This solitary way of living comes easier to some than it does to others.

By Georgina Lawton
May 10, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

In the last few months, each of us has watched our world shrink. Suddenly we exist in a smaller, more solitary, less social state. Those of us who live alone may be struggling with a severe reduction in day-to-day social contact, because let’s face it, a weekly Zoom call with pals doesn’t really cut it. Others who have children to care for, or are coexisting with difficult roommates or partners, are facing a different set of emotional challenges. Many of us whose weeks were once filled with long commutes, small-talk with colleagues, and the hum-drum routine of weekend chores, are instead finding that everything is blurring into one long stretch of time. Each workout and baking attempt (banana bread again anyone?) feels identical to the last.

But there are unexpected benefits to all this time spent indoors. In the absence of anything in the shape and semblance of normal life, we’re saving money, reconnecting with friends, and taking time to reassess career choices and think more deeply about what we want from our future. All of us will emerge from this pandemic changed in some way, and hopefully with a renewed sense of purpose.

And while following government advice to stay indoors is vital for beating COVID-19, this solitary way of living comes easier to some than it does to others. We’ve spoken to five people whose jobs have necessitated total isolation to see what they can teach us about living and working in these extraordinary times.

From an Antarctic robotics researcher to a Love Island contestant, no matter what your situation is like right now, there’s sure to be some insight below to help you beat lockdown inertia.

Scott Taatchi, Lighthouse Engineer

As a lighthouse engineer managing 20 lighthouses in the most remote corners of southwest England, Scott Taatchi, from Cornwall in the UK, knows a thing or two about occupying his spare time: “To deal with isolation I find that being in the present time really helps. Don’t think about what’s ahead of you, or behind you. It will help you keep focused,” he told Travel + Leisure.

Scott has to be well-organized and plan ahead before traveling to a lighthouse via helicopter — largely because each trip costs $5,000. “Preparing for a job — packing tools, bedding, and food — takes place weeks in advance,” he said. “If you can’t go anywhere, you should still plan each day and know exactly what you’re going to do.” 

Scott takes advantage of downtime when working on a lighthouse, some of which are situated in stunning locations and provide incredible views. “I’m keen on photography so when I can, I’ll walk around and take some photos and upload them to social media. If I’m confined to the lighthouse I’ll exercise by running up and down the stairs. Cooking can be a challenge so I always plan my meals well before I head off-shore.”

Scott can be living in a lighthouse with two other colleagues for weeks at a time. “You have to learn to live with others. I share a room with bunk beds. And while we all get along, there are times you’d rather be at home. If you’ve got issues, it’s best to be honest and bring them up,” he explains. “I’m either working on an island that’s not lived on, or literally in a building on a set of rocks in the middle of the sea there’s nothing around, but I really enjoy it.”

Credit: Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Justin Lawrence, Astrobiology Researcher in Antarctica

Originally from New York, Justin studied biology and geology before landing a job in ice robotics in Antarctica. Since 2013 he has spent around 1.5 years in the region, with his longest stint lasting three months. “Depending on the work, it can be physically exhausting. Isolation from friends and family and limited communications is the most difficult part; the Wi-Fi is like 1,000 people sharing a single phone’s bandwidth,” he said. Having the internet at home during lockdown is a huge privilege. ”There are thousands of professors making their course material available online now, so it’s a great time to dive into a new topic,” he advised.

Justin’s used to living in close proximity with others and emphasized the importance of living clean when you’re sharing space in a pandemic. “Field teams work really closely together. Although running water is sometimes hard to come by, personal hygiene is important to prevent germs spreading. Illness can, and has, taken down entire camps before.” At night he sleeps in a dorm room with up to four people and notes that “earplugs are useful.” 

While Justin pointed out the parallels between life in Antarctica and life in lockdown are varied  (“field work is planned, voluntary and arranged ahead of time — there’s no children, pets, sick families, or bills to worry about”) some of his learned survival tactics can be applied now.

“In Antarctica, inefficiency and expense is magnified so we make careful plans for stocking the exact amount of food, with a little contingency to reduce waste. Now I know it’s completely possible to get groceries for three weeks without throwing away a single ounce of food, so I’ve been doing things like prioritizing vegetables that don't have long shelf lives (Brussels sprouts, squash) and planting green onions so they last. If you overbuy, make sure to donate unwanted items before they expire.” 

To deal with tedium he advises keeping a journal to document experiences to “help reduce anxiety,” implementing a routine with “structure that used to come from work and social events to stay on track and focused,” and ignoring unhelpful online advice. “People in the field strive for productivity, it’s the goal,” he said. “Right now everyone’s goal is just to listen to doctors and take care of each other. It’s important to take it easy and not push ourselves to match all these viral examples of productivity on the internet.”

Gavin Hennigan, Saturation Diver

Ever heard of a saturation diver? It’s Gavin’s full-time job, and it necessitates long periods of time actually living deep in the bottom of the ocean. As the Irishman from Galway explains: “In normal diving, you need stops on the way back up to avoid getting nitrogen in your blood, known as the bends. But saturation diving allows us to reach and stay at greater depths for longer. I live in a chamber which is at the same pressure as the water depth around me and breathe in heliox (a mixture of oxygen and helium). To go out to work (it’s mainly construction), I get into a diving bell, which takes me to the bottom of the ocean for the day, and then back to my chamber again.”  To add to the other-worldly nature of his job, Gavin doesn’t experience any natural sunlight when he’s working (“I take vitamin D supplements”) and says the chamber he lives in for up to a month at a time, with two other colleagues, is only 4 feet long, something he describes as “feeling like you’re trapped in a toilet."

In the chamber, Gavin’s Wi-Fi is basic and only fit for emails, and he believes we shouldn’t take online communication for granted during this pandemic. “The lack of contact with friends and family is the worst part of my job," he said. "Skype and Zoom are our new norms at the moment and it’s something we should utilize, because communication is key.”

Extreme self-discipline is vital for succeeding in Gavin’s career and staying sane. “You have to be attuned to your colleagues' needs because you’re in a small space and you can’t get too emotional if someone tells you to do something. You just get on with it.”

Diving plans often change last-minute due to bad weather or malfunctioning equipment, so Gavin plans ahead to ensure he’s always occupied. “It can take nine days to come up from a 657-foot dive, so there’s lots of down-time. You need to be comfortable in your own skin and I bring films, books, and a stepper with me too.”

Staying active in the era of restricted movement is tough, but Gavin uses Zwift at home, the virtual training software, for running and cycling. He sees home exercise as a distraction. “People need to get comfortable with the uncertainty of Covid-19 and just think: 'OK, this is the reality, I accept it, and I’m just going to go about what I can control, like exercise.' We can’t look at the bigger picture for now.”

Credit: Getty Images/Gallo Images

Daniel Woolard, Estate Warden on the Calf of Man

The Calf of Man is a small island south-west of the Isle of Man, which is positioned in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland and part of the UK. Measuring just under one square mile in area, the Calf of Man consists of four lighthouses, a derelict house, and a bird observatory. Daniel Wollard, originally from Essex, England, has worked and lived as an Estate Warden there, spending seven months on the Calf in one season. “There are stunning views wherever you look. I deal with day-tripping guests, undertake wildlife surveys, put up stock fencing, and carry out habitat and estate management,” he said. 

And despite having a handful of colleagues on the island with him, life is extremely remote. In the low season, Daniel can go days without seeing people from the mainland. Structure is vital. “I try to have a routine and stick to it so I keep myself busy both physically and mentally. I take some time out to get daily exercise and find talking to friends and family helps with not feeling alone," he said.

Rationing and being sensible with supplies comes easily to Daniel: “Living on the Calf requires careful use of water, diesel, gas fuel and food supplies, which is delivered to the Calf on a boat once a week. Water can be scarce and we have to pump it through three different filtration systems to make it safe to drink and we can only shower once a week.”

For those struggling with the additional time alone, Daniel recommends staying active. “Find a hobby you enjoy and can do indoors, or in the garden like gardening, reading, or knitting — it’s the best way to beat isolation.”

Elizabeth Weber, Love Island Winner, Season 1

Elizabeth, originally from California, took part in reality TV series Love Island in 2019, in Fiji, eventually going on to win the show with Zac Mirabelli. And while staying in a tropical paradise rent-free doesn’t pose exactly the same problems as being quarantined due to a global pandemic, Elizabeth’s time in isolation left her with some transferable skills. “Everyone was living on top of each other in the villa — a bit like we are now. I’m not in a lot of the scenes because I would just take breaks so I didn’t get sick of people or squabble. I’d go make food, or reorganize my drawers.”

Before entering the villa, Elizabeth was kept in a hotel room for two weeks to prevent news leaking to the media; her movements monitored by production, and her access to social media cut off. “I was totally secluded,” she said. “The only contact I had was with my handler who would check on me, take me for food, and sometimes a walk — it was basically a lockdown. There was all this amazing scenery from my window, but I couldn’t leave.”

Preparation was key to avoid a low mood; Elizabeth brought and read four books. “I would also steal rocks from outside and paint them with an acrylic paint set I brought with me,” she said. Inside the villa, Elizabeth was prevented from reading or accessing social media and when she left, learning to ignore negative stories was crucial to help preserve her mental health.

How should others cope with the wave of depressing news right now? “We check our phones so much it’s like muscle memory, we don’t even realize we do it. Set certain days a week where you can inform yourself and catch up on the news, or delete your apps for a day,” she advised. “You’ll go crazy otherwise.”

For people trapped in a small space, she recommended being disciplined and creative with how you spend your time. “If you have a project you want to work on, start doing it. Read more and use the resources available to you — there’s a bunch of free audiobooks and classes available online now," she said. "And try and do something active every day; go for a walk, do YouTube workouts, otherwise you’ll get really tense.”