As the reality of Covid-19 sunk in, governments across the world began to send their citizens into lockdown. Within a week or two, my news feed was full of advice on how to use my time in isolation ‘‘wisely’. Whilst I’ve found that suggestions of things to do were generally good ideas and some are things I usually do anyway, I have implemented a grand total of zero.

Over the last 49 days, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay focused on one thing, or to be motivated to be productive. Instead, I’ve fallen back on the luxury of binge-watching ‘Our Girl,’ now that I’m once again covered by my family’s TV license. Given that I’ve now re-watched the five seasons (or, if you agree with the BBC’s definition of their seasons, four with a mysteriously unnamed third) and that Trinity term is in progress, I’ve had to figure out how to help myself to get back into some sort of routine.

In the face of this newfound purpose, I turned to a book I first read a couple of years ago. Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven was developed from a commencement speech he gave at the University of Texas in 2014. It has all the hallmarks of a classic American commencement speech: the podium; the all-knowing speaker; the row of important people behind the speaker; and a big audience. You can even watch it on YouTube if you want to.

Admiral William H. McRaven
Source: Wikimedia Commons

William H. McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL admiral. It doesn’t take a genius to realise from the cover and blurb that the publisher’s marketing department have gone to town on the fact that this is advice from an actual Navy SEAL. However, once you look past the promises and shining pages, the book itself does contain some decent advice.

One of those pieces of decent advice is encapsulated first in the title of book. “Make your bed” sounds like something a parent might say when you’re in primary school. McRaven recounts that they were taught how to make a bed right as part of basic training. One of the rules was that they had to make it first thing after waking up every day. Where it takes a twist is that if they didn’t, they would have to carry out the ‘sugar cookie’ ritual where they threw themselves into the nearby Pacific Ocean and then rolled in hot sand on the beach. Speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up by the beach, throwing yourself into the ocean when you don’t want to is bad enough but hot sand is a whole other devil.

The theory behind this quirk of Navy SEAL training is that making your bed every morning is a small task that, once accomplished, makes it easier to follow through and finish other tasks. It’s a small nudge that prepares you for a productive day. I’ve made my bed (most days) for the past couple of years and it acts as a ritual every morning. Not to mention that when I’m spending the majority of my time in the house, it’s nice to be able to utilise the full space in my bedroom rather than it becoming a no-go zone.

Another memorable part of the book surrounds the swimming that McRaven had to do during SEAL training. Apparently, Navy SEALS are famed for their prowess in bodies of water, and McRaven and his partner were not up to par. They were subjected to extra nightly swim sessions, which sounded anything but fun after long days, with many dropping out of training specifically because of them. Whilst McRaven isn’t afraid to admit they were hell, he and his swim partner were in for a surprise when it came to the final test of training.

Their final test before graduation included a swim, but unlike the swims they’d done in training, there weren’t any safety nets and it was more challenging. McRaven and his partner had started Navy SEAL training as some of the worst swimmers but they finished the test first. The moral of the story is supposed to be an inspiring message about failure – but for me, the most important part is the consistent practice the pair had been forced into. The extra nightly sessions had forced them to practice the art of swimming. The book doesn’t inspire me to go swim in the sea everyday but what it does remind me is that hard work and discipline trumps natural talent. By developing skills consistently, on a daily basis, gradual improvements lead to bigger ones.

For me, that means my banana bread won’t always taste dire and that, one day, my beginner python skills might become intermediate. Isolation doesn’t have to be productive but why not pick up a book of someone successful and see what life lessons they have to share. Some, like William H. McRaven, have had life experiences far removed from the relative safety of ours but their advice can have a powerful impact on how we use our time in isolation.