Solitude: the secret to original thinking

Imagine embarking on a research mission to Antartica: cold wind tugging at your face as you trek through the snow. Nothing ahead but miles of ice and water. No other humans to interact with.

No internet service. Just you and flocks of Emperor penguins for days at a time.

In the beginning, your thoughts come to you like unwieldy birds, flying in every direction.

Then, suddenly, after hours spent in isolation, every question that has been buzzing in your mind is answered with unmatched clarity; your brain effortlessly begins to unlock new ideas.

The lost art of being alone

While very few of us can retreat to icy glaciers in order to think, we can still seek out moments of solitude in our daily lives.

Think of your brain as a computer processor: it has limited intellectual resources available to use in a given moment. By filling it up with constant stimuli, you’re diminishing your capacity to focus, problem-solve, or concentrate.

And we do this all the time. Taking our phones to bed with us and scrolling notifications as soon as we wake up. Emailing and texting others before we can compose thoughtful responses.

The idea of spending an extended amount of time with ourselves can seem terrifying.

In a story by Brent Crane about the virtues of isolation, psychoanalytic political theorist Matthew Bowker explains that solitude is more devalued than it has been in a long time. In other words, being alone has gotten a bad rap because we associate it with loneliness (though this is an entirely different experience) or boredom.

For many of us, solitude is uncomfortable. And we’ll do nearly anything to avoid it — even when a lack of solitude jeopardizes our ability to think clearly and critically.

Why we need space

The acclaimed poet Rainer Maria Rilke once gave the following advice:

“Keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.”

The more you look for answers outside of yourself, Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, the less likely you are to find them.

This advice seems counterintuitive in a world where you can easily Google anything on your smartphone and retrieve millions of hits. Why be alone with your thoughts when you can find everything you need online?

And in a society that suffers from extreme busyness, you might even wonder whether solitude is necessary at all.

But, I’d like to look at how I’ve applied solitude in my own life. Some of my most original ideas have emerged during the moments when I’ve allowed myself to do nothing.

Over the past 13 years of growing my company, JotForm, to reach five million users, I’ve had to make a number of high-stakes decisions that require creative thinking.

Finding innovative ways to solve problems wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t take the time to decompress.

I’m not saying that we can succeed without connecting and actively working toward what we want. But in those early days of building my business, it was essential to refresh my mind by regularly spending a significant amount of time alone.

Tuning out outside influences pushed me to be inventive in ways that I couldn’t have achieved by relying on others. And I continue to apply this philosophy today.

The freedom that comes with solitude

Collaboration is often praised as the key to success, but it’s only half the equation. We also need to be alone to attain the meditative silence that allows us to innovate and make good decisions.

In a Fast Company story from 2015, writer Jane Porter suggests that solitude can seem like a problem that needs to be solved. To underscore this idea, she points to a TED Talk by MIT researcher Sherry Turkle. 

“And so people try to solve [the problem of solitude] by connecting,” says Turkle. “But connection is more like a symptom than a cure.”

Turkle argues that when we’re not “on-demand” to others, we can free up mental space for bigger-picture projects. Being less available is also a powerful technique to stave off burnout.

So, rather than spending countless hours thumbing through social media, seek out moments of total disconnect.

You can’t expect to come up with your best and brightest ideas when you’re busy catering to other people’s needs, either. Achieving this balance requires mindfulness: be completely present when you’re with others, but prioritize moments of alone time throughout the day.

Consider designating specific times when you are off-limits to others. Maybe this means waking up an hour early before everyone else in your household or limiting your social commitments. The goal is to give each moment the respect it deserves.

Carving out time for solitary contemplation

American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.”

In other words, we’ll never know what we’re capable of unless we give ourselves space to think.

Sure, disconnecting from the outside world can feel intimidating, but it can be as simple as turning off device notifications during your lunch break or spending a few hours outdoors on the weekend instead of answering emails.

Setting aside time to be alone can help us to discover ourselves in ways we otherwise couldn’t access. That’s because we have room to explore both our weaknesses and our strengths.

When you tune out outside distractions, you’re challenging yourself to grow and expand. And like any muscle, strength only increases through some form of discomfort.

Growth takes deliberate observation

Keep an inventory of how often you let yourself be truly alone and not “on-demand” to anyone. More importantly, pay attention to when your most original ideas come to you. You’ll find that they’re likely the product of time spent in solitude.

By keeping track of these quiet moments, you can begin to see how they benefit your day-to-day productivity. Watch for helpful patterns and aim to repeat them.

Luckily, we don’t have to flee to Antarctica in order to find solitude. We can find all the answers we need right here, at this very moment — if only we allow ourselves to stop and listen.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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