Coronavirus lockdown — Ex-Green Beret's advice for dealing with the unknown

When I was a Special Forces soldier in training, my team and I developed a way to break stress into 5-minute blocks

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The struggle I faced as the COVID-19 recommendations became school closings, "stay-at-home" orders, store closings, and zero social interactions was: how will I make it through the day?

I have critical work responsibilities, a large team of now remote workers to lead, my wife is working from home, we need to home school three boys, get to the grocery store, and more as my mind quickly spun across the entire list of changes.


When I was a Special Forces soldier in training, my team and I developed a way to break stress into 5-minute blocks and then just do the best we could in the next five minutes to defeat stress five minutes at a time.

It was pouring rain at Camp MacKall, North Carolina and the 3rd team member had just quit.  I was the student leader of a 14 person, now 11, team of Special Forces candidates attending the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) course.

SFAS is the three-week "testing" phase where students are given little information, there are no published standards of success, and instructors only tell candidates to "do the best you can."

The secret in difficult and trying times is to focus solely on doing well over the next 5 minutes and only focus on those next 5 minutes no matter what.

The tasks the prior day ranged from writing a 1,500-word essay on the U.S. Constitution after completing a 14-mile road march with 60 lbs. of gear with a late morning 4-hour cross country land navigation exercise with the same 60 lbs., and an official U.S. Army Physical Fitness test.

A central part of SFAS is dealing with the unknown. At SFAS, candidates hold no rank, have no names on their uniforms, and are only told what to bring to an event.

Candidates are instructed at the last moment what task they will perform and never told how long, how fast, or how far they will have to do a training event.

Will I run 3 miles or 9? Will I road march 6 miles or 14?

At SFAS, dealing with the unknown is one of the hardest challenges.

Back in the pouring rain, my team and I were completing an event called "Sand Babies" where the team task was designed by psychologists and likely sadomasochists.


It starts with a 5-foot pile of sand, the team then fills 20-30 sandbags, carries the sandbags as a group 300-400 yards over slippery hills, all sandbags are inspected for a minimum weight, the sandbags are emptied into a new pile, and the team walks back to the original sand pile to start again.

As my team of 11 started out again, another person quit and we were down to 10 people, 25 soaking wet sandbags and an overwhelming feeling of despair.

Focus on the Next 5 Minutes. The solution, we found, was to focus on the next 5 minutes and no longer.

In the unknown and difficult, your biggest enemy is your mind that wants to plan and to anticipate just how bad things may become.

The secret in difficult and trying times is to focus solely on doing well over the next 5 minutes and only focus on those next 5 minutes no matter what.


Do Your Best at Every Task – No Matter How Small. In those 5 minutes, we performed every task, no matter how small to the highest level of quality.

We moved as a team, tied the sandbags tight, filled the sandbags to the top, and carried our weapons at the ready, just as we would in combat.

We learned that by controlling the immediate tasks around us and doing the tasks well, we controlled and reduced our stress levels.

We cannot control the world, but we can choose to do the tasks in our immediate proximity well.

Know Your Purpose. Our new purpose was to complete the "Sand Babies" mission successfully and have no one else quit.

Now we had a dual purpose to complete our mission and ensure that everyone was there at the end.

A strong sense of purpose is the lifeblood during periods of suffering and unknown. A strong sense of purpose is an immeasurable aid.


Be Prepared to Improvise. As we walked, one person's rucksack began to rip under the weight of 120 lbs. of wet sand and the normal 60 lbs. of gear.

Another team member stepped up without even talking, grabbed a sandbag in their arms and kept on walking.

Another person behind him did the same. And they both did it without even speaking.

In life, in the rain, going to the store, and in military operations, all plans at some point go to hell.

Improvisation is expected and it will be needed. Always expect to react to the unexpected.

Everyone is a Leader. In the instance when someone’s rucksack began to tear, someone stepped up to help, and another person followed.

Bad times call for everyone to lead and to lead even in small things.

When a leader leads in small things, others follow the example.

If you are waiting for a "Patton" like monumental instance to lead, you are not going to get it.  Instead, be like Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. during the first waves landing on Omaha Beach when the D-Day landings looked like a disaster.

Under intense Nazi German fire and scared troops desperate for leadership, Roosevelt calmly walked the line, inspired, promoted enthusiasm, and lead the attack forward off the beaches.

When Those 5 Minutes Are Done – Do It Again. The hardest part of focusing on 5 minutes is doing it again, and again, and again. But when you do 5 minutes well, 30 minutes pass, then an hour, and a day. The way to win the day is to win 5 minutes, 288 times in a row.

When I was an Iraq, I was leading a Special Operations planning team and we were under intense pressure following a devastating truck bomb at the United Nations temporary headquarters and a series of violent, coordinated attacks around Baghdad.

Another Special Forces officer and a friend of mine saw my stress, held up his hand signifying the number "five" and silently spoke "five minutes" while our commander gave us guidance.


It helped as I switched into "five-minute" mode for the next several days.

COVID-19 will pass and will become an event in our history.

We need to think as a country, as families, as organizations, and as individuals how to do the best we can for the next five minutes.

Doing a part as best we can in 5-minute segments will see us through this and future challenges.

Chad Storlie is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, an Iraq combat veteran, and has 15 years of university teaching experience as an adjunct Professor of Marketing.  He is a mid-level B2B marketing executive and a widely published author on leadership, business, data, military and technology topics.