Carving Out Alone Time: 10 Tips for Creative Artists

“The best thinking has been done in solitude. The worst has been done in turmoil.”

— Thomas Edison

I first learned the value of alone time while living in New York City with an apartment-full of models with whom I shared little in common. If I woke up at 6am, I had the place to myself. I’d sit on the patio, writing on journal pages and postcards, savoring the peaceful morning air and freedom from voices, cigarette smoke and personalities and appearances I found intimidating. No matter what happened the rest of the day, I could rest easy. I’d fueled up on me-time—the ultimate preventative medicine.

Now as a writer, that solo time goes far beyond helpful. It’s as necessary as food and sleep.

One of my favorite thinking spots in LA, where even the traffic is silent.

To be successful as artists, we’ve got to not only embrace alone time, but protect it. That’s not always easy in our hussle-bustle, multi-tasking society, but I believe it’s worth the effort.

Here are just some of the reasons solitude is important:

We get more done independently. It’s fun and healthy to interact with others. When it comes to getting things done, though, solo seems best. A large body of research shows that individuals perform better quality and quantity-wise compared to collaborating groups. In other words, working alone even trumps working with a group of others toward the same goal.

Distractions can keep us from working, period. Some amount of distraction can stimulate creativity and keep our minds fresh. Constant bombardment of online chat messages, phone calls, visitors or favor requests we have trouble saying “no” to, however, says “yes” to everything but our creative work.

Solitude reduces stress. Quiet alone time, devoid of distracting TV shows, phone calls and visitors, promotes a state of mindfulness. We’re more aware of the present and our place in it. Studies also show that mindfulness reduces physical stress. And the less physically and emotionally stressed we are, the more likely we are to thrive as artists.

We become stronger socialites. Though it’s not as important as our primary work, interacting with others is important emotionally and career-wise. Ongoing research at Harvard shows that blocking off sufficient amounts of alone time improves social function. And whether we’re introverts or extroverts, we tend to form longer lasting, more accurate memories and deeper interpersonal connections after alone time.

10 Ways to Savor Solitude and Get More Done

1. Eliminate distraction from your work time and save social media checkins, phone calls and texting for breaks.
2. Learn to say “NO” to unnecessary obligations that interfere with your work.
3. If carving out large blocks isn’t an option, work in shorter spurts, whenever you can.
4. If you have a day job, carve out solo time before or after work. Even 10 minutes a day goes far.
5. Take breaks and aim for balance. Working without respite is a great way to work our brains into a gluey haze, not to forge ahead with gusto. We need solo time, but we need interaction, too.
6. View alone time as essential, rather than optional.
7. Choose friends wisely. Supportive friends respect your need for solo time.
8. Set boundaries. Telling someone to take a step back isn’t easy, but what’s more important—your work or seeming “nice?”
9. Eat mindfully—with awareness and without distraction. When I teach nutrition classes, I often suggest candlelit dinners for one. The mindfulness gained carries over into other parts of life, and is a powerful form of self nurturing.
10. Don’t feel guilty for prioritizing private time. If you do, remind yourself that we’re only good for others and the world if we take care of ourselves first. As artists, that’s particularly important; our readers and fans—current and future—deserve it, too.

For writers in particular, some of our solo thinking and work time has to take place around others. For such cases, I’ve been considering a shirt that looks something like this.

How do you protect your alone time? Any areas you’re struggling with? Any tips to add? I love hearing from you.

Leave a comment

56 Comments

  1. Love this. I’m an introverted extrovert – I’m good around people, but it doesn’t fuel me up like it does some folks. I have to have time alone otherwise I get a little nuts. Sometimes that’s tough with so many bodies in our house, but thankfully I have an understanding family – and a similar hubster – who lets me do what I need to do.

    Great post, August!

    Reply
    • I’m so impressed by busy moms who write and live with gusto, Myn. If you can nab alone time with all of your kidlets…sheesh. There’s hope for everyone. 😉 Thank goodness for supportive loved ones and role models like you.

      Reply
  2. I love this post, thanks August x

    Reply
  3. Sisyphus47

     /  September 7, 2012

    It’s a difficult balance, Stephen King articulated the same idea of the “closed door” in “On Writing”, and described the struggle vividly in “Lysey’s Story”. I find it hard to keep the door closed when I am working. And of course when one loves one wishes to keep the door open 😉

    Reply
    • That desire to keep the door open can definitely leave us feeling torn. I’ve found that sharing my need for time and space helps tremendously—that and recognizing how much better off we all are for embracing it. Thanks for weighing in. 🙂

      Reply
  4. It’s great how you made the case for solitude and then offered solutions on how to ensure that we savor it. Lately much of my time has been engaged writing poetry. It is impossible for me to do this type of writing without solitude and when the time is right, the words often come effortlessly.
    Thanks again, August!

    Reply
  5. I couldn’t agree more with this! Sometimes it’s hard to get any truly alone time to create when you live with others who don’t get it. I’ve found headphones to be a vital accessory for these times – even if family doesn’t see it as a hint to leave, headphones provide a helpful barrier against distraction, and family is free to stick around and watch TV.

    Reply
  6. I’m so very jealous of my alone time. Actually I have it easy, since my husband works outside the home and I’ve got the house to myself for pretty much the whole day–excluding the dog and cat, of course. But the phone can be a great distraction, as can email, so that’s my challenge. There are times I simply put myself on a phone/email “diet” and shut both off (because I’m weak, I can’t ignore ’em).

    Reply
  7. Having a little one makes alone time difficult – and I’m like Myndi. Great with people, but truly an introvert who needs that downtime. We’ve had to be a one car family for the last few years which means even fewer opportunities to be with just me.

    I took off for a drive and the bookstore on my own just the other night and, wow. What a difference it made to get out and away. I need to create more alone-time opportunities.

    Reply
  8. Early days I’d head off to the library and hide out in one of the cubicles but nowadays I go with the earphones. Even if I don’t have my iPod on, the earbuds create a zone of silence around me. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Reply
  9. I’m someone who definitely needs alone time. During the day I’m an elementary teacher so I’m always on & always needed. When I get home, I need a good chunk of time before I can deal with anyone. And on the weekends I like to get up early and look out the window or sit outside while I drink coffee. Sometimes it’s nice to be an early bird. I write before work when no one I know is up, so that time is never interrupted. Great post!

    Reply
  10. Sounds like there are a lot of us “good with people but really an introvert”s around. That’s me as well 🙂

    Thanks so much for this post, August. I’ve been struggling lately with a friend who refuses to respect my “no” and is constantly demanding more time from me than I have to give. It’s a struggle because I want to maintain the friendship (she has a lot of wonderful qualities–she’s just high maintenance and a touch self-righteous). At the same time, I just can’t give her the attention she wants and still balance the rest of my life properly. I guess I just need to suck it up, maintain healthy boundaries, and accept I can’t control her reaction.

    Reply
    • True, Marcy. I imagine most writers are either highly sensitive extroverts or introverts——people who need ample solo time.

      Those high maintenance friendships can be tough to manage. I figure that friends worth having respect my need for undistracted creative time, even if they don’t relate. Best of luck! 🙂

      Reply
  11. Love the t-shirt! I want one too. Let’s make some. Great post August.

    Reply
  12. Marc Schuster

     /  September 7, 2012

    Learning to say “no” is so important, especially for those of us who, by nature, wish we could help everybody with everything. Great post!

    Reply
  13. I use earphones, even though I have a BIG sign on my door which says Do Not Disturb. Unfortunately the family still disturb me for something they think is an emergency. My son actually said have another sign to put under the sign saying ‘I mean it!’.

    I won’t tell you what I said because it’s not repeatable. They’re beginning to get the message but it is hard. I told them my dream is to have a little cottage with no wifi or cell signal where the store delivered food and water. I’d have electricity for my Mac and that would be it. You should have seen their faces. But I seriously dream of having that quiet space even though I know I’d miss my family quite desperately.

    I love and adore people but I need alone time to function well and be healthy. Like Marcy I’ve had emotional vampires as friends and it’s hard to disengage but crucial for our emotional well being and creativity. Once they realise how important our alone time is – it’s like a weight is lifted from our shoulders.

    Recently I had a week with no internet and no writing and it impacted my creativity so much that I’m doing it again at the end of September.

    Great post, August.

    Reply
    • No writing or interest for a week? Wow, CC. I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed by that. LOL Honestly, I’m inspired. I’d love to hear more about your retreats. That story about your son is too precious. 🙂

      Reply
  14. Alone time is crucial for recharging my spirit, but now that school is back in session, I find I’m missing the family being home during the day! I got used to hearing them shuffle around downstairs. Now it’s just me and the dogs. Granted, by next week I’ll be loving the solitude.

    I’m still working on #2. It’s super hard for me to say, “No, thank you.” Now what I do is try to decided if it’s something that will fill my heart with joy. If not, I won’t do it.

    And #5. I’ve gotten in the habit of working straight through lunch, so I’m trying to be mindful of the time I spend at my desk.

    I need to print out your list and review it daily. Seriously!

    Reply
    • Aw… I hadn’t thought about that—missing the sound of shuffling feet. 🙂

      Saying “NO” is tough, particularly at first. Every time I’ve done it, I feel such relief. The benefits really help strengthen that muscle.

      Reply
  15. Hi August, great post with lots of good suggestions. For me I also need “dream time” I think every writer should have a couch or a bed to lie down on — not to nap, although those are good, but just to day dream. To conjure up your stories, let your characters talk about something other than what is going on in the current WIP. I often get great moments of insight when I’m just tooling around, sort of like active resting. But that’s me.

    Reply
    • “Dream time” I love that, Rachel. I take ‘pretend naps’, but I’m thinking your term is much more inspiring… 😉 Gotta love that active rest!

      Reply
  16. Running from Hell with El

     /  September 7, 2012

    Good thoughts above, August. I think it’s so true that we can get more done solo than we can in a group. And for sure I’m better socially if I’ve had sufficient alone time. Therein lies the rub of course: too much alone time breeds isolation, which is another one of the worst things that haunts those of us who write full-time (or part-time I guess).

    Reply
  17. I could hide away by myself all day and be content. I GET this post on so many levels. Any chance I can I hole away and “recharge.” I’ll take an hour, a day, even a week. Whatever the family will let me have. The social scene is not my scene. I find it rather stressful. But I get out there and play just the same. Maybe it will get easier as I get older. Hehe

    Reply
  18. Wonderful tips! I recently read about that research you pointed out on working independently in the book QUIET (about introversion). The reality that we are better problem-solvers alone than with others flies in the face of what a lot of schools and workplaces have communicated. But I agree with you that solitude is a good thing, and when I need to bounce ideas or gain synergy with others, then I can do that too. Thanks, August.

    Reply
    • You’re so right, Julie. Every time I’ve tried to collaborate story ideas by phone, I get my ideas after hanging up. 😉 We need solace and social time; finding that balance seems key.

      Reply
  19. Wonderful post! And what you said there is true, because… ‘Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.’ -Sir Francis Bacon

    Subhan Zein

    Reply
  20. Love this! It has taken me a very long time to say no to some things. I have to work on taking the distractions out of that much needed and precious alone time.

    Reply
  21. lynettemburrows

     /  September 7, 2012

    Great post, August. My DH is a creative artist as well, so we respect one another’s alone time. But when my son was little, I used a loud kitchen time to get ten minutes of writing time. As long as it was ticking, he was to play by himself. If he came to interrupt me I would ask, ‘Is it bleeding? Is it on fire? Is it dead?” Of course, most of the time his answer would be no, so he’d return to his game. When the timer rang, I’d give him my complete attention. It worked for us.

    Reply
  22. How I have missed reading your thoughtful posts! Excellent work, August! I turned into a total hermit the year after my dad died. I wrote a great book 😉 but aside from the rare foray out into the social scene I pretty much stayed home and wrote. And I did a lot of internal processing, which was amazing. Lately, this summer especially I’ve been out and about with friends quite a bit more, getting back into the social groove.

    Reply
    • And how I’ve missed you! Thanks for your lovely note, Serena. I’m so sorry that you lost your father. Even when time passes, I imagine that’s difficult. Thank goodness you found and savored that solo time. Sounds as though you’ve benefited big time. 🙂

      Reply
  23. mgedwards

     /  September 8, 2012

    Another excellent post, August.They are always inspirational. Any suggestions on how to handle family obligations? All are valid points made more difficult when it comes to family responsibilities, such as sitting for 5.5 hours at a swim meet for your son waiting for 100+ swimmers to take their turns. Not exactly a good place for alone time! I struggle sometimes as a stay-at-home writer between obligations to my son and writing. I may be the only parent in the world who doesn’t mind not spending as much time with their children as I do. He gets plenty.

    Reply
    • Gosh. I don’t have kids, and can only imagine the difficulty of balancing parenting with work. I have heard that taking small bits and time windows, whenever you can, helps. And if you can, carving out time by seeking assistance from others seems important. If it makes you a better parent and spouse, having a babysitter or scheduling a play date so that you can write is probably worth it… Tips, anyone else?

      Reply
      • mgedwards

         /  September 11, 2012

        It is true. That’s what I do…try to carve out as much time for myself as I can. When I complain, it earns me some more time, but it’s a strategy fraught with peril because I can sound like I’m whining. The best thing I can do is to commit to as little as possible and hope no one finds me (seriously)!

  24. Raani York

     /  September 8, 2012

    I have nominated you for the Super Sweet Blogging Award. Check out my latest post and follow the rules.

    http://raaniyork.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/super-sweet-award/

    I think you really deserve it!!! Your blog is so special in so many ways!!

    Reply
  25. While I’m sure I agree with Edison as some of my most innovative thinking tends to happen in the midst of chaos, solitude is indeed essential for deep thinking. Love the t-shirt idea, I’ll buy one! Great tips, August, thanks much 🙂

    Reply
  26. Kourtney Heintz

     /  September 8, 2012

    Awesome post August! I want that t-shirt. 🙂 I find I have to constantly push back with people. Luckily, I’m stubborn so it usually works out in my favor. 😉

    Reply
  27. Hi, August – as always, I post worth pondering.

    I am more geared to solitude – even though I love being with people, conversing and sharing ideas – that seems to be how I recharge my batteries.

    This summer was a challenge. I so love my kids, and I know I won’t have them for very long before they grow up and leave me for bigger pursuits, but yet…buy yet, I can re-set my compass when they are back to school. So I value solitude.

    Love your advice about eating mindfully – I’ll snack in front of the computer when I’m hungry but don’t want to stop working, and then I can’t even remember what I ate! I guess I should take a little time to pay attention!

    Enjoy the rest of your weekend!
    Kathy

    Reply
  28. Oops, “a post worth pondering” not “I post worth pondering,” LOL!

    Reply
  29. Beautifully written! I whole heartedly agree. I use the early hours too. I do most of my things when people are asleep. Nice work with this post!

    Reply
  30. Great post August and so true.
    In my professional day job life, I find working from periodically helps me gain immense productivity…something about no interruptions and longer bouts of time focused on one specific task. It’s so helpful. I wish more employers (mine included) encouraged working from home on a regular basis (once or twice a week) instead of just in special circumstances.
    As for my creative life, I agree, time alone fuels creativity. Carving it out and protecting it is key but I’ve also found that I can maximize unexpected time alone like driving or waiting at the doctor’s office. I am picking up a small voice recorder to have in my purse for those times when the words are bouncing around in my head but I can’t exactly put pen to paper. Gotta make the most of those times and when I drive, it seems to happen a lot. When I am not singing of course. LOL!!

    Reply
  31. Hi August,
    Thank you for this article. It is so important as an artist to take time out to be alone. I especially enjoy the early mornings. I don’t even go on the telephone. Then there are times when I go to a cafe or the library and stay there for hours listening to myself.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Reply
  32. Excellent post, August. I find that even if the time in solitude doesn’t have an immediate payoff, the benefit from the time certainly shows up in its own time.

    Well done.

    Reply
  33. I’ve definitely been working on #2…saying “no” to unnecessary obligations. Sometimes those obligations are social situations I’m not uber excited about (not because I’m a hermit, which is easy to be as a writer), but because I savor my alone time. It is so important for me. Great post!

    Reply
  34. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back!

    Reply
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