Natalie Nixon, PhD, is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, author of The Creativity Leap and CEO of Figure 8 Thinking.
When was the last time you spent time with yourself? In complete solitude?
Let’s face it, our culture doesn’t have many positive ideas around solitude. Think about the beautiful ballad “Solitude” made famous by both Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. While I highly recommend you give this song a listen, it is full of angst and pining as the protagonist waits for unrequited love. Then there’s the fear of missing out when we are alone—and any tiny bit of time spent on social media can catalyze FOMO. Certainly, the forced solitude that the pandemic required of us often felt more alienating than restorative.
But I’m speaking of the solitude embraced by Thoreau, required on Outward Bound wilderness courses and endorsed by the Dalai Lama. There is value in pausing and periodically retreating into oneself: that’s the solitude principle.
Six years ago, I indulged in that sort of a respite. Back then I was reacting to a challenging job experience. For that solo retreat (which would ultimately spawn my current work), a generous friend invited me to spend time at her peaceful home on Assateague Bay, Virginia. For five days, my daily routine was as follows: I woke up at a restful hour; gathered a tote bag that included a journal, a copy of The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna, blank paper, Sharpie pens, a bottle of water and some snacks. And then I settled in at the end of the dock. For three hours I daydreamed, journaled, cried, doodled, read: rinse-repeat. I took a one-hour lunch break. And then I walked back to the end of the dock and did it all over again for another two hours. At the end of the week, I wasn’t so sure if my reprieve had much impact. But years later, I realized that time to myself had afforded a trove of emotional unearthing and dreaming.
Fast forward to four months ago. I retreated, but not because I was in the doldrums. Quite the opposite. I had a lot to celebrate and be grateful for in spite of a challenging year. So three days before Christmas in 2021, I treated myself to a solo retreat in the Berkshires. It was an opportunity to practice gratitude, to reflect and to ponder “What’s next?” and “What if?”
Health Benefits Of Solitude
While social isolation is enforced under the duress of societal threats such as pandemics, solitude is voluntary. And it turns out that solitude has important health benefits. A primary benefit is that in solitude, our amygdala, at the base of the brain, is not constantly pumping out cortisol—the hormone essential for fight, flight or freeze. As a result, we reduce stress. And with lower amounts of cortisol coursing through our bloodstream, our bodies can exert more energy tending to our immune and digestive systems. Solitude also helps to clear the mind so you can return to your work restored and rejuvenated.
Ways To Integrate The Solitude Principle Into Your Business
You don’t have to wait for an adverse fork in the road in your career or a national holiday to practice solitude. And you also don’t need to have five days free on your calendar. Here are some ways to design solitude into the cadence of your work life.
• Bite-size your retreats: During the summer months I block off as many Mondays as possible for solo, early-morning trips to Spring Lake—my favorite beach at the Jersey Shore. I arrive by 7:30 a.m. and sit with the surfers and fishermen; I’m gone by noon. It does wonders for jumpstarting my work week.
• Weisure: Whenever you have to travel for work, don’t just hit it and quit it. Be sure to engage in weisure, a word I made up combining work + leisure (I figured lorking sounded a bit creepy). Weisure could involve visiting a local museum or art gallery; meandering through a cool neighborhood and finishing off your walk with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in a cafe; or people-watch from a nice park bench in that different city. I recently had a free afternoon in San Francisco and drove my rental car to Fort Cronkhite beach. It was a marvelous surprise, being by myself, at the Pacific Ocean on a March afternoon.
• Micro-travel: You don’t need a plane or train ticket to retreat. Pick a morning or an afternoon to visit a neighborhood in your city where you rarely venture. My friend, Holly Carter (Founder of ByKids), shared a great tip with me once: “Book a night for yourself in a local hotel in your city, and enjoy sleeping in and ordering room service. Then get into a Lyft or cab ride home!” I’ve now tried this twice and find the pause and change of scenery sparks new ideas for work projects.
• Daydream breaks: Solitude can also be scheduled into your workday without leaving the office. Schedule short breaks for daydreaming. They can be as short as 90 seconds or as long as 15 minutes. Daydreaming ignites neural synapse activity in deeper regions of the brain and gives the frontal neo-cortex a break. Return to your desk refreshed.
• Calendar Them… Now! Another friend of mine, Valerie Jacobs (Chief Growth Officer at LPK), is good at not waiting on a chance for solo time. She is deliberate about scheduling those days months in advance so that, “I don’t look up a year from now wondering ‘Where did all the time go?!’”
Being deliberate and intentional about solitude can re-energize your work and simultaneously do your body good. Don’t delay it!