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How to Make the Most of Your Alone Time

Make the most of the little time you get to spend solo.
Woman writing in journal against tree in woods
Journaling and getting outdoors are smart ways to spend solo time.Hero Images / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

We’ve covered the extensive benefits of spending time alone — including better relationships, lower levels of stress and improved problem solving skills. But even if we've convinced you that solitude is vital to your health and happiness, you’re probably thinking, "I dare you to find some time in my schedule."

We get it. You’re busy.

Luckily, experts say that even small moments of solitude translate to impressive benefits — so start small.

More often than not, it will be an unexpected chunk of solo time that pops up in your week that you should be taking full advantage of: the kids are at a play-date and your spouse heads out for lunch with a friend, leaving you a Saturday afternoon free in an empty house.

When this happens, your instinct may be to pick up your phone and scroll social media, or jump into your neglected Netflix queue. But is this the most productive way to be spending time alone that you’re so rarely granted?

Steer Clear of Technology

Why do we tend to reach for the closest electronic device the minute we find ourselves alone in a room? “Mostly due to boredom or fear of missing out,” says Kelley Kitley, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago. “I don’t think alone time with technology is a bad thing, sometimes it can be good for us to turn our thoughts down and just scroll as a passive activity, but there needs to be balance. Most people report technology time to be wasted time after it’s over. We live in an all-consuming world with an overload of information that can create anxiety. Unplugging and clearing our minds is crucial to a connected life and to avoid being on autopilot.”

Arnie Kozak, PhD, a psychotherapist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, argues that alone time spent plugged into technology isn’t really solitude. And Sherry Turkle, a researcher and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, agrees. Turkle advocates for setting aside deliberate time each day when you embrace solitude and abstain from “social snacking” —things like texting, tweeting and scrolling through Instagram.

“The moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light,” Turkle says in her TED Talk “Connected, But Alone?” “Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure.”

But if you aren’t looking at pictures of avocado toast on Instagram or catching up on a group text, exactly what activities should you be doing during these chunks of time?

Activities That Optimize Time Spent Solo

If a hectic schedule makes daily alone time impossible, consider scheduling a weekly date with yourself. Once you’ve got it on the calendar, here are ways to consider spending those brief moments to get the biggest bang for your buck:

1. Journal. If being alone with your thoughts is scary, journaling is a structured way to ease into it — and one that comes with health benefits to boot. The American Psychological Association posits that writing about negative life experiences and emotions has been shown to ease anxiety and stress and boost immune function. Journaling has also been shown to decrease depression and increase mood, social engagement and quality of relationships.

'The moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light.'

“Writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational,” Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and journaling expert, told Fast Company. “While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us.”

2. Meditate. The "shocking" study published in Science did find a small correlation between the experience meditating and the ability to entertain oneself (being less likely to prefer an electric shock over being with our own thoughts sounds like a plus to us!). The researchers suggest that control over one’s thoughts may be an appeal of meditation.

“I strongly advocate meditation,” says Kozak. “To meditate is a convenient way to ensure solitude, media fast and get to know ourselves. You can even do it in a group of other meditators — enjoying solitude and connection at the same time.”

Of course, there is a laundry list of other benefits that come with adding meditation to your routine, including combatting stress and anxiety, relieving pain and boosting your brainpower. (Over time, it can even change the structure of your brain.) So, next time you find yourself alone, consider dropping down on to a cushion and utilizing an app like Headspace or Calm to guide you through the practice.

3. Create something. Since solitude is so conducive to creative thought, why not take advantage? “Anyone who has done something worthwhile has spent time alone,” Christine Whelan, clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told TODAY. “Creative work and introspection and deep thoughts tend to come when we allow ourselves space and that tends to happen when we are alone.”

If you don’t already have a creative hobby — like playing the guitar or writing poetry — stop at drug store on your way home from work and pick up a coloring book.

As meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly buzz-worthy trends, the act of coloring has gotten a makeover: going from a beloved childhood pastime to an actionable way for adults to ease stress and be more “present.” A study published in Art Therapy found that art activities such as coloring significantly reduce anxiety. Art therapy is also used to treat depression, anxiety and even the emotional distress during cancer treatment.

Some experts say this is because coloring works as an act of mindfulness, bringing us into the present moment and switching off our thoughts, while others believe the act of coloring doesn’t shut off our thoughts, but instead helps us replace the negative thoughts we tend to ruminate over with positive ones. Regardless of why, grabbing some crayons may be an enjoyable way to spend your next date with yourself, especially if you’ve had a particular stressful week.

4. Get outside. Most of us spend a large chunk of the day indoors staring at a computer screen, but our relationship with nature — while often neglected — is an important one.

"Nature can be beneficial for mental health," Irina Wen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Steven A. Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone Medical Center told BETTER. "It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety."

Plus, a 2012 study found that after spending four days immersed in nature, participants improved their performance on a creative problem-solving task by 50 percent. Take your solitude outdoors with a weekend hike, a cup of tea on your porch or a walk around the block with your dog to really capitalize on the stress-busting and creativity-boosting powers of being solo.

Or grab a notebook and head to your local park to journal for a super-charged date with yours truly.