On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, then an untested one-term congressman, was sworn in as President. But before he even took office, the United States was thrown into an existential crisis. Several southern states seceded from the union and the country lurched towards an inevitable civil war.
Lincoln’s life quickly descended into chaos as politicians, aides, and military officials hounded him for decisions and answers. “Virtually from Lincoln’s first day in office,” wrote Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer, for The White House Historical Association, “a crush of visitors besieged the White House stairways and corridors, climbed through windows at levees, and camped outside his office door.” Advisers and lawmakers fought over Lincoln’s every waking moment, his attention pulled in so many directions that his mind became a cacophonous battleground.
With no space for his own thoughts, Lincoln began retreating to a quiet cottage. Although it was only a short horse ride from the White House, it was enough to give Lincoln temporary relief from the burdens of leadership. At the cottage, no one begged him for wartime funds or petitioned him for political favors. Instead, the young president could sit alone for hours each night, allowing his thoughts to percolate.
In the quiet of the cottage, Lincoln grappled with the issue of slavery. And it was there that he carefully crafted the Emancipation Proclamation, paving the way to freedom for more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans.
Could Lincoln have completed such an intellectually demanding task in the turbulent atmosphere of the White House?
Although most of us are not facing pressures of statehood, we can probably all relate to managing dissenting demands that pull our attention in a hundred directions each day. But it doesn't have to be that way.
In fact, many experts recommend pursuing solitude in order to boost our productivity and do our best work. By getting away from the noise and allowing our thoughts to wander, our cognitive processes sharpen and our thinking improves.
Our hyperactive minds
Very few of us actually have the responsibilities of Lincoln, yet we still manage to fill our days with distractions, interruptions, and diversions. Our media usage has ballooned and our screen time has skyrocketed as we have trained our brains to distrust quiet and bask in chaotic hyperactivity. Of the average five and a half hours of daily leisure time we each have, just 20 minutes is spent thinking.
Indeed, when given the choice between a sharp electric shock and sitting alone with our thoughts, a quarter of women and two-thirds of men will opt for the pain.
But Dr. Matthew H. Bowker, a psychoanalytic researcher at Medaille College, says we cannot condemn all cases of hyperactivity. He contrasts voluntarily maximalist lifestyles with involuntarily demanding schedules.
Consider the actor Mark Wahlberg, who famously shared his schedule last year. Wahlberg wakes at 2:30 am and proceeds to cram his day with dozens of activities, including two gym workouts, a round of golf, work calls, and a cryotherapy chamber recovery session. Every minute is accounted for and used for something. But this, stresses Bowker, is a voluntary decision. We must also consider those for whom hyperactivity is not a choice. “I think of the single parent working three jobs who, when he has a spare moment, must clean the house, cook for tomorrow’s dinner, or just sleep,” says Bowker in an interview with Dropbox. But whether through choice or circumstance, the result is the same: when our lives are full to the brim, our minds deal solely with outside stimuli to the detriment of our own thoughts.
If we don’t give ourselves time to relax we invite a barrage of unpleasant consequences: heightened stress levels, decreased attention spans, and constant anxiety. “More frighteningly,” says Bowker, “without solitude, our capacity for self-contact atrophies.” In other words, we lose the ability to ever actually be quiet and connect with our own thoughts. “We come to feel that we are pinballs in a giant machine, zipping around but exerting no real control over those mysterious forces that shoot us up, down, left, and right.”
But we don’t have to tolerate a life of external distraction and interruption. By cultivating an appetite for solitude, making it an important activity and part of a routine, we can retrain our brains and give ourselves the space we need to reflect, and grow.
What can solitude do for you?
Achieving solitude is not as simple as removing yourself from the company of others. Whereas isolation is a physical description of where you are in relation to other people, solitude is a state of mind. “[It’s] the internal state of being while alone,” says Bowker. “It means that one is alive, or comes alive, in that place of aloneness, where one is not distracted by or responding to external stimuli.” This type of thinking is not necessarily unstructured, though. People might work on specific problems or challenges in solitude. The key is that they engage with their own thoughts without any intrusive external voices. Being in that state, even for a relatively short period of time, can hugely benefit cognition.
Bowker suggests that solitude frees up our mental workspaces. By clearing out the clutter, we create the mental capacity to hold several different ideas in our minds at once. “Playing around with these ideas, seeing how they fit together, and remarking how they relate to oneself and one’s feelings is a part of what solitude is about,” Bowker says.
And the benefits of solitude extend beyond practical considerations of working memory.
According to Dr Marcus Raichle, professor of radiology and neurology at Washington University, something interesting happens to our brains when we are in solitude. When there are no external distractions, several areas of the brain become more active. These areas all focus on self-referential processes like information recall and evaluation. In other words, solitude allows us to unpack everything we have learned, evaluate that information, and make our own judgements.
How to reboot your thinking
In the mid-1980s, Microsoft was evolving into one of the world’s most important technology companies. What had started as two friends operating out of a garage had grown into a bona fide company employing hundreds of people. But Gates, a first-time founder, was struggling to keep up. Every day he was hounded for decisions. He knew a single mistake could spell disaster for his fledgling company. So Gates began taking what he called Think Weeks.
During his Think Weeks, Gates would escape to a secret cabin in the Pacific Northwest. Like Lincoln, a century earlier, Gates isolated himself from distractions and interruptions, and allowed his thoughts to roam unfettered. In his cabin, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of cedar forest, Gates would read research papers and evaluate their potential impact.
Several of Microsoft’s greatest inventions came directly from Gates’ Think Weeks. After a Think Week in 1995, for example, Gates wrote a memo titled “The Internet Tidal Wave”, which correctly predicted the meteoric rise of the internet and precipitated the creation of Internet Explorer.
But for businesses, it can be difficult to justify setting aside time for your employees to just think. Bowker, however, says this is precisely what we should do—even if it’s just a couple of hours per month. “If employees could spend a bit of time in solitude,” says Bowker, “they would find that they have more energy, are less depleted, and can perform for the rest of the day at higher levels.”
Bowker says that even one morning per month spent in solitude, just 4% of someone’s time—from a morning coffee to just before lunch, for example—can make a huge difference.
Although Gates implemented Think Weeks as part of his professional schedule, there are prime opportunities for solitude scattered throughout our personal lives. Advertising maestro James Webb Young, for example, attributed many of his best creative ideas to his quiet morning showers. As the water tumbled over his face and ears, the outside world disappeared and his thoughts began to wander. And Bowker describes his car as his “personal, metal solitude-chamber.” When he’s driving familiar routes, he switches off the radio, flicks his brain onto autopilot, and allows his mind to meander in blissful solitude.
Identifying opportunities for solitude is only half of the story. Solitude is only valuable if you have cultivated interest and enjoyment in being with yourself. And that takes practice. “One must invest in developing a kind of relationship with oneself,” says Bowker. “If you already enjoy spending time with yourself, then you may be in a good place to start practicing solitude, and even if it does not come easily at first, over time it will become easier, more enjoyable, and more enriching for your life.”
Incubator of the spirit
As CGP Grey lamented in his video essay on distraction: “If your mind is forever filled with the voices of others, how do you know what you think about anything?” It is a worrying question. If your entire existence is a mosaic of podcasts, books, television shows, and news, where is the space for your voice?
Granting our minds peace gives our thoughts the opportunity to be heard. Thoughts like the Emancipation Declaration or the rise of the Internet. And while few of us can afford a dedicated thinking cottage or log cabin, we can all achieve focused solitude—even if it’s just in the shower, in the car, or walking to work.