We’ve all experienced isolation and physical distancing this year. We’ve had to adapt our professional and personal lives dramatically. We’ve had to learn new skills, make sacrifices, and likely deal with tough emotions. But unlike most people, this was not new for me. Unexpectedly, I found myself revisiting old habits having lived through something like this before.
In 2017, I was a crew member on HI-SEAS Mission V, a space analog experiment in Hawaii. I spent eight months living in an isolated habitat on the slope of Mauna Loa volcano with five crewmates. We were there as part of NASA-funded research on the psychosocial effects of isolated, long duration space missions. We lived and worked in total seclusion, never seeing anyone except each other. We didn’t have Internet access, Google, or Netflix. We didn’t have phone service. We didn’t go outside except for a few hours a week and always wearing protective suits. Everything we ate came from long term storage or had to be grown in the habitat. For eight months, I didn’t see my family or friends, and I didn’t speak to anyone in real time. Every communication was delayed 20 minutes to reflect the transmission time of messages between Earth and Mars.
I was never more than 36 feet from my crewmates. I was both totally isolated and yet never alone.
I went into the mission cautiously optimistic. The initial few weeks of excitement quickly gave way to routine. I figured out what worked for me and shaped my days to accomplish habitat maintenance, research tasks, keep in touch with loved ones, exercise, and when possible, have fun. And it was often fun. But the middle months turned toward frustration, boredom and even conflict. There were sometimes disagreements among the crew or with our “Earth-based” contacts and Mission Support. The truth is, it’s impossible to avoid all conflict no matter how agreeable, patient, and resilient you are. While these skills are necessary to thrive under pressure, the goal of living in isolation isn’t to unilaterally avoid all conflict. Instead, the important thing is how you decide to handle the conflict and how you move forward with your crewmates.
Living in cramped quarters where your closest friends are also your roommates and coworkers can certainly create opportunity for conflict. Little daily annoyances left unspoken can turn into real resentment. Ambiguity in an email might spark disagreement, especially when communicating over a delayed connection with partners you don’t know well. Boredom, fatigue, and apathy make even simple tasks feel intolerable. When negative emotions develop, they need to be dealt with or they may build up inside or be directed at someone else.
These frustrations probably seem familiar to all of us after working and living at home in 2020. We may not be in full isolation, but we’re living through some of the same challenges I experienced at HI-SEAS. I’ve personally never been more grateful for the things I didn’t have back in the habitat: full internet access, fresh vegetables, and daily walks around the neighborhood. But it’s still challenging to work with colleagues I never see, to be away from loved ones, and to spend all my time in one small space.
There are skills I learned at HI-SEAS that we can all practice to help develop resilience and manage working in isolation. A few of my favorite include:
Avoid ambiguity. It’s important to say what you mean clearly and be willing to rephrase it in a more obvious way. Many companies use shorthand phrases that aren’t clear to new employees. Many of us work on global teams where different languages and cultures can make things even more confusing. Consider not just what you say, but how you say it. And if someone misunderstands, make an effort to correct it.
Read “up”. When communicating by email or instant messaging, avoid assumptions that the other person is placing blame or being difficult. Try to always read “up” and elevate the emotions of the conversation to be neutral or positive. It can be easy to misunderstand someone’s emotion over writing or telephone when you are used to working in person.
Be kind. Everyone is dealing with new circumstances and they might not be handling it well. How we feel and act vary day to day, and sometimes changes quickly when in isolation. It’s not required to be friends with everyone we work with, but it’s important to be kind. And most importantly, the first person you should always treat with kindness is yourself.
Make time for fun. This isn’t just something that’s nice to have – it’s critical. While in the habitat, my crew would try to plan special dinners, movie screenings, game nights, and always celebrate birthdays and holidays. We even made up our own celebrations and traditions. I credit a lot of our success together to our ability to keep things fun even when times felt tough. Everyone needs something fun to look forward to.
These skills aim to improve communication and help us work together as teammates to solve conflict. We want to prevent small conflict from getting bigger by avoiding ambiguity and negative assumptions when communicating. We want to balance frustration and challenges with kindness and fun. These are simple actions, but they don’t always feel easy. We must practice them, but they’re worth the effort.
I didn’t stop using these skills when I left HI-SEAS, but I returned to them earnestly when I was sent home from my workplace in March. Now, I practice them even more. Globally, we are beginning COVID-19 vaccinations and a return to “normal” life seems much closer. Even with so much hope, this time period feels difficult, too. I experienced something similar in the final months at HI-SEAS when I began feeling impatient about the end of the mission. I felt frustrated more often because I spent less time focused on my routine and self-care.
Resilience is a skill that is practiced but never perfected.
Now, I understand that I need to moderate my impatience for the future with the fact that I will still be physically distancing for a while. To be honest, this can feel hard to accept. I know I must adapt to a schedule I don’t control even after months of challenge. I’m trying to remember that resilience is a skill that is practiced but never perfected. Even if I cannot control the current situation or its timing, I can choose how I will respond. Prioritizing fun is one of the best ways I’ve found to respond to an unknown future and is the most cherished skill I learned at HI-SEAS.
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