Why being alone is good for you, and how to retreat without seeming rude

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha
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We spend our days conversing with colleagues, our evenings catching up with friends and family, and every in-between second scrolling through our social media news feeds to see if there's anything we've missed out. We never need to be alone, if we choose. But we rarely have a moment to ourselves and is that a good thing?

New research shows that private alone time is just as important as human interaction. 

A study published in the October issue of Harvard Business Review which explored workplaces around the world, found that today more than 70% of employees work in an open office environment and the size of their individual work spaces are shrinking, however the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk is on the rise (increasing by 16% since 2008) and the number of those who say they don’t have access to quiet places to do focused work is up by 13%. 

That is because people need to focus alone or in pairs to generate ideas or process information. The more demanding the collaborative task is, the more individuals need punctuating moments of private time to think and recharge, no matter whether they consider themselves an extrovert (people who gain energy from being with others) or an introvert (people who feel energised from spending time alone). Test which you are here.

"If you’ve partied your extroverted self out for the weekend, you might want to spend Monday night completely alone in your pyjamas reading a book or watching Netflix. If you find that your co-workers are distracting even though you enjoy being social, you might find it nice to take up some introverted qualities like brainstorming alone," explained a recent report which looks at the similarities between extroverts and introverts in Medical Daily

From our open-plan offices to our mobile devices, mankind has developed a lifestyle that facilitates the maximum amount of communication and collaboration. Restaurants have large booths and tables for two, but none that cater for diners who want to sit in their own company; non-work sanctuaries such as the bedroom and bathroom are now places we can reply to our work emails, and social platforms such as Instagram and Twitter mean be can be a part of a conversation with complete strangers. We are in constant chatter mode. 

But it's about time we start to quieten down because there are huge benefits in spending time alone. Just you. Here's what being your own company can do for you...

Boost your creativity and productivity

The Harvard Business Report study which examines peoples working patterns found that in order to generate ideas and process information efficiently, people need to focus alone or in pairs. The more demanding the task, the more individuals need punctuating moments of private time to think or recharge. 

This is backed up by decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases, says Susan Caine author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. "People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure," she adds. 

Historically, philosophers, artists, and spiritual leaders have reaped the benefits of alone time. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Bhudda sought solitude and then returned to share with others what they found.

Meanwhile, intellectuals from Mozart ("When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly") to Albert Einstein ("On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination") famously worked at their best in the periods they were alone.

Improve memory

Alone time can help you retain information. Joseph Murray, an associate professor of education at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania who has studied university student development for more than 20 years, found alone time is just as important as mixing with peers and taking part in activities. "In this culture of busyness and with all this social networking, students have the experience that every waking hour should be spent doing something," he says. "If all we are doing is engaging, engaging, engaging, we lose that piece that transforms experience into learning."

Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has also found that memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually. Sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they're reacting to it.

2011 study by sociologists from New York University and University and Virginia concluded same effect. Students who studied solo had better recall and got better grades than students who did their studying with a group, according to their research published in the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Strengthen relationships

A study by the Harvard psychology department found that spending a certain amount of time alone can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals. Meanwhile, people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” says John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book Loneliness summarised a career’s worth of his research on negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others. "You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break."

Help overcome depression

Researchers have found that time spent in solitude can ward off depression in adolescents. A 1997 study by the Society for Research in Child Development found that although teenagers didn't describe solitude as a positive experience, many reported increased feelings of well-being afterwards.

John Cacioppo adds that as long as time alone is not motivated by fear or social anxiety, spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. 

Let's retreat: five tips on how to get some time to yourself

Disconnect from technology

Sever every means of connecting with others such as email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, any instant messaging platform such as Whatsapp and Skype. Turn off your mobile device, tablet and computer unless you're going to write or create something on it. If that's the case, disconnect from the internet, close your web browser and any other means of communication. Inform your close friends and family that you are taking a short digital detox and that you're not going to be able to reply for a duration of time.

In study of solitary thinking by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, participants at home were asked to pick a time when they didn't feel rushed, to put away all electronic devices and sit doing nothing. "They couldn't even go for six to 12 minutes" without being distracted by their mobile devices, says Professor Wilson. "Those results suggest the attraction of our devices may be found simply in their availability, offering a heady escape when our animal brains lack the proper physical engagement."

"Our minds have evolved to a point where we do have this alternative; we're the only animals that can turn off engagement and turn into our own heads," he says. "But we still have that mammalian brain that wants to engage."

Seek alone time at work

While abandoning our team to work in a quiet space is rarely an option, you can create your very own solitude zone at your desk. Set up a rule at work, such as: from 10am-1pm, no one can talk to one another (unless it is something urgent).

Alternatively, throw on a pair of headphones and inform your colleagues that you need an hour or two of uninterrupted time to focus on your task.

Wake up one hour earlier, once a week

The most difficult part is finding a time away from the people around you at home. The opportune moment is first thing in the morning before everyone wakes. It doesn't particularly matter what you do, if you go for a walk, read a book or drink hot tea and watch the sky brighten up, so long as you're taking a break from interacting and communicating you will reap the benefits of me-time.

Take yourself on a date

Yes, schedule in an evening or weekend with yourself and don't let anyone tag along. Plan a place to visit, whether its an exhibition viewing, a new coffee shop you've wanted to check out or a restaurant that's always been on your must-try list, and set a realistic date and time to do it.

Don't feel embarrassed about exploring a new place by yourself. Dining alone is on the rise in the UK with one if four diners eating out alone more than once a month, according to hospitality consulting and research firm survey by HospitalityGEM. If you're feeling particularly anxious avoid extremely busy places, which will help you feel at peace and not be distracted by the chitter chatter from your table neighbours.

Book a solo travel trip

A quick poll of Stylist readers earlier this year revealed that flying solo is becoming an increasingly popular way to spend a holiday. Travelling alone can be an exhilarating, fulfilling and mindful experience. For those who feel nervous at the prospect of filling the days and nights, enrolling on a course or workshop to learn a new skill could be the answer. Here, we handpick ten travel experiences for you to book this year, covering everything from crime fiction writing to learning to surf and bear-watching expeditions.

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha

Sejal Kapadia Pocha covers stories about everything from women’s issues to cult foods. She describes herself as a balance between Hermione and Luna Lovegood.