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Spend More Time Alone

September 24th, 2017 · 32 comments

A Lonely Binge

I recently read three books on the topic of solitude. Two were actually titled Solitude, while the third, and most recently published, was titled Lead Yourself Firstwhich is pitched as a leadership guide, but is actually a meditation on the value of being alone with your thoughts.

This last book resonated with me in part because it was co-authored by a former Army officer and a well-respected federal appellate judge, meaning it’s written with the type of exacting logic and ontological clarity that warms my overly-technical nerd heart.

Style aside, Lead Yourself First makes many interesting points, but there were two lessons in particular that struck me as relevant to the types of things we talk about here. So I thought I would share them:

  • Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.
    When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.
  • Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain. 
    Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.

Among other impacts, these ideas provide an interesting new perspective on one of my favorite topics: deep work. Not all types of deep work satisfy this definition of solitude, as it’s possible to deeply react to inputs from other minds, such as when you’re trying to make sense of a tough piece of writing or lock into a complicated lecture.

But in general, deep thinking is time spent alone with your mind, and as such it’s just one of many different flavors of solitude — all of which aid human flourishing.

I ended my last book by claiming: “a deep life is a good life.” The authors of Lead Yourself First would rework that claim to read something like: “a life rich in solitude (both at work and at home) is a good life.” In an age where persistent reactivity is possible from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall sleep, this latter formulation is probably one worth spreading.

32 thoughts on “Spend More Time Alone

  1. Quantum says:

    I find solitude in taking a walk, being in nature, or listening to meditative music (and only this – not while also internet browsing/texting/etc).

    I’m currently trying to undo the damage done to my attention abilities after spending half my life (or more, depending on how you count AIM) of social media usage. I slowly whittled away all social media, having given up the last one in May. I find the number one thing that’s hard to shake is the desire for interaction. I’m a lot happier, and concentrating a lot better, without social media. The in-the-moment urges to check for alerts is gone at this point. But I find that I feel like I should be more social.

    With social media, friends – in the loose sense, of “people who I know, who I can chat with right now” – were always in my grasp. It’s hard to shake the feeling of being undersocialized, but I suppose after a decade+ of being connected almost all the time, it’ll take a while to shake it off.

  2. Behzad Ezzati says:

    I read your book (Deep Work), I agree with this post and concept of deep work.
    I believe trying to have solitude our mind with itself is a very tough work. Like, struggle with darkness for bringing light. Like, resist against a huge Sonami. However, I still believe that this fight and resistance is one of the most beautiful wars in our life that it’s as worthy as whole the life.
    Thanks, Mr. Newport

    1. Alice says:

      Dr. Newport, Mind you 😛

      1. Behzad says:

        Yes, I apologise.

  3. Mike Hollander says:

    What are the two books called “Solitude”?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      One was written by the late Anthony Storr (a respected British psychiatrist) and came out in 1988, the other was by the Canadian cultural critic Michael Harris, and it came out earlier this year.

      1. Akram Ahmad says:

        The eponymous book (“Solitude”) by the late Anthony Storr (a respected British psychiatrist), and which and came out in 1988, is an awesome book that ought to be savored slowly; definitely not a drive-by reading experience 😉

  4. Sam says:

    Fuck I love this shit

  5. Dave says:

    When reading these three books, are you getting through them fast of taking your time, and how do you approach them? Also, what are you thoughts on concepts like speed reading?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      When you read and write as much nonfiction idea books as I do, you learn how to extract the meat of the ideas pretty quickly. Some books, that means you end up reading most every page pretty carefully, while others, you skim quite a bit. Occasionally you can pull the rip cord after 100 pages or so and really know 90% of what you need to know from the book. Just depends.

      For other types of nonfiction, like biography, for example, the only reasonable approach is to just take the time to read every page.

  6. There is one thing that I think is missing from your blog which to make a corner for what your readings, something like: a corner for what you have read last month/week/ or the last 3 books you have read, a corner for what you are currently reading, and if you want, a corner for your ‘to read’ books. This may be useful for people or at least for me personnally, because it’s very inspirational in terms of choosing what to read.

    Thank you.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I should do this. My friend Ryan Holiday, for example, does this nice thing each month where he sends a summary of what he read to his email list.

      Part of my problem is that my reading habits are somewhat weird. I’m usually reading 5 – 10 books at a time, but the rotation is erratic, with some books being worked on a little bit at a time over months, while others come in, get my full attention for 3 days, and are then done. So it’s not always easy to answer questions like “what are you reading at the moment.”

      1. AC says:

        As opposed to being a smartphone zombie who’s addicted to social media, your attention, instead divided over many books at a time. Interesting. I understand that you’re not trying to read three books simultaneously, and that you rotate between them, but to me, that would feel like a slightly more analogue version of a multiple tab web browser.

      2. Quantum says:

        I would also be interested in what you generally read.

        A simple solution might be to have a list (with reviews?) where you add new books as you finish them. Less of a “What are you currently reading?” and more of a “What have you read lately that you found value in?”

      3. Riley Brook says:

        Would love to see this exist! So would friends of mine who also follow you. You could add books to the list as you complete them, doesn’t have to be a list of “currently reading.”

      4. Thank you so much Cal for responding me, I didn’t see the response and even remember my comment until I received an other article from you on email, looking forward for this idea to be concretised. I’m glad you mentionned Ryan Holiday, it’s a new discovery for me, I actually found his books valuable and ought to read, which I’m glad for.

        Thank you mr Cal (Ibraheem from Morocco)

  7. I enjoy a fine cigar on my back deck facing the woods in moments of solitude. The nicotine is a cognitive booster as well; there are few better combinations for deep thinking.

  8. Deepti says:

    I like this definition of solitude. I’ve heard advice that probably aimed at solitude but was less stringent:
    + unplug (but books and socialization are allowed),
    + go to a cabin (but books are allowed),
    + reading deprivation (but socializing is allowed),
    + low-information diet (but reading fiction is allowed).

    I’ve tried some of the things listed above, but I always end up replacing one kind of input with the other. This book’s definition plugs all the loopholes.

  9. Sean Alexander says:

    During many years of traveling I found that I could sit in an airline’s crowded and noisy boarding area and “check-out” of the environment I was in, and check-in to a moment of solitude. The moment might last only a couple minutes, but sometimes it went on to encapsulate 30 to 40 minutes. It was always rejuvenating, and sometimes enlightening.

    I discovered that the use of noise canceling headphones helped me get there faster and stay there longer.

    Conversely, I’ve found myself completely alone, with no interruptions or noise, and yet unable to find solitude in the quiet. Very frustrating.

    Human’s are such strange creatures.

    1. Don Osborn says:

      Interesting topic generally, thx Cal Newport. Wrt Sean Alexander’s comments, I also have sometimes found it more productive to sit in a moderately busy setting like a coffee shop, with headphones, than to have a quiet office space with its ample mental space. Maybe it’s the peripheral energy around a private space. When I used to do a lot of intercontinental flying, I found the period of confinement somehow to be ideal for reflecting and expanding on some ideas.

  10. Esther says:

    I have a question.

    Is there a difference in the benefit of creating solitude and avoiding passive input, say, grappling with a difficult piece of writing, as opposed to active input, say, physical, in-person interaction with someone?

    I feel solitude is possible even with passive input: you can take the writing and read it, form your own thoughts, and interact on your own terms and in your own time.

    Is solitude with such passive input as necessary to deep thinking as solitude with no external mental input whatsoever?

  11. Rachel says:

    Wondering why my comment did not show up?

  12. Grace says:

    I like this Ajahn Brahm’s talk about Solitude: https://bswa.org/teaching/happy-hermit-ajahn-brahm-2/

  13. JOHANNES says:

    I intuitively agree with both Lessons and thank you for sharing them, Cal. I see some connections to your Rule #2 – Embrace boredom.

    My question refers is to Lesson #2. Do the authors of Lead Yourself First name any studies supporting this claim: “Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions”?

    Altough I totally agree from my own experience I would be really interested in further research.

  14. I find white space so important.

    It seems to work best to book end my work day with prayer, alone time at the beginning and then a walk in the evening at the end of the work day.

    These can take a significant amount of time. I usually start work about 2 hours or more after I get up. But I find the centering value of these activities essential to a thoughtful, productive, peaceful, and joyful life.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  15. Langoor says:

    I think ‘Solitude’ is a fancy term of ‘Tapasya’.

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapas_(Sanskrit)

  16. Modi Kapit says:

    A related question: Do you read the 5-10 books on an e-reader or you have the actual paper book? I struggle with this all the time. The e-reader is infinitely (or perhaps 1000 times) more convenient, but it does lead me to buy and start way too many books. Thanks.

  17. Cindy says:

    I found it very interesting that you provided an additional definition to the word solitude and your take on the lessons you learn from reading those books. Eventually from time to time, we need to give our mind the solitude you stated in your post. This solitude will gives us a better take on difficult situations and be a little stress free from time to time.

  18. Solitude is as important to learning and developing ideas as is conversation. It opens doors to rehearsing new ideas and making new connections. Solitude without social interaction, however, leads to the potential of solipsistic thinking…just ask Descartes.

  19. Akemi says:

    interesting thoughts

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