The Dying Art of Being Alone With Your Thoughts

We are losing the precious ability to be alone with our thoughts, and with it foregoing the vast benefits of solitude. Here's how we get it back.

There was once a time, in the not-so-distant past, when sitting alone in a café without a single artefact of personal distraction wasn’t exceptional.

Now, it’s fair to say that such an individual would be an outlier. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who would characterise this as normal.

No headphones, no book, no phone, no newspaper. Nothing. Alone with their coffee. Surely some kind of psychopath?

It’s disturbing that scenes of solitude have become so disturbing. Deepened by the emergence of new technologies, we are constantly and deliberately distracted from our thoughts. We walk and run in the company of music. We commute through a perpetual haze of radio adverts. We rest to the background blur of a TV. Heck, many of us even relieve ourselves with our smartphones safely by our side.

This change in behaviour matters. A lot.

We are losing the ability to experience solitude – and this has potentially grave long-term consequences. If billions of people increasingly struggle to be alone with their thoughts, billions will miss out on the extremely important benefits of doing so.

What Is Solitude?

But before we go any further, we should draw the lines.

Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Over the long term, the latter has been shown to be have damaging implications for our psychological well-being.

Instead, solitude is a voluntary state in which your mind is free from input from other minds. While they may not be ideal environments for experiencing solitude, that means it’s possible to experience solitude in a busy café, in a full train on the way to work, or yes, even in the dreaded open-plan office. Conversely, it also means you can be completely alone, but incapable of experiencing solitude.

The bottom line is that loneliness is neither a prerequisite nor a predictor of solitude. Being alone with your thoughts is not the same as living a life alone. We can experience periods of solitude, free from the input of other minds, and then we can return to the benefits of socialisation.

It’s important that we keep this reality in mind as we begin to challenge ourselves to remove the things stopping us from being alone with our thoughts. Voluntarily embracing our thoughts is something to be sought, not avoided.

The Shocking Extent of the Problem

But just how bad is it?

Spend a few hours in a busy public place and the answer quickly becomes clear. It’s bad. Really bad.

The majority of us – deny it or not – are addicted to our smartphones. An anxious need to check and participate is reinforced by the next dopamine hit from our applications, addictive feedback loops, and our voracious appetites for information, redundant or not.

This is no surprise. But what if we stripped the distractions back? What if we removed smartphones from the equation entirely? And what if we took the question of solitude into the remit of science?

In research published in Science in 2014, a group of researchers from Harvard University and the University of Virginia sought to answer these questions. In 11 experiments, the researchers asked participants to put away distractions and entertain themselves with their own thoughts for up to 15 minutes. Participants then rated their enjoyment levels, with results showing that they typically found the solitude exercises less enjoyable than light exercises such as a crossword or magazine.

But here’s the twist. In one study, participants were wired up to an electric shock device during the thinking period. They even had a chance to test it and see how painful it was before they started the solitude exercise. And yet, a whopping quarter of women and two thirds of men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts, even though they had said they’d pay money not to experience the shock again. One poor chap even pressed the button 190 times in 15 minutes!

The bottom line is we find being alone with our thoughts unpleasant. Our preference for distraction is no better illustrated than by our turning to something physically painful to avoid being alone with our thoughts.

The Science-Backed Benefits of Solitude

While our preference for distraction may seem innocuous, there’s a good reason why we should change our ways. The benefits of solitude, as demonstrated by scientific research (and a good deal of common sense) are wide-ranging and profound. We’d be fools not to take them seriously.

#1: Creativity

Being alone with our thoughts permits blue-sky thinking. If we’re constantly distracted by noises, impulses, and artefacts of personal distraction, it’s difficult to see how this can be reconciled with a desire to innovate. We need solitude to think, to synthesise ideas, and to innovate. Without it, creativity suffers.

Research has shown that activities that foster solitude, such as walking, can elevate creativity levels on subsequent tests of divergent thinking.  One study published in 2017 from researchers at the State University of New York even found that unsociability was positively associated with creativity.

#2: Productivity

We are terrible at multitasking. In fact, most of the time we spend “multitasking” actually resembles time spent switching inefficiently between tasks. Being alone with our thoughts trains the mind to engage in singular tasks, resisting external distractions. It follows that we start to use this time more productively.

Cognition and attention, as studies have shown, is enhanced when we focus on a task at a time. The quality of input and output rises with it.

#3: Reflection

Solitude is also an opportunity for self-reflection. One of the peculiarities of the modern world is that a lack of proper self-reflection is paradoxically contributing to a more narcissistic world.

Not taking time to be alone with our thoughts – to build self-awareness – is undermining our natural instinct for solo reflection. Human beings need time to reflect on their thoughts, or the results are slowly detrimental for psychological well-being.

Studies have shown that voluntary solitude is linked to higher rates of life satisfaction and other measures of psychological well-being.

#4: Recovery

Then there is the small matter of recovery. Time alone with our thoughts is a time to reflect and regenerate. Solitude activities, like walking, meditating, and breaks alone, not only help us foster higher levels of creativity, productivity and self-reflection, but also help us recover physically and mentally.

To fully embrace the benefits of solitude, we must recognise that work and rest function in tandem – and that certain forms of solitude are particularly potent forms of rest.

In our hectic lives, we are all looking to work optimally, but we should also spend more time considering how to rest optimally. Time alone with our thoughts is the optimal place to begin.

How to Experience Solitude in the Modern World

This all sounds wonderful in principle, but when our phones are buzzing, children are screaming, bosses are demanding, and minds are craving, how can we possibly start to experience these benefits?

The answer lies either in your regular routine or, conversely, in a complete escape from it.

Option #1: Make time in your routine

There are a few subtle changes we can make to our routines to spend more time alone with our thoughts, but these require a deep consideration of our environments.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Take a daily walk alone.
  • Wake up and arrive early.
  • Designate 15 minutes a day to meditation. (If you’re cynical about the benefits, read this article.)
  • Take a couple of lunch breaks alone each week.
  • Work in an office or meeting room alone.

Tip: To make any of these ideas stick, think about what environmental cues will drive these habits. Commit to a time and location. Consider linking the new habit to an existing habit. For example: “After I’ve eaten lunch at noon in the canteen, at 12:30 I will go for a 20-minute walk alone around the block.” Simple framing of a habit can drive sustained changes in behaviour.

Option #2: Complete escape

If subtle changes to the routine are not enough, a complete escape may be in order.

Some of the most effective thinkers in the modern world get away from it all. Since the 1980s, Bill Gates has taken solo ‘think weeks’ in a cabin for one week, twice a year, taking time to read and be alone with his thoughts. Other famous thinkers, both before and after him, have taken to similar routines.

It seems there is something powerful in having a third location, away from home and work, that acts as a kind of solitude hub. But escape to such a location also requires an escape from all the distractions we can carry with us. That means an escape from technology.

If you take your technological distractions with you, apply some strict operating procedures. Block out one time, perhaps in the evening, where you can catch up with loved ones and current affairs. But put the phone aside the rest of the time. Remember: being alone is not a guarantor of solitude. It requires some conscious effort to manage our artefacts of personal distraction.

Finally, a note on relationships. It is not a betrayal of loved ones to take time out alone. In fact, sometimes a break alone can be precisely what both sides of a relationship need to recharge and appreciate.

A Thoughtful Ending

A few weeks ago, something triggered this blog post.

It was a cold Saturday morning and I was positioned in my usual point in the café, researching and writing away for this blog. The café music gently buzzed away in the background. Other customers chatted. A baby occasionally cried. A few others sat alone, earphones in, absorbed in their phone screens.

There was just one exception. And it was extraordinary.

No phone, no headphones, no book. Just a coffee and a small notepad.

It appeared – to me at least – that this man was sitting and thinking, occasionally writing down thoughts that popped into his head.

What kind of sick sorcery was this? I thought. Who even does that?

And more importantly, where do I sign up?

The gentleman was an exception. A thinker. Someone that could be alone with their thoughts, while everything else rattles on around them. That solitude, if the science is anything to go by, will make him more creative, more productive, more self-aware, and more satisfied.

I wanted in. Who else is with me?

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