Our perceived worth by the world is largely determined by how many friends we have, the number of Facebook followers we’ve collected, and how well we’re liked by our peers.
Because society evaluates us based on how successfully we interact with others, we’re subtly encouraged to be constantly social - even when it’s not the best option for us. In fact, regular intervals of solitude are beneficial to our physical and mental well-being.
It’s easy to mistakenly equate solitude with loneliness, but as explained in detail here, it’s important to realize that the two are different.
Loneliness is involuntary, and is marked by sadness and a sense of isolation. Solitude is a chosen state of being by oneself that has purpose and meaning.
According to Psychology Today, “Solitude is a time that can be used for reflection, inner searching or growth or enjoyment of some kind. . . [it’s] refreshing; an opportunity to renew ourselves.”
Many great leaders and creators throughout history cultivated a practice of solitude, among them Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jesus. They likely understood what many experts repeatedly tell us: regular intervals of solitude inspire and rejuvenate us, and give us the perspective and creative boost necessary to do important work in the world.
“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion." - Albert Camus
Like exercise, at first practicing solitude may feel uncomfortable and may require a lot of self-discipline. According to Vox, “Being alone is a skill. And, just like any other skill, you can get better at it with practice.” Solitude can also offer a level of self-care and rejuvenation that’s hard to come by in other ways, particularly now given limited accessibility to in-person therapy and support groups.
To jump start your solitude practice, here are five simple steps you can take to start a practice that’s meaningful and sustainable.
Step one: Clarify your purpose
Beneficial solitude must be purposeful. Determine one or two things you hope to achieve through your time alone and write them down. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Reduce stress?
- Experience more joy?
- Clarify your priorities?
- Boost creativity?
- Gain perspective?
- Experience nature?
Your stated purpose will help you choose a solitude activity and an appropriate place to practice it. It will also remind you why you’re doing the work to establish a solitude practice in the first place; it can inspire you to keep working at it when you feel stuck or unmotivated.
Step two: Start easy
Choose a solitude activity that aligns with your stated purpose above, appeals to you, and is easy to do. If you want to experience nature but hate hiking or can’t easily get to a trail, try walking at a local nature center instead.
If you love to read, you might choose to curl up in a corner in a comfy chair with a great book for a spell each morning before you get to work.
If you’re feeling frazzled and would like to get a handle on your runaway thoughts and emotions, you might set aside some time each morning or evening to clear your mind by journaling.
Step three: Start small
One of the reasons new habits fail is because we start with steps that are too big, says habit change expert James Clear. No step is too small to begin with as long as you commit to taking it on a regular basis and build up from there as necessary. Small amounts of time - even just 5 or 10 minutes - are also much easier to fit into a busy schedule.
Because solitude can bring up feelings and thoughts that are difficult to manage at first, psychologists also recommend that novice solitude practitioners begin with small doses of alone time to help you acclimate.
Step four: Schedule it
A new habit needs to be both scheduled and deliberately attended to. Once it’s on your schedule, prioritize this commitment as you would a work meeting, a doctor’s appointment or a parent-teacher conference. Tell family members about it so they know it’s a priority for you and won’t be caught off guard or annoyed when you take off for a bit on your own.
Step five: Arrange your environment for success
“We are more reliant on environmental triggers than we’d like to think,” says Psychology Today. Environmental cues are critical when we want to adopt a new behavior. Here are some examples of solitude practices you can adopt and how you can modify your environment to support it.
- Place the journal you want to write in or the hiking shoes for your walk where you will see them throughout the day. Put your exercise clothes out each night so you can easily slip into them each morning.
- Set a notification on your phone, possibly several. Use a ring-tone that’s specific to this activity - maybe some upbeat music or another sound that’s pleasant to hear.
- Associate the activity with another one that’s already a habit. Go for a walk right after lunch. Write in your journal while you drink your morning coffee.
- Create an appropriate spot in your home for this activity. Make it functional and pleasant. If you’ll be creating during your solitude time, designate a space and gather necessary supplies. Create a comfy reading/journaling spot that has a place to put your book or journal, a cup of tea or a scented candle.
- Put the bath salts, slippers and escape reading on your bedside table so you’ll remember to take a relaxing bath after work.
Even when times are stressful, we need to feel that we can move forward each day with hope and purpose. We need to trust that we can take care of ourselves and meet the challenges of whatever lies ahead.
As novelist Laurence Sterne reminds us, “In solitude the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.” When the outside world feels chaotic and uncertain, go inward. It will reduce stress and help you find the calm and resourcefulness necessary to keep your ship on course in stormy seas.