How To Change Your Mindset And Conquer 2020, With Author Zaid Ismail

Get 2020 back into gear with these lessons from author and life coach Zaid Ismail.

By Nadim Nyker | Photography by Naadirah Ismail |

Yes, it’s almost September 2020. Everyone at the Men’s Health home-Q has also been wondering the same: where did the months go? And as we enter #lockdownlevel2 and what feels like social-distancing day gazillion, we realised it was time to gain control of 2020 again and change our mindsets. So we spoke to South African author and life coach Zaid Ismail to lead the way, here’s what he had to say.

Related: 11 Questions About The Coronavirus And Your Mental Health, Answered By A Psychologist

Has life coaching always been your thing?

“Actually, not really,” Zaid says, with the 49-year-old author leaving his corporate job to pursue his dreams. “I used to work in corporate, and in the public sector as an independent consultant for over 25 years. But I always found myself landing projects that required a huge amount of focus on developing people into new roles and creating new functions. Connecting with the human behind all that change that often brings out the worst in people is what provided me with the insights and the inspiration to do this. That’s what made me leave my role as a digital strategist, among other roles, to pursue this calling on a full-time basis.”

I’ve been lethargic and demotivated since lockdown began and want to get back into a better routine. Where do I start?

It’s time to abandon the routine and focus on purpose, says the author. “Routines kill creativity, and the absence of creativity makes life boring. Hence the tediousness with which we live our lives these days. If routine is unavoidable, connect with the purpose behind each task in the routine. Not only will it seem less onerous, it will also create opportunity to spot gaps for efficiency which reduces the effort for the routine itself.

“Please don’t mistake this for a lack of discipline. That’s part of the problem. We assume that discipline requires routine. It doesn’t: discipline is how mindful we are about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it,” he adds. “Connect with that and no one will have to sit on your case to get you to follow through on something that you started, or want to start. If you’re finding it difficult to pursue that goal or invest in that dream, it’s because you’re more invested in your comfort zone than you are in the value of what achieving those goals offer you. Get that right, and discipline will take care of itself without any need for a deliberate routine.”

How important is adding value to what you do? Any life hacks?

Zaid is all for finding value in what you do, and when you don’t see value in it, don’t utilise more time than you have to doing it.

“The only thing that keeps me sane is connecting with the value of what I’m doing. If I don’t see the value in it, but I have no choice in it either, I make sure that I don’t invest any more than the absolute minimum that is needed to complete it before moving on to more fulfilling initiatives. When we lose sight of the value of the outcome, what we’re doing becomes a burden. That’s when we feel weighed down by life, despite us weighing down on life. Subtle but important difference.

“So my life hack, I guess, is to be emotionally mindful about my investment in what I’m doing. Everything else falls into place behind that. Isn’t that what attitude is all about?”

Zaid Ismail is the author of a number of books that can be found at

How can one separate work from downtime while working from home?

A break in one’s routine is key, says Zaid. And while you’re at it, steer away from recreating your office environment and culture in your home.

“Aha! Break the routine! Yeah, I get that we can’t always dictate our schedules around meetings and the like,” he says. “But I’ve seen so many people try to recreate their office environment and culture in their homes. They convince themselves that they must have discipline and that discipline implies the same ritualistic approach they would take at the office.

“You’re at home! Your space. Own it. Focus on outcomes, not on rituals or habits. Allow yourself to explore different ways of work as long as you are delivering the goods. We don’t give ourselves enough creative license in our lives because we’re so focused on complying with expectations and fulfilling responsibilities. We need to loosen up a bit. Actually, a lot!”

Related: I’ve Been Working From Home For 11 Years. This Is What I’ve Learnt.

I’ve seen my friends and family members battle with the coronavirus. Mentally, how should I deal with it?

“Emotional mindfulness is what is needed to strengthen our response to the virus. Emotional mindfulness, not just situational mindfulness. Everyone is so focused on being mindful about what’s going on around them (i.e. situational mindfulness) that they lose sight of what’s going on inside them. We can be as mindful as ever about what we must respond to, but we’ll only be more effective in our response if we are mindful about how we show up.

“What is our emotional disposition when we are faced with a situation? That’s why I developed the Egosystem approach to harnessing this side of our humanness. It’s a simple six-point cycle that we experience in every moment of our lives. The more aware we are of it, the less likely it is that assumptions or fears will drive our behaviour. This is also at the core of my second book, Own Your Shit. Because, like I point out in that book, if you don’t own it, it will own you.


The Egosystem: a hard-hitting take on introspection and self-awareness.

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Many have different approaches to dealing with the pandemic and the overarching depression that comes with it.  You on the other hand preach tough love. Practically, how can one implement this?

“Depression is sadly misunderstood. Pardon the pun. It’s not a disease. It’s a result of our human experience. Tough love only feels like tough love if it is delivered without compassion or empathy. And that’s what is lacking. The amount of insensitivity towards the human experience in this pandemic is good reason for many to feel despondent about it,” he says.

“Depression is simply the absence of hope, which is preceded by a saturation of failed expectations. Test your expectations that you have of those around you, or of government, or whichever other influencers have a bearing on how you experience this pandemic, and you stand a much better chance of owning your experience and your response rather than feeling like a helpless victim. That is where hope is resuscitated.”


Get a grip on your emotions with Own Your Sh!t

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We have seen a flurry of personalities and organisations use this time to donate to charity or give their paid platforms off for free-use. How important is it to act with purpose going forward? And how can one do so?

“It’s always critical to act with purpose. Not just now, although now more than ever, it is needed. Purpose is driven by connecting with the value of the outcome of what you want to do,” Zaid says. “If you believe in the value that you and others will experience as a result of that effort, inspiration and conviction to follow through becomes a natural consequence. However, if we’re again driven by how we want others to perceive us, we’ll be more focused on getting their validation, or getting personal mileage from that effort. Purpose will be distorted to self-serving outcomes rather than the charitable offering that we set out to provide.

I have made available free mental health content designed to inspire

“Think of it this way. If I see value in something, it is because of my experience of benefiting from that value that drives me to want others to experience it as well. My specific circumstances may be unique, but my need for experiencing that value is not. Like feeling uplifted, inspired or supported etc. It’s that underlying human experience that connects us all that we should be focused on, not the ‘what’ and ‘the how’. But that humanness. The ‘what’ and ‘the how’ is very much influenced by culture and tradition. The value that we take from it is influenced by how we’re connected with our humanness. And that, I believe, is what will stand us in good stead through this pandemic and beyond.

“To that end, I’ve launched a number of initiatives on social media. I have made available free mental health content designed to inspire people to take control of their lives. These include video clips of daily reminders to reconsider what we take for granted in life. It also includes a Facebook group called 21 Days to Live Again which was inspired by the initial lock down period in SA. And more recently I’ve launched a series called The Tough Discussions which challenges the perceptions and taboos about some very contentious topics in our communities. My hope is that it will encourage meaningful engagement in our personal spaces that will lead to a healthier approach to mental health.”

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