Full Life Reflections

Striving for happiness, peace, and fulfillment in a chaotic world

I’m currently reading Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Even though I have only read a third of this book thus far, I highly recommend it. I have experienced a number of “aha moments” and powerful insights, some of which I may share here as I process them and apply them to my life. We’ll start with a concept that most of us probably don’t associate with technology, digital devices, or minimalism: the importance of solitude. After reading Newport’s thesis, it makes perfect sense to me how solitude relates to technology and it’s very much in line with my 2019 “freedom” theme and many of the other topics I write about on this blog.

importance of solitude

Solitude is very important for our well-being – and it doesn’t always look like this…

What is Solitude and Why Does It Matter?

As someone who spends at least half of my time alone, I would have thought that I experience more than enough solitude. If I go by the Merriam-Webster definition of solitude as “the state or situation of being alone,” this is true, but Newport presented an alternate definition that has serious implications in today’s digital economy. Newport defined solitude as

A subjective state in which your mind is free from the input of other minds.”

Given that we can easily be connected with others 24/7 with a quick finger swipe or mouse click, many of us are rarely free from the input of other minds. Even if we’re not texting regularly or spending hours on social media (the daily average is now 2 hours and 22 minutes!), easy access to podcasts, television, and radio often result in very little time spent engaging with our own thoughts.

Why does this matter? There are three crucial benefits afforded to us by solitude:

  • New ideas
  • An understanding of ourselves
  • Closeness to others (this is paradoxical but true!)

Being free from the input of other minds gives us the time and space necessary for creative inspiration, self-reflection, and appreciation of those closest to us. Spending time alone – truly alone – can help affirm our bonds to others, and alternating social interaction with regular doses of solitude makes for a healthy and well-adjusted human being. All of this is now at risk as a result of technological advances -and specifically the smartphone, which has led to a condition Newport has termed “solitude deprivation.”

Solitude Deprivation

Solitude deprivation is defined as

A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”

Modern technology affords us the ability to be continuously distracted from our own thoughts. The situations that used to provide us with pockets of solitude – waiting in line, going for a run, doing the dishes, etc. – are now occupied by glancing at our phones. In fact, the average American checks their phone every 12 minutes, for a total of 80 times per day!

Not only are we less likely to experience the benefits of solitude outlined above, solitude deprivation also has some serious side effects, including increased anxiety. When Newport spoke at a well-known university before writing Digital Minimalism, an administrator told him about the dramatic increase in mental health center visits for what used to be a relatively rare affliction. Seemingly all of a sudden, many students were suffering from anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. This increase coincided with the first incoming class of students who had grown up with smartphones and social media. These students were sending and processing messages on a constant basis, which seemed to be negatively impacting their brain chemistry.

This connection was validated by psychology professor Jean Twenge, who has been studying the generational differences in American youth for over twenty-five years. She noticed that rates of depression and suicide had skyrocketed among members of “iGen,” those who were born between 1995 and 2012. These shifts corresponded almost exactly to the time when American smartphone ownership became commonplace and could not be explained by other potential contributing factors. As Twenge shares in her September 2017 Atlantic article, the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and suffer from loneliness. They’re also less likely to get enough sleep, plus they spend less time with friends and go on fewer dates.

While most adults are not as constantly connected to their smartphones as members of iGen, they still suffer from milder forms of solitude deprivation that result in low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives. While many people will attribute their anxiety to factors like the 2009 recession, the 2016 election, or just “normal adulthood stress,” it’s clear that the lack of time and space alone with our thoughts is contributing to our distress. We need solitude to thrive as human beings for the reasons mentioned above. As Newport succinctly puts it, “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”

My Experience with Solitude Deprivation

I had no idea that a lack of solitude was a problem for me before reading Newport’s book. Rather, I thought a big reason for my low mood was because I spend so much time alone and don’t interact with others often enough. I never considered that the podcasts I listen to for entertainment, learning, and “company” could be to my detriment and I certainly never thought they could be responsible for my increased anxiety. I also thought it was simply mindless amusement to scroll through Reddit occasionally when I wanted to take a break or get a little “downtime.” I considered this site to be preferable to Facebook because I mostly act as a “voyeur” there and don’t feel like anyone is expecting my engagement.

I have been a lot more anxious in recent years, but I attributed that to loneliness, hormonal shifts, health issues, and life uncertainties. But what if it’s simpler than all of that? And what if my consistent insomnia also has to do with my technology usage and the associated solitude deprivation? Could cutting down on my digital time help me to achieve increased peace, happiness, and freedom? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? Yes, that would be a good thing for all of us, but how do we go about reclaiming some solitude in our lives?

Ways to Reclaim Solitude

After outlining the dangers of solitude deprivation and its insidiousness in modern society, Newport shared several simple and effective practices to help us reclaim more solitude in our lives.

Leave Your Phone at Home

We don’t need to always have our cellphones on hand as if they were an additional appendage. After all, people got along just fine without them for many years and some of us are old enough to remember those times. Most of the time, the presence of a cellphone is not vital to our daily existence. Newport recommends that we regularly spend some time away from our phones on most days. This could take the form of running a quick errand without your phone or leaving it in your car while you enjoy a meal out with your spouse or a friend. If you do encounter any sort of emergency, your phone will be close by, or you could always borrow a phone from someone else should you absolutely need one. But it can be helpful to remember that most emergencies aren’t.

Take Long Walks (Sans Phone)

Walking is one of the best sources of solitude, but people usually have their phones with them on walks these days. The best walks are long walks, as they allow us ample time alone with our thoughts and often lead to creative bursts and problem-solving ideas. While we walk, we’re able to reflect on various aspects of our lives and unwind from the stress of work or family obligations. Newport also recommends talking long walks alone, preferably in scenic places, without your phone. If you’re unable to leave your phone at home for logistical reasons, one idea is to carry a backpack and put your phone at the bottom – or simply turn it off while you’re walking.

“Write Letters to Yourself”

This is Newport’s version of keeping a journal or maintaining a notebook of ideas, reflections, goals, and areas of focus. Most people who journal nowadays do so online or via a smartphone app, but it’s all too easy to become distracted by all of the “shiny objects” available with a quick click or finger swipe. Journaling in long hand is a lost art, but it’s a powerful way to incorporate solitude and introspection into your life.

How I’m Reducing Solitude Deprivation

I know that Newport introduces additional digital minimalism suggestions as the book progresses, but as I said, I have only read a third of the book thus far. One thing that he recommends is a thirty day “digital detox,” which can look different for various people depending upon how they define their individual parameters. I will likely take this challenge on soon and I will surely write about it. I have already taken a lot of steps to decrease my dependence upon technology, but clearly it’s not enough given my solitude deprivation and increased anxiety…

Removing Social Media Apps

I already did some digital detox last year as part of my “essential” theme. I removed most social media apps from my phone at that time or earlier, but I recently got rid of Reddit as well because I found myself spending too much time scrolling through that feed. I can still peruse Reddit and other social media sites on my computer or tablet, but I’m less likely to gobble up tons of time that way.  I haven’t missed having Facebook and Messenger on my phone and have no intention of adding them back. I still spend some time on Facebook, but only on my computer and a lot less often than I used to (two or three times per week vs. daily or multiple times per day usage).

It’s hard for me to believe that just over three years ago, I used to spend upwards of twenty hours a week moderating the group I started, reading and responding to Facebook threads, and messaging with friends there. But the subconscious desire to escape my thoughts and pacify myself is strong, so replacement “pacifiers” have come into play, including the aforementioned Reddit and podcasts. My Reddit usage is way down since I removed the app from my phone, but I still peruse the internet quite a bit and spend hours each day listening to podcasts.

Decreasing Web Browsing, Podcast Listening, and Gmail Usage

I just took the podcast and Google icons off of my smartphone screen. Now I will have to access these programs via the apps menu instead of by a quick click. I did this with Gmail last week and I have found myself resisting the “twitch” to check email multiple times per day. I don’t even get all that much email anymore and very few time-sensitive messages, so it was just a habit to which I had grown accustomed.

I’m considering removing Gmail from my phone completely, as I almost never respond to messages there. I don’t do well typing on the phone and prefer to write to people on my computer whenever possible. The podcasts will be a bit trickier and I think I need some rules/guidelines to cut back on my time there. I would like to add an hour or two of solitude back into my days, whether it be from taking walks alone or doing household tasks quietly without having a background soundtrack on.

How Does Music Impact Solitude?

One question I have that Newport didn’t address is how listening to music impacts solitude. I have found that I often get creative inspiration while working out at the gym and I always listen to music on my iPod there. Does music count as being exposed to “the minds of others”? Does it make a difference whether or not there are lyrics involved vs. just instrumentals? I’m willing to cut down on listening to music, too, if it negatively impacts solitude, but I’m just not sure if that’s the case. If any of you have insights about this issue, or if you know what Newport has to say about it, please let me know. Perhaps this is covered later on in Digital Minimalism, but I haven’t seen anything about it yet.

Conclusion and Your Thoughts?

Anxiety is a big problem for many of us. I addressed my own issues with anxiety and depression in a three part-series previously (see HERE, HERE, and HERE) and presented my suggestions and those from readers for cultivating increased happiness and peace in our lives. I knew that Facebook caused me anxiety, which is why I have continually decreased the time I spend there, but I had no idea that listening to podcasts, mindlessly scrolling through Reddit, and reading entertainment articles on Google could produce a similar effect.

Now that I know about the benefits of solitude and the dangers of solitude deprivation – including increased anxiety and insomnia, I’m going to work on reclaiming some of my lost solitude. I look forward to quiet walks, silent chores, and continuing my regular journaling and meditation practices. I hope that finding more time for solitude in my day-to-day life will help me to be calmer, happier, more creative, and more engaged with life and those around me.

I’d love to get your thoughts on this article. Here are a few questions to spark your insights, but feel free to comment however you’d like:

  • How much real solitude (as per Cal Newport’s definition above) do you get on a regular basis?
  • Do you feel that you suffer from solitude deprivation?
  • If so, what do you see as the negative impacts in your life?
  • How do you plan to reclaim some more solitude for yourself?
  • What additional suggestions do you have for increasing solitude?

Thanks for reading and I look forward to whatever you have to share.

22 thoughts on “The Importance of Solitude

  1. Terry says:

    How much real solitude (as per Cal Newport’s definition above) do you get on a regular basis?

    I’ve never counted it, but I get several hours per day of solitude without input from other minds. It’s mostly while driving or crafting (quilting, sewing, knitting, etc.). I tend to listen to podcasts while cleaning the house, so that time doesn’t count. The funny thing is that I experience the relaxation of solitude when reading a book (still an input from another mind), but not when reading online conversations.

    Do you feel that you suffer from solitude deprivation?

    No. I’m an only child, profound introvert and INTJ. I have always been aware of my need for solitude and have always arranged for it in my life.

    If so, what do you see as the negative impacts in your life?

    When I was home schooling my children there was a certain amount of solitude deprivation. I am not an anxious person, but I did find that I got irritable and lacked reserves of patience/coping if I wasn’t careful to put my needs first sometimes.

    How do you plan to reclaim some more solitude for yourself?

    I am currently limiting my time on the ipad, and only listen to podcasts while cleaning.

    What additional suggestions do you have for increasing solitude?

    Put it on your calendar. I get several hours of solitude per day, but I also take Wednesday evenings off and spend them alone.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for answering my questions, Terry. It sounds like you’re getting enough solitude on a regular basis. I know what you mean about feeling relaxed while reading books but not online conversations, as I feel the same way. Like you, I am a profound introvert and have always prioritized solitude, but I didn’t know that I was experiencing solitude deprivation in recent years because of technology. I spend a lot of time alone, but not without input from the minds of others, but I’m going to change that. Good idea to limit time using your tablet and listening to podcasts and to have an evening that you always spend alone. We could all be well-served by such a practice!

  2. Maureen says:

    This is a really interesting topic! thanks for writing about it.

    I would guess that listening to music with lyrics doesn’t count as solitude. You’re still listening to words that another person is expressing, and for me, music has a similar effect to youtube, etc (distracting me from negative thoughts). I don’t listen to instrumental music often, so I’m not sure about that.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you liked this post, Maureen! You have a good point regarding the music. My husband and I were talking about it and he thought that maybe if we have heard the songs many times before (like my gym playlist), it may serve more as background noise and not interfere with my solitude so much. I can see how it could go either way with music. I don’t listen to instrumental music, either, but I did wonder if maybe that would somehow be different. I would love to be able to ask Cal Newport this question! I may see if there’s a way to do so…

      1. Terry says:

        I don’t play music during my alone time because it influences my mood, while the point of solitude is to feel what I feel without extra influence.

        1. Debbie Roes says:

          I see what you mean, Terry… I think it’s probably best to avoid music when one is trying to have some solitude time. I think so many people (including me) are so used to having some type of noise or distraction most of the time, that it’s hard to make a shift to having more quiet time. I’m working on doing it, but it hasn’t been easy thus far.

  3. Sally says:

    Hi Debbie

    I listen to relaxing spa music, as background music, which I find soothing and calming.

    I have a low tolerance for noise, so I also play this on my iphone wearing earphones to cut out noise on public transport and at bedtime to help me sleep.

    I have created a relaxing playlist which includes “The Sounds of Monterey Bay” by Randy Petersen, “Zen and the Art of Relaxation” by Anzan, “Celtic Spa” by Carlyle Fraser, “Body & Soul Anti-Stress Music to balance your life” by various artists.

    I also listen to these free Progress Hypnosis downloads to help me to relax, de-stress, feel better, eat better, switch off and sleep:

    https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCrwEMKhsjY8P9-GuIKMYVrQ

    Hope this may be of help to you too.

    Love Sally

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your music playlists and the link to the hypnosis downloads, Sally. I haven’t heard of the artists you mentioned, but I like the idea of anything that can help me to sleep better. I have a low tolerance for noise, too (which probably doesn’t surprise you since we’re so alike…), so I will keep your suggestions in mind. I’m sure others who are reading this can also benefit from what you shared.

      1. Sally says:

        Hi Debbie,

        If you are interested in finding out more about relaxing music, here is a link to “The Sounds of Monterey Bay CD”, which would be a good one to start with, it is in association with Monterey Bay Aquarium:

        https://www.amazon.com/Sounds-Monterey-Bay-Reissue/dp/B00006SG4Y

        “Product Description
        Relaxing music and the incredible ambiance of Monterey Bay come together in a one of a kind CD. Music that refreshes the soul and provides a listening experience that will keep you coming back for more. A fusion of acoustic guitar, woodwinds and piano complement the natural rhythm of gentle surf and West Coast atmosphere. Once you add this gem to your music collection you’ll reconnect with your West Coast groove. Close your eyes and you’ll be there.”

        It has great reviews, here is one of them:

        “5.0 out of 5 stars

        What a great CD! I have been looking for the right mix and balance of soothing music and nature sound for years. I finally found one that strikes the right tone in every songs. If you have been to Monterey, you will recognize the sound of waves, dolphins, and other sea creatures. The Humpback whale, sea birds, and other animal sounds are sophisticatedly blended in the melodies. The CD gives you soft, soothing, and stress-relieving effects. I love it.”

        Whilst I haven’t been to Monterey Bay, years ago my husband and I stayed in an overwater villa at Soneva Gili Six Senses Resort & Spa in the Maldives. It is a “No news, No shoes” tiny remote island for peace and relaxation, which you would probably enjoy. They had “The Sounds of Monterey Bay” CD playing on the Bose surround sound in the villa, as it was soothing and relaxing and blended in with the water sounds and all the fish swimming around our water villa, so we bought the CD. Every time my husband and I listen to it, it relaxes us and transports us back to that magical place. We play it at weekends to relax us when we are spending time at home and at bedtime to help us both sleep.

        With regards to the free Progressive Hypnosis downloads, I think you will find them useful. I find it hard to switch off and relax and these guided meditations are wonderful, as they always make me fall asleep and the positive hypnosis messages still work on a subconscious level even if you are asleep. I do these whenever I am feeling stressed and anxious, during the day and at bedtime. I pick different topics and different durations, depending on what my soul needs at that time and wake up feeling refreshed and calmer.

        If you do try any of these suggestions, I would be interested to know whether they helped you.

        Love Sally

        1. Debbie Roes says:

          Thanks for sharing the link to the relaxing music CD, Sally. I have been to Monterey Bay Aquarium a few times and really enjoyed it. It was years ago… I grew up about 2 hours away from there (in the San Francisco Bay Area). The description sounds very inviting and I’m going to seriously consider buying it. That’s great that you and your husband visited the Maldives, and the place where you stayed sounds wonderful. I’m sure I would love it there, especially with the “no shoes, no news” motto (maybe they should add “no phones” or “no notifications”!). I’m going to try the progressive hypnosis downloads, as I have been meditating fairly regularly and I like to try new options there. I definitely have insomnia issues, so doing something like that at bedtime would likely serve me well. Sleep meditations have been hit and miss for me, but we often have to try multiple things to find what will work for us. I appreciate your sharing what has helped you and I hope it will help others here, too (including maybe me!).

  4. Krissie says:

    This is such an interesting topic, and left me with lots to think about. I’ve always used my smartphone as just a phone never with notification s or use the apps. It leaves that part of my life freed up. Getting the odd call is annoying enough sometimes, never mind the scrolling. So for me the phone just sits in my bag mostly for emergency calls or the odd call. At home I have recently discovered podcast s….. and found myself feeling overwhemed looking through lists of them. I usually end up listening to about one or 2 of yhem a week but the list somehow makes me feel anxious, although I’ve never been able to figure out why. Maybe this article is the explanation I’ve been looking for. Books real ones, leave me feeling relaxed, as does some music on cds never on my tablet or computer. Having said all that I still feel v restless when just sitting and not looking or reading on my tablet or computer. Your articles are amazing Debbie, and always leave me with lots to contemplate.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      It sounds like you have been wise with your smartphone usage, Krissie, which is great. In regards to the podcasts, I used to get anxious when I saw the little numbers of how many episodes I hadn’t listened to. Once I turned those off (I think they’re called “badges”), I felt less anxious, but I still have too many podcasts in my feed and I need to let some of them go. Like you, I also feel restless when I’m not actively doing something, but I’m working on having some downtime when I can just “be.” It hasn’t been easy yet, though… I’m so glad you are enjoying my articles!

  5. Tara C says:

    I pretty much ignore my phone, it goes dead regularly, it’s my iPad that’s the addiction. I should probably remove all but the most critical things from my Facebook feed, as I feel that I spend too many hours looking at it and email. That said, I do have at least two hours, usually more, of true solitude daily, as I walk the dog out in the park for an hour a day, walk to and from my yoga classes (20 minutes each way) and never read or look at devices when I am on public transport (I love to peoplewatch). But I do compulsively pick up the iPad to deal with boredom and anxiety, as a distraction.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad to hear that you have some good pockets of solitude in your life, Tara. I can imagine how having a dog would facilitate that, but I still see plenty of people scrolling through their phones while walking their dogs. I’ve struggled with spending too much time on my tablet, too, but I mostly just use it for reading while on my elliptical and at bedtime now. Yes, Facebook can become “bloated” very quickly and it can be helpful to pare down. I have pared down quite a bit, but could stand to do more. I think that MAYBE my Facebook anxiety would be much less if I had a more curated feed, but I’m not sure…

  6. Jenn says:

    Another very helpful and enlightening post (and comments).

    As an INFJ, I choose to spend plenty of time alone, but other than when I’m writing about fictional lives, I’d say I’m rarely alone with my thoughts. My podcasts, the television shows I’ve recorded… I have tended to treat them like items to cross off on my things-to-do list, to leave digital space for more items. Not so much these days with television, but podcasts. To the point that—with the exception of Gretchen Rubin’s podcast—I was listening to the ones I felt compelled to listen to (on writing) and saving the ones I truly wanted to listen to. “The list somehow makes me feel anxious” so resonates with me. After reading your blog, I deleted more than 5 GB of podcasts.

    Like Terry, I find that reading a book (fiction or memoir) relaxes me. It’s sort of an escape to another world, but a quiet one and my engagement is entirely within my control.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post, Jenn. I have appreciated all of the comments, including yours. I used to treat my TV shows and podcasts like to-do list items, too. I’m not really sure what changed that for me, but now I’m more okay with deleting things without watching or listening to them or simply having longer queues (I think my podcast queue is much too long at the moment). I sometimes still subscribe to podcasts that I “should” listen to as well, and I can feel guilty when I pick something less highbrow to listen to. Good for you for deleting 5 GB of podcasts! After reading your comment, I unsubscribed from a few podcasts, but I’m going to delete a bunch of downloads, too. You have inspired me 🙂

      Regarding reading, I got away from reading fiction for years, although I used to really enjoy it. Being in a book club has brought me back to it, but I still like nonfiction, too. I definitely find reading books a lot more relaxing than doing anything digital, for the reasons you mentioned.

  7. Tonya Trow says:

    The definition of solitude “A subjective state in which your mind is free from the input of other minds.” really made me think. Like you I’m alone a lot, but I’m always on the computer. I think I’ll make it a point to have a period of solitude everyday. It will be interesting to see if I notice any changes.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I spend far too much time on my computer, too, Tonya, and I didn’t realize the impact of that until recently. Cal Newport’s definition of solitude (I think he originally got it from someone else, but he expands upon it a lot in his book) really made me think, too, which I why I decided to write about it. I had NO idea that I of all people would suffer from solitude deprivation, and I wouldn’t have thought you did, either. I’m going to integrate more solitude into my life, too. I hope it helps both of us!

  8. Katrina says:

    I’ve had to give this quite a lot of thought since it was a completely new concept for me. My idea of solitude was always to be without people around and no one calling on the phone. But it almost always included reading a book! So that right there seems to indicate an almost continuous state of solitude deprivation under Newport’s “other minds” definition. Yet I am never more at peace than when I’ve had a week alone with my books.

    I am lucky in that I’ve never heard the siren call of the cell phone. I was a late and reluctant adopter and I still only use it for emergencies. I am one of those old people who rolls their eyes and says “what is the world coming to?” whenever I see people walking down the street staring at their phones, or worse yet two people sitting across from each other, both looking at their phones! I do spend time on the computer and when I’m not working I sometimes succumb to a binge of a Netflix/Hulu/Prime series. I can see that becoming a stress cycle if I’m already at a low point, which then would have the added effect of depriving me of solitude, which would feed into the stress, etc.

    My issue with solitude right now is that after working at home for so many years, my recent return to the real life workplace is a real shock to my system. I did realize it was coming but wasn’t quite sure how to prepare for it. I’m surrounded by people talking and interacting all day long and it is an incredibly energy drain! I am lucky that over the years I’ve been able to create a very quiet, calming atmosphere at home so I can recover a bit in the evenings. Interestingly, I have no inclination to check any social media or even look at a computer other than to check to email from my parents when I get home, so I suppose my exhaustion is a blessing in that way.

    Isn’t it interesting how this need for solitude is such an integral part of ourselves yet still so hard to understand and tend to? It’s good to keep learning about it.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Your idea of solitude is very similar to mine, Katrina. I didn’t realize that reading or listening to podcasts would lead me into “solitude deprivation,” but the effects are definitely there. Good for you for not falling into the smartphone addiction trap. I roll my eyes and have the same though when I see everyone glued to their phones, but I use mine too much at times, too. It’s tough to moderate the use of such compelling devices, so it’s good that you never got on that train.

      I can imagine it’s difficult to go back into a real workplace after many years of working at home. I can’t imagine doing that myself, although I can also see how it could be good for me. I’m glad your home is your sanctuary and allows you to recharge. I hope you are better adjusted to your new circumstance soon. I’m glad you found the concepts in this post interesting.

  9. Sam says:

    Debbie, this is perhaps the most important post you’ve written so far. I’m going to read the book. Thanks as always, even more this time.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m so glad you found this post helpful, Sam, and I’m also glad you’re planning to read the book. I’m still reading it (my husband and I are reading it together and that tends to take longer) and am having a lot of aha moments. I’m sure I will write another post related to the book again soon.

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