Study after study tells us that people today feel increasingly disaffected and disconnected, longing for a deeper connection to insight and inspiration. We’re never out of touch—our colleagues shout at each other over our heads in open-plan cubicle farms, and we have hundreds of friends and fellow seekers available at the touch of a screen or the type of a tweet. But there’s a big difference between being connected to others and feeling connected to what drives us and brings us joy and satisfaction.
In today’s working world, solitude is in short supply. We are asked to work in increasingly public and open spaces, and are constantly bombarded with stimulus and noise, both human and inanimate in genesis. We are rarely physically alone, and when we are, we immediately reach for connection via social media channels and smartphone apps. But all this connectedness and time together isn’t making us feel more fulfilled or boosting our creativity. In fact, what we really need is time alone. Research has shown that time spent in solitary contemplation is necessary and critical for inspiration and creativity to flourish.
Seekers, writers and artists have known for centuries that they must spend time alone in order to create. Solitude gives us blank space and the freedom to come up with new approaches and points of view. Contrary to some of our current business practices, brainstorm meetings and group ideation exercises are actually the least effective ways to generate original thinking and new ideas. According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, a study conducted on over 800 teams concluded that the best ideas came from individuals working alone, rather than as part of a group. Ideas generated by one person working alone can be developed and fine-tuned in collaboration, but the solitude in which they were born is the essential element that we tend to overlook or cast aside.
In their fascinating new book, "Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind," authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire identify seeking solitude as one of the ten critical things that creative people do differently, and describe it as "giving the mind the space it needs to reflect, make new connections and find meaning."
So how can you make solitude a part of your life on a daily basis? A few things to consider:
Find a quiet space. Easier said than done in collaboration-focused professional settings? Maybe you just need to think differently about when you work. Consider getting into the office an hour (or more) before anyone else, so you can maximize that alone time and use it to your advantage.
Get outside. If private space is in short supply in your current workplace, alone time can be a solo walk or bike ride (use one of those loaner bikes we all offer our employees!). Weather-permitting, find a park bench or patch of grass.
Be unreachable. Credit for this one goes to Todd Henry, author of the upcoming Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need. The idea is that creativity is a resource that must be protected, and that time disconnected affords the opportunity to ruminate on new ideas and approaches. By being out of reach, we protect that sacred space to develop and polish our unique contributions.
Make reflection routine. As a chief strategy officer I worked with used to say to his team, "Don’t just do something, sit there!" He knew that their best insights came when they gave themselves time–and permission–to sit quietly and consider, rather than leaping to action or discourse. Get in the habit of sitting in stillness before you launch into a new project or assignment.
In the course of a normal day, the human brain receives an estimated 34 gigabytes of information from a variety of sensory sources. Spending time alone in quiet contemplation lets your mind wander away from that place of reaction and shifts the focus to big ideas and different ways of looking at things. Take time to discover what you alone can bring.
Laura Small is Vice President, Associate Human Resources Director at RPA.