The Lost Discipline of Solitude – Why You Must Spend Time Alone

“Always on”

Those two words describe our modern world. Always online. Always plugged in. Always busy. Always distracted. Always reacting.

The antidote to the poisonous effects of being “always on” is solitude.

The habit of being alone with your thoughts. The decision to step back and quiet your mind so you can gain clarity. The act of disconnecting momentarily from everything else so you can go inwards.

Focusing on important work, alone, without distraction.

But solitude has always been important, even in a less-distracted world. And it’s always been a practice of the greats.

Whether it’s Isaac Newtown discovering gravity while he was quarantined in the 1600s during the great plague.

Einstein barricading himself in the upstairs study of his house, spending hours each day working on equations.

Or Nikola Tesla, who put it so well: “Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

In this article, we’ll take a look at how you can leverage the practice of being alone—of engaging in solitude—to quiet your mind, be more creative and focused, and gain clarity. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Solitude is a State of Mind
  • Purposeful & Productive Solitude
  • Undirected, Unstructured Solitude
  • Solitude as Exercise
  • Solitude Retreats
  • Solitude Through The Day

Solitude is a State of Mind

As Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin write in Lead Yourself First

“Solitude can be found as readily while sitting alone in a restaurant as it can on Mount Rainier. It is not an objective concept but a subjective one. It is, simply, a subjective state of mind, in which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own.”

But to achieve this state of mind, we often need to intentionally work ourselves into it.

Without intention, most of us won’t engage in solitude. As soon as we’re alone, and have the opportunity to engage in solitude, we immediately seek input from other minds, whether it’s in the form of the algorithmic slot machine, long-form podcasts, or the next self-help book.

But how do we intentionally enter this state of mind? How do we intentionally benefit from solitude?

Let’s look at 5 practices:

Purposeful & Productive Solitude

Solitude is the fuel behind great creative and intellectual work. As Picasso famously said,

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

Whether you’re writing a business plan, thinking through a difficult leadership decision you need to make, studying for college exams… solitude is not only beneficial, it’s practically essential.

Purposeful and productive solitude is exactly what you think it is: work.

Deep work. Focused work. Thinking work.

It’s J. K. Rowling booking a hotel room to escape the distractions of home so she could finish the final Harry Potter book.

It’s Carl Jung studying and working alone in his tower in Bollingen.

But this type of solitude doesn’t need to always be the type where one sits down at a desk and writes.

It might be the executive who goes for a weekend hike in nature to work through a difficult decision.

Or it might be the aspiring entrepreneur who goes for a long drive to think about how they could best launch their first product.

The point of purposeful and productive solitude is that there’s a point. There’s a purpose. There’s a goal. You focus your thinking and attention towards something, rather than just letting it roam free.

Undirected, Unstructured Solitude

Not all solitude needs to be purposeful.

In fact, there’s value in just letting your mind wander.

To spend time alone without any goal, any purpose, or any particular thought in mind.

This is so counter-intuitive for us to do. We are used to being objective-driven, of always having some sort of goal. To spend time alone without any aim is not a common practice. But it is valuable.

It’s often, during these undirected, unstructured periods of solitude that true clarity and insight arises. The moments where the chatter in your head starts to quiet down.

Personally, I like to go for hikes to spend time in unstructured solitude. I find the act of walking meditative. And it’s easier for me to remain in that unstructured solitude while walking much longer than I could just sitting around doing nothing. Plus there’s the added benefit of exercise.

Solitude as Exercise

In his article, Why I Run, Ryan Holiday writes:

“Running is how I face what I need to face. It’s when I turn everything else off and am forced to deal. It’s my time to meditate, it’s when I feel flow but not in a work or creative capacity.”

Exercise, too, can be a form of solitude if you let it.

Consider swapping out the group fitness class for a solo run. No music. No podcasts. Just you and your mind.

Or next time you’re lifting at the gym, don’t take your phone with you. Just lift. Use the rest time in between sets to do nothing. Let yourself be alone.

95% of my exercise is done completely alone. And it’s been this way for years, intentionally.

Would it be nice to go for a run while listening to music or a podcast? Yeah, it would. It would make it less boring. But I’m more convinced of the value of silence than the value of consumption—even if it’s an educational podcast.

There are not many opportunities to be alone in the modern world, especially if you work in an office and then come home to a family. Exercise is one of those opportunities. Don’t waste it.

Solitude Retreats

In 2020 and 2021 I was working through several challenging business decisions. My need for “thinking” time was more important than ever.

And so, every couple months, I would go on “solitude retreats.”

I’d book a hotel or AirBnB somewhere for a weekend, by myself.

Sometimes I’d take a book if it was relevant to what I was working through. Other times, pen and paper.

I’d walk a lot and write a lot.

Even today, when the pressure comes on and I feel like I need space, I’ll take a solitude retreat.

Solitude Through The Day

Not all of us have the luxury of having our own cabin in the woods, or tower on the lake like Carl Jung.

But we can make minor, but powerful changes in our daily lives that enable us to spend more time in solitude.

Here are some ideas:

  • Carve out some solitude time in your day. Ideally in the morning before everyone else is up. Even if it’s just 10-15 mins. Use this time to think, reflect, journal, meditate, or pray. Use it to order your inner life.
  • Daily walks, alone.
  • Don’t listen to anything while driving. Just spend time with yourself.
  • Structure your days around deep work, as much as you can. Engage in productive solitude.

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