Sitting at a bar while texting a friend doesn’t count
When was the last time you were on your own? Not alone while listening to your kids in the other room, or working at your desk as your co-workers swarm through the office, or sitting at the bar while texting a friend, but truly alone?
I have a hard time being by myself, and lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why. All I know is that this aversion to solitude has left me feeling stuck. I’ve struggled to learn about myself, to understand what drives and scares me, to know where I want to go next.
It’s become one of my goals to get comfortable being with… just me. Plenty of people struggle with this — in a study out of the University of Virginia, several participants chose electric shock over being alone with their own thoughts — but research shows that those who spend time on their own, by choice, have lower levels of stress, more compassion for others, increased productivity, and are generally more satisfied with their lives. Those who seek solitude tend to be more creative, too. As Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, wrote: “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.”
So over the past couple of years, I’ve tried a few different techniques to relearn how to comfortably be alone. Turns out, it’s not as tough as I thought. Here’s what’s worked for me.
Schedule 10 minutes a day for solitude
Put a small chunk of time on your daily calendar. Then, during those minutes, make it a point to do nothing but spend time with yourself. Make a cup of tea. Sit in a nice chair. Examine your thoughts, and write them down on paper. I usually do this around four o’clock in the afternoon, when my productivity plummets. I’ve found those 10 minutes to be almost meditative.
Take a walk (and leave your phone at home)
A simple walk has been shown to open up creative pathways. It helps us to think, particularly when we walk in green spaces. So get out of the house and move. Bring a pen and paper if you want to. Breathe in the fresh air. Stretch your legs. Add to your daily step goal, if that’s your thing.
Go on a solo trip
I recently spent four days on my own in a cabin in the woods. Now I’m thinking about doing this every quarter. While there, I turned off my phone and Wi-Fi, focused on my writing, recorded an online course, and basically made all my own decisions from the moment I woke up every morning. I learned to rely on myself more — I couldn’t turn to others to second-guess my daily choices, as I too often do. I also rested. I laid on the couch, just thinking. I listened to the birds sing, and the rain patter on the roof. Just as Bill Gates does his “think weeks,” you can use a solo trip to gain new insights, recharge, and figure out what truly matters to you.
Give yourself some thinking or writing prompts
If the idea of being alone makes you anxious, you might want to ease into it with some homework. There are tons of books, journals, and websites that offer prompts to help you discover who you are and what you believe. You might give yourself a different question each day: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Who are your three favorite people in the world, and why? What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Take a step back from the noise of the world and listen to your thoughts. Learn how to sit with them. You might just find yourself to be pretty good company.