Picture: MARINA PISSAROVA/123RF
Picture: MARINA PISSAROVA/123RF

I have a friend who, when she resigned from her corporate job to start her own (still thriving) small business she continued to dress-for-work and pack lunch. She would leave home with her usual enthusiastic fussing over the kids, march out the front door, before scurrying around the side of the home, unseen, to her newly created back-yard office.

She got away with it for months before one of her intrepid little explorers happened upon her during a particularly important phone call one day.

Working from home used to be the preserve of the privileged few. Now it’s the privilege of being employed and it may remain that way for longer, through necessity.

Chances are, that prospect fills you with dread — especially if you have no intention of letting your kids go back to the communal petri-dish (also known as ‘school’) this term. It means you’re going to have to pack a whole lot more into your day than you ever imagined you would have to at your age.

Without sufficient data to warrant a total lifting of the lockdown — which is being treated by some, bizarrely, as a kind of government-sanctioned extended holiday — you need to assume your current situation may have to continue for a while yet.

This week, China lifted the lockdown of Wuhan City — where the virus outbreak started — but only after 76 days. The city that provided the blueprint on how to contain the virus now also begins the global experiment of how to get back to work, while keeping a lid on new infections. Governments around the world will be watching developments in Wuhan closely to inform their own decision making.

Whether or not you are a fan of self-help books, it’s time to pay attention to at least one and adapt its principles fast, assuming you have not done so already.

Robin Sharma, a popular philosopher who rose to prominence more than two decades ago with The Monk who sold his Ferrari which examines excessive consumption and urges readers to discriminate between needs and wants, has once again hit the sweet-spot with ‘The 5am Club’. Like all books in the self-help genre its core idea is not new — it’s just brilliantly packaged.

As a child I remember being sent to bed (now I understand the rationale was that my exhausted parents needed a break) at 7pm, with the sun still shining at the height of summer. My father would intone: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man (sic) healthy, wealthy and wise.”

It’s a proverb centuries-old, most-commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin who used it in his Poor Richards Almanack in 1732.

But it goes back even further. In 1639, John Clarke used it in his ‘Parœmiologia Anglo-Latina’ or ‘Proverbs English, and Latin’. But it can be found earlier, in 1532, in Anthony Fitzherbert’s The Book of Husbandry: “Erly rysyng maketh a man hole in body, holer in soule, and rycher in goodes.”.

There are even earlier references but they become even more vague and harder to comprehend. We do know Aristotle rabbited on about it too. It wasn’t ‘Carpe Diem’ — he was Greek and that is Latin — but the point is, the idea is not new.

Michael Jordaan, the former banker turned investor, developed a reputation of being something of a party pooper during his time at the helm of FNB, when he would excuse himself from a dinner party or social gathering on a week-night at 10pm precisely, so he could get a head start the next day.

It worked for him. On the basis that you can turn the first couple of hours of any day into the most productive time you spend — with no interruptions and while your brain is fresh — it makes perfect sense to use that time effectively.

For those who lead teams, it’s the time to ensure you can keep not just the flow of work moving, but also provide the necessary motivation to get those people upon whom you depend, up and at it. They too are taking enormous strain dealing with the limits placed upon them.

Of course, this moment isn’t exactly what Sharma envisaged. He was more about self, getting some exercise, meditating and learning something new. That’s all well and good and maybe once this crisis is over you can evolve to that level of self-indulgence. But right now, it’s about coping within a 24-hour clock.

The three main takeaways from ‘The 5am Club’ are:

  • Many successful people have a daily habit of rising early — they don’t just rely on their good looks, talent and A-type personality
  • Small, frequent, even tiny progressions, compound over time
  • To be great, always move outside your comfort zone

Perhaps the biggest ‘gift’ the lockdown could offer you is a chance to change routines and habits for good. Habits are just that — they aren’t always the best way of doing something.

There’s another phrase, used frequently, which goes back centuries. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” might have been popularised by US President Barack Obama’s one-time chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, but it was also used by Churchill and can be traced as far back as Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s about creating space for opportunities we never knew existed.

So what do you do? Set your alarm now for tomorrow. And get a decent nights’ sleep. This habit-changing stuff is hard. I know.

Subscribe, for free, to the FM's lockdown newsletter click here.