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Why lockdown is going to test our No 8-wire stereotype

A four-week self-isolation is likely to be a bind for people who are used to grasping their own destiny.

The thought of not being at work feels kind of cool right now at the busiest time of the teaching year for me. But I’m not sure I’ll enjoy four or more weeks of self-enforced isolation.

If there is anything to our “she’ll be right”, No 8-wire stereotype, then Covid-19 is going to test us. We’re used to getting out there and finding the answer; MacGyvering it, if you will. And Covid-19 isn’t going to be solved by that.

Research suggests that being required to do nothing is going to be hardest for people who have “an external locus of control”. Your locus of control is where you see the control in things that happen to you. An internal locus means you tend to see events as controllable, whereas an external locus means you see yourself awash in a sea directed by fate and outside factors. It’s an old notion, proposed by US psychologist Julian Rotter in the 1950s, but it’s still relevant today.

Normally, an internal locus is a good thing. You’re more likely to study hard for that test, work hard for that promotion, listen to your doctors after a health scare, etc. And that’s because under normal circumstances, you can influence at least some of the outcomes in your life: the result of that test, that promotion and the chances of carking it from numerous different ailments.

On the flipside, an external locus will mean you give up quicker when a task or times are difficult (why bother, you can’t change anything), less likely to act on health advice and get more anxious about such things as surgical procedures. Hands up who wants an external locus?

Mike Boyd. Photo/Supplied

But what if events really are outside your control? People with a stronger internal locus find these situations extremely frustrating and their attempts to seize control can even backfire. Imagine you’ve had surgery and you’re told to rest in hospital for a few days. External-locused people are going to sit back and start flipping channels, but those with an internal locus … yup, they’re more likely to force it by trying to get up and moving around, then end up pulling their stitches.

It’s also depressing to learn that with your leg in traction, there really is nothing you can do. Indeed, that internal locus can mean more days spent in hospital. So, a four-week self-isolation is likely to be a bind for people who are used to grasping their own destiny.

Regardless of your locus, there are some simple and effective things you can do to make those four weeks more bearable. I cannot overstate the value of structure and routine. If your days are normally defined by when you drop off and pick up the kids or the ebbs and flows of the work day, then you’re going to be bereft during self-isolation – make and keep to a routine. This is particularly important for those with children, because it’s going to help your kids and that will make it easier for you. Along with imposing structure, the Guardian has a nice suggestion to come up with five things you want to master by the end of two weeks. If you’ve not heard of it, maybe check out YouTube’s Mike Boyd and his “This week I learned …” series in which he, well, learns to do new stuff from scratch. The Guardian also suggests sharing challenges with others through Skype or Facebook chat.

I should say that you’re not likely to be a completely “internal” or “external” locus-type of person – most of us fall somewhere in between. Your challenge, for the next four weeks, is to learn to grasp control of the things you can and relax over those things you can’t. Words to live by, I reckon. Time to practise.

This article appears in the upcoming issue of the Listener, which is on sale Monday, but we are releasing timely stories early.

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