or “do better”. Pause and focus on what’s going through your conscious mind – the tasks and stress on the surface. Take a deep breath and notice the quality of your emotional well-being – the feelings that come up just below the surface. Emotions, in particular, can act as slow drains on our energy and focus. The more you ignore them, the more they fester.

Just by noticing what’s going on for you, you’ve gathered more information than you had before. Now you have the option to reset what achievement would look like in your current situation – What would my best look like in the current context? How could I adapt my goal in a way that won’t feel as daunting?

Resetting the goalposts may require you to accept that there is no ‘right’ answer and adopt a ‘work-in-progress’ mentality over being a perfectionist.

For instance, if you’ve been working round the clock with little sleep and experiencing stress and overwhelm, perhaps your ‘best’ means communicating to your team (or family) that you need some support. If you’re a manager, you could be recognising that there is a need to temporarily adapt the goals to avoid burning out the team in the short term. This is an important time for leaders, in particular, to express humility in not knowing all the answers whilst committing to monitoring workload and communicating updates as they’re available.

Re-evaluating the current situation and adapting expectations is not a sign of failure. Instead, it shows an active response to an unpredictable landscape and prioritises the adaptability needed in volatile times. In the best-case scenario, you will establish new ways of approaching ambiguity that will serve you far beyond the current crisis.

Find your silver-lining

Without a doubt people will be experiencing a range of disappointing and tragic outcomes of COVID-19. While we can’t always influence what’s outside of our control, we can change how we choose to view it.

Consider a troubling situation that you’re currently dealing with and ask yourself the following:

  • How could it be worse? 
  • What am I thankful for right now? 
  • What is this the perfect opportunity for?

Reframing the situation in a positive light will help you to discover new ways of coping or responding to uncertainty.

Whatever happens, be kind to yourself and remember that there is no one “right” way to navigate uncertainty. Start with what feels accessible to you. Where will you draw the line?

You can learn more about Nicole's work with leaders at www.adaptiveedge.co. Nicole also recently co-founded Kindred Consulting, a management consultancy helping organisationd to be more purpose-led and human-centred. You can network with alumni like Nicole via UCL Bentham Connect, or find out more about contributing to the UCL Alumni Blog on our Volunteer Now page.