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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

Solitude in a Time of Hyper-Connectivity

Lately, my 7-month-old son has made it clear to me that I have an unhealthy relationship with my cell phone. No, he is not a baby genius. He has brought this to my attention in a very ordinary baby kind of way, by diving for it at every opportunity. Let me set the scene for you: Here I am encouraging him to sit up on his own, and he shocks me with a sudden swan dive…for what?! Oh, my cell phone. Or he’s ignoring me, gazing around, while I cheer for him to crawl, and suddenly he’s all arms and legs, stretching, reaching with all his might…for what?! Oh, my phone again. Weird I didn’t even remember bringing it in here.

And so it goes, all day long. My baby gets a crazed look on his face, I turn to try to figure out what has ignited this passion, and it's my cell phone. Now, I know this isn’t inherently weird. According to google, babies love cell phones. It’s not the baby’s behavior, but my own that continues to shock me. I have no conscious recollection of towing the phone from room to room, yet, there it is, always within arm’s reach. Perhaps I’m unconsciously craving a little more connection. Taking care of an infant can be lonely work. Maybe the constant presence of my cell phone is a reminder that I’m just a text away from connection.

Connection certainly has its upsides. For most of us the last two years of work wouldn’t have been possible without all the forms of connection and collaboration that we now have access to. Phone calls, text messages, Zoom sessions, emails, Slack channels- these are what held our teams together through the pandemic. Even teams that remained in-office relied on these forms of connection more than ever. In our personal lives, Facetime and social media may have played a big part in keeping us from feeling alone through a very difficult time. But the need for constant connection can creep up on you, and, like a bad habit, you don’t notice it until you’re too far gone. I wonder what, if anything, do we miss out on when we become hyper-connected?

One of those things is most certainly time alone- time truly alone, not just a click away from being connected to the world, but time in solitude. Those words seem to have a negative connotation in this time. Alone feels so lonely, and solitude is something they give you in prison to further punish you. In actuality, there is much that we can benefit from in time alone, in solitude, especially as leaders.

Solitude is a subjective state in which your mind is free from the input of other’s minds. Research shows that it is solitude, not collaboration, that supports deep thought or creative breakthroughs- something that leaders rely on. Solitude is something that becomes more difficult to achieve as we become more connected through technology. Now, even when we are physically alone, we are inundated with the thoughts and opinions of others, if we allow it.

Of course, the thoughts and opinions of others are valuable assets. It’s an incredible resource to have peers to reach out to, or an entire team to collaborate with. However, while collaboration is important to exchange information and new ideas, we also need to be able to retreat into our own mind with that information. This is where we have the power to make connections and think deeply, where our thoughts and ideas can incubate unhindered by the input of other’s. For that we need solitude.

Even within a team effort, solitude should be utilized as a resource. The downside to collaboration is that it has the potential to reduce each individual’s unique contributions. For example, there is a very common practice of bringing up challenges that the team is facing during a team meeting, and asking the team to generate some solutions, ideas for moving forward, etc. While there isn’t anything wrong with this tactic, and it is by no means harmful, by not providing your staff with time to quietly consider these (often complex) challenges, you may be missing out on the opportunity to get your team’s best, most thoughtful responses. To allow for this time, reach out to your team with these challenges ahead of time. Add them to the meeting agenda with enough context so that your staff fully understand the issue, and can come up with their own ideas and conclusions before bringing them to the collective.

Making more time for solitary thought, even just a few minutes a day, can be a powerful tool to help us step back from the problems we are working on and see the bigger picture. Traditionally, nature has always been associated with solitude. Throughout history, some of the greatest musicians, artists, and thinkers have made a point to set aside time each day to walk in nature. A study out of Stanford found that even just a 90-minute solitary walk in nature can significantly reduce levels of rumination and the risk for mental illness. For you, solitude may look a little different. Solitude may mean closing your office door, putting your phone away, and steeling your will against the urge to check your emails. To use solitude as a tool, try deliberately scheduling it into your calendar. It has the power to make you more creative and productive, and increase the depth and quality of your work.

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