Spend More Time Alone

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 First — which 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.