Skip to main content


| January 23, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… the practice of being alone with your thoughts


When we think of solitude, if indeed we ever turn to that subject, we may be apprehensive and cringe at the thought of being alone and the silence that implies.  Researchers have noted that most people would prefer to do just about anything rather than be left alone with their thoughts.

Yet, solitude can be a positive and constructive engagement with oneself.  Many see it as a desirable state of being alone where you provide yourself with wonderful and sufficient company.  It’s a time you can use for reflection, for inner searching and growth, or for enjoyment.  Deep reading, deep work, renewing ourselves all require solitude. 

In her book Quiet, Susan Cain, said it this way:  “Solitude is a crucial and understated ingredient for creativity.”  And, years ago, Hemingway asserted it as well:  “solitude is essential for creative work.”  Emerson lived a significant portion of his life in solitude, which enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals.  And, Thoreau built a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived in the woods there for two years, two months, and two days writing his first book.  His experiences in simple living and self-sufficiency there inspired his later book, Walden.  Dickens averaged walking more than twelve miles each day through the Kent countryside and the streets of Victorian London.  His writings are the out-growth of spending time alone, doing solitary work, being in nature, and daydreaming.

More recently, for the past twenty years, English writer Sara Maitland, has been pursuing a fascination with silence and solitude, building a house on a wild moor in northern Galloway, Scotland.  There she lives with her dog and her neighbors are a household of Barn Owls, and she writes and prays and walks and is happy.  

While we don’t need to go to the extremes of Emerson or Thoreau or Maitland, neuroscience research does confirm that we all need periods of solitude to maximize our brain’s effectiveness.  Justin Talbot-Zorn and Leigh Martz write in their Harvard Review Article about contemporary individuals who cultivate solitude.  They include writers JK Rowling and Walter Isaacson, psychiatrist Carl Jung, California Governor Jerry Brown, Iowa Congressman Tim Ryan, American billionaire investor and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, and Bill George, former CEO of medical device maker Medtronic and now professor at the Harvard Business School.  And, many others have come to the same conclusion. 

In their book, Neuroscience for Leadership, Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, and Paul Brown write:  “Sometimes simply working on a problem, even with great skill and expertise, is not enough.  A familiar way of generating new concepts, ideas, or breakthroughs is the strategy of stopping work and doing something different, such as a walk in the woods, which serves to take attention away from the conscious efforts and allows more energy for activity under conscious awareness, with much greater capacity and access to a greater number of stored patterns or memories in different parts of the brain.”  This is our brain’s default network at work.  It “allows creative thought to flourish by transcending the present moment and environment, to ‘think outside the box’.”

Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, in his book Deep Work, describes his pattern of working in solitude (and without interruption) for 90 minutes and then taking a break for 30 minutes to restore the brain’s energy.  Similarly,  Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project argues that after a sustained period of work, we need to unplug to let our brain regain its equilibrium.

I’ve written on this subject from different points of view in previous Tuesday Readings – Our Busy, Busy, Busy, Brains! ;  Silence:  The need for peace and quiet; and Take a Break … you (we all) need one.  Here, I’ve come at this same set of issues from a more holistic point of view using the concept of solitude to bind together the ideas of needing time to work deeply alone without interruption, time for our brain’s default network to “think out of the box,” and time for our brain to regain its energy.

Some leaders I know, or know of, take one or more days each month or quarter for a personal “retreat” when they absent themselves from their office and home for a time of solitude.  They use this time for rest, reflection, uninterrupted work on major priorities, and for visioning and considering possible future states for their organization and strategic directions to get there.

To me, and I hope to you, the issue is clear.  We each need to work diligently to include the practice of solitude at appropriate places in our life.  The evidence is in.  If you do make this change to your calendar and in particular to your daily routine, you will experience significant changes in the way you work, in the work you are able to get done, and in your work with others.  If you give it a sincere try, I think you will be pleased with the results.
Perhaps you will take time this week to get started.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Hara Stroff Marano, What is Solitude?,, December 2016.
Jane Porter, How Solitude Can Change your Brain in Profound Ways, FastCompany, October 2015.
Susan Cain, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Broadway Books, 2013.
Jory MacKay, Is Solitude a Key Element of Creativity?,, March 2016.
Justin Talbot-Zorn, Leigh Marz, The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time, Harvard Business Review, March 2017. 
Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm, Paul Brown, Neuroscience for Leadership:  Harvesting the Brain Gain Advantage, Palgrave McMillan, 2015.
Cal Newport, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Hachette Book Group, January 2016.  (See animated book summary here and text summary here.)
Tony Schwartz, Relax!  You’ll be More Productive, New York Times, February 2013.