Do you reach for your phone while standing in line at the grocery store, during commercials, while resting in bed before sleep, or any time there’s a conversation pause? If you’re like most people these days, your answer was probably something along the lines of “Yes, of course. What else would I do?” In fact, there is something else you can do in those in-between moments that will benefit you infinitely more than scrolling through social media: embrace solitude.
What is solitude?
When you hear the word solitude, you likely imagine being in the middle of the wilderness miles away from another person. While that certainly qualifies, physical isolation isn’t required to embrace solitude.
Cal Newport, the author of the book Digital Minimalism, defines solitude as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds, be it listening to a podcast, scrolling through Instagram, watching TV, having a conversation, or even reading a book. According to Newport, solitude is a time for you to be alone with your mind, regardless of what’s going on around you.
Why solitude is rare these days
Within the past decade or so, the amount of time we spend in solitude has greatly diminished and, for many people, has been completely eliminated. Why? The answer is dependence on technology—smartphones, iPads, laptops, and TV in particular.
Our smart devices are literally designed to be addictive attention-suckers. We are being presented with the choice of either a) sitting quietly with our thoughts or, b) being entertained by an endless stream of information. Unsurprisingly, most of us choose our phones which are like tiny slot machines always within arm’s reach.
Clearly, the engineers who are designing our smart devices and apps are good at their jobs because any downtime we have is immediately filled by burying our faces in our phones. Because of this, we have not only lost the ability to sit in quiet contemplation but, in many cases, have actually become fearful of being alone with our thoughts.
Why is solitude important, anyway?
You might be thinking, “So what if I don’t sit in quiet contemplation with my thoughts? What’s the big deal?” As it turns out, it’s a really big deal. Solitude is very important for our well-being and success. In fact, the busier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from some quiet time alone with your thoughts.
Solitude promotes personal growth
Solitude gives us the mental space to connect with ourselves and reflect on our lives. It’s in moments without outside mental stimulation that we’re able to contemplate, think deeply, and check in with ourselves: Are we happy? How do we feel about a certain situation? Are we living a life true to ourselves? What are our goals? What do we want to do next?
When you fill every spare moment with stimulation from digital devices, you lack the mental space to ponder these types of questions and process complex emotions. In turn, this hinders your personal growth and increases the chances of living a life that is unsatisfying, not in line with your true self, or even detrimental to your well-being. You might stay in an unsatisfactory job or relationship, or not pursue your passions, simply because you lack the solitude to question how you’re feeling, solve problems, and make plans.
Solitude promotes creativity, productivity, and focus
A lack of solitude can also hamper your creativity. While daydreaming has a bad rap for being a waste of time, studies show that retreating into your thoughts can actually improve your creativity, productivity, and memory. This makes sense if you think about it. If you’re constantly watching TikTok videos, your mind is preoccupied, leaving little time for natural, creative insights to come through.
Additionally, hopping on social media or the internet whenever there’s a pause is essentially kryptonite to your productivity. It’s not hard to see why, either. Getting lost down an Instagram rabbit hole where you end up 500 pictures deep on your sister’s friend’s husband’s cousin’s profile not only provides no benefit to you, but also takes up time that could have been spent engaging in a productive activity.
Learn to embrace solitude
We live in a world where dopamine-inducing entertainment is only a scroll or click away from the moment we wake up ‘til the moment we go to sleep. If we want to reclaim our productivity, creativity, and personal growth, it’s imperative that we work to reclaim our solitude first.
When you’re standing in line at the grocery store, sitting on the subway, or waiting at the doctor’s office, resist the urge to pull out your phone. Instead, sit with your own thoughts. Yes, this will be really difficult at first, but just keep choosing solitude over digital devices — over and over. With time, patience, and repetition, you’ll be rewarded more than you ever could have imagined.