As we start to see the return of connectivity—regulations lifting, offices reopening, and relationships re-forming, there’s one relationship that risks fading into the background: Our relationship with ourselves.
Over the past year, many of us have had no choice but to cultivate an extensive relationship with ourselves by virtue of increased time spent alone. And while “too much” alone time can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, or high stress (if you are experiencing any of these conditions, we encourage you to reach out to your company’s Employee Assistance Program, a counselor, pastor, or other trusted friend), there is much to be gained from alone time when you approach it with the right mindset.
When balanced with connectedness, studies show that solitude can lead to increased happiness, greater life satisfaction, and improved stress management—undoubtedly all things we could all use right now. As we reintegrate into full-on socialization, here’s how to still make—and make the most of—alone time:
1. Recognize When You Need it
In the world’s largest survey on rest, 18,000 people across 134 countries ranked activities according to how restful they are. The top “most restful” activities? Those often done independently, including reading, spending time in nature, and simply being alone. Another study, published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,” found that solitude can do wonders for calming big emotions. Long story short: Even the most extroverted among us can benefit from recharging alone.
Tune into your body to recognize when you’re overstimulated and in need of restorative time—if you feel restless or irritable in the company of others, for example. Then, practice saying “no,” and sticking to your decision even if others don’t understand. You don’t need to explain or justify your need for alone time. When you normalize truthful boundaries, such as, “I need this time to recharge,” you’ll likely inspire others to do the same.
2. See it Differently
When we were kids, the threat of alone time—“timeouts” or being “grounded”—was a punishment. We felt like we were losing something of value. It’s no wonder that many of us still feel like we’re doing something wrong when we spend time solo.
However, alone time is a chance to put yourself first. “Take the opportunity to say, ‘This is the time where I can give something to myself,’ and just endorse that, in this moment, you are your first choice,” advises Thuy-vy Nguyen, a social psychologist at the University of Durham. When you reframe solitude as a gift to yourself, you’ll use it to do something you enjoy, rather than just trying to pass the time.
3. Befriend Your Thoughts
Alone time means quality time with your own thoughts—something a lot of us would prefer to avoid. All those uncomfortable feelings have a way of bobbing up to the surface in the absence of distraction, which is usually our cue to start mindlessly scrolling social media. One study published in “Science” even found that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit with their own thoughts.
It’s in this space, however, that your brain does its most original thinking. Studies show that our brains automate our thinking when in the company of others: We go along with the crowd, rather than thinking for ourselves. For this reason, spending time with our thoughts has been proven to make us more creative, self-sufficient, and better problem solvers.
The key is to build comfort with tuning inwards in small doses, so those thoughts don’t overwhelm you the first chance they get. For example, rather than reaching for your phone first thing in the morning or between meetings during the day, take a moment to journal, breathe deeply, or simply look out the window, noticing what thoughts come to mind. Even a five-minute break can ground you and combat restlessness and anxiety.
4. Rethink Your Time
Even the busiest among us have hidden opportunities for solitude in our day. You don’t need to make more time, so much as make the most of the time you already have. ‘Transition’ moments, such as between tasks, in the morning, or at the end of your day, are prime opportunities to optimize time alone.
Set a timer for five minutes to stretch between meetings, block time in your schedule for a walk outside, or put the phone away at lunchtime and actually enjoy your food. Even your morning shower can become a meditation when you bring your attention to the warmth of the water or give thanks for the day ahead.
And you won’t be the only one to benefit. Research suggests that alone time can make you a better friend, as well as a more rested, confident, and empathetic person. That makes alone time a gift not just to yourself, but to everyone around you.