Is there an issue that’s really bugging you?
Are you trying to decide what type of car to buy?
Want to resolve a troublesome conflict with a co-worker?
Wondering what to do for Labor Day weekend?
Sounds like you’re trying to figure something out, also known as a problem. You probably have more than one problem you’re coping with right now. I do. Problems in our personal lives. Problems at work. It’s what we all share for being an adult, along with taxes and the nagging question, “What will we have for dinner?”
Interested in an idea to help you solve problems? It’s called managed solitude. Now, I’m not saying this approach will work for everyone, but it’s helped me. Here’s what I do.
My (Almost) Daily Ritual for Solving Problems
The basis for my problem-solving originates from a technique in a book printed in 1959. Don’t judge before you hear it. The book, The Magic of Thinking Big, is a classic. You may be familiar with it, as the book has sold more than six million copies worldwide. I believe the author, the late Dr. David J. Schwartz, was a pioneer, as you’ll find his principles are often copied in modern leadership books. Schwartz was a professor at Georgia State University and president of a consulting firm offering leadership development services.
In The Magic of Thinking Big, he recommends setting at least 30 minutes every day to confer with yourself in solitude.
By doing so, you will tap into your creative thinking to:
- Put the pieces of the problem together
- Work out solutions
- Do “superthinking”
- Plan future moves
Excerpt from The Magic of Thinking Big
Benefits? He claims you will have “firmness of purpose, personal stability and gain insight” by having “managed solitude.”
Steps for Managed Solitude
by Dr. David J. Schwartz
- Shut yourself away from all distractions. (I know this is hard, and I’ll explain later what I do.)
- Try early in the morning before anyone else is awake or late in the evening after everyone is in bed.
- Plan a time when your mind is fresh and you’re free from distractions and interruptions.
- Review the major problem you’re facing. Think constructively about anything that comes to mind.
- He advises that in your solitude, your mind will study the problem objectively and lead you to the right answer.
Sound good? Yes, I thought so too. But when I tried it …
I couldn’t sit still for 30 minutes.
Family members would interrupt me. It’s when I’m quiet that my younger daughter wants to “check in” with me. A few days ago, she walked through the house looking for me, and once she got my attention, I asked, “What do you need?”
“Nothing,” she said. She wanted to know what I was doing because I was quiet.
But I can’t blame my family members. I distract myself. I’ve tried to put my phone in my purse in a room 20 feet from where I was sitting in the living room. But as I sat, I thought of what I need to do before work. Other thoughts spun in my mind: I should email a friend about carpooling after school. I think of something needed from the store. I get up. I write “trashbags” on the shopping list. I go to the kitchen, take the chicken out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator. Beep! Quiet time’s up, as I grab my car keys to drive my oldest daughter to a friend’s home.
Interruption by family or by me. It happens.
So how did I apply this technique?
Managed Solitude + Exercise
I combined managed solitude with another activity I already do religiously: my daily walk.
Walking every day is a habit I established years ago. Unless I’ve feeling sick, walking is my first activity in the morning. I’m pretty relentless about doing it, regardless of the weather. If my schedule doesn’t allow an early a.m. walk, then I walk in the evenings, sometimes when the stars are out.
The combination works for me because I think more constructively when I’m moving and I’m out of the house where people, chores, and internet distract me. Well, correction, I allow the comforts of home to distract me.
Also, my maximum time is 30 minutes in managed solitude. More time than this and I tend to ruminate and stew. With a time limit, I can focus for 30 minutes. When I arrive home, I write down any conclusions, whether the thoughts be ideas, phrases or tasks.
I take the next step to solve the problem within 24 hours.
When my mind is cluttered and jumbled, I’ve discovered this routine helps me determine the fundamental problem, and once the problem is defined, I’m one step closer to the right solution.
How Does Managed Solitude Help Me?
I’ve experienced the benefits immediately. My decision-making ability has improved. I get clarity in my thinking. It helps me stay grounded. I think it’s helped me act wisely. At least, I hope I’m behaving wiser than before.
Now, I’ve noticed sometimes the answer doesn’t come to me within the first day. Sometimes, it’s several days of undisturbed quiet time before I arrive at a solution to try.
Doing alone time daily helps clarify what part of the problem I have control over (usually my own behavior) and what part I have no control over (other people’s actions or my past mistakes). Things become more crystal-clear to me of what I need to do next: Perhaps the next step is taking action. Sometimes, the solution is acceptance and moving on.
In other cases, I evaluate what to learn from my mistake and resolve not to repeat it. Hard truths can come from this private time-out session with myself.
The Usefulness of a Private Time-Out
One of my favorite management consultants, the late Peter Drucker, also saw value in thinking time. “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
This daily habit has helped me create a “Don’t Do List.” In my thinking time, I became aware of many activities I was doing that I didn’t need to do at all. Some were related to my teenage daughter: Making her lunch for school. Doing her laundry. Nagging her. (She just resented it, doing more harm than good.) Finishing a book I had started and didn’t like, but felt I should finish it. Volunteering for my younger daughter’s school party as the craft leader. (I dislike doing crafts.) Going to general networking event.
Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University, has studied solitude. In The Atlantic, the author writes that Fong, who meditates 15 minutes a day and takes monthly solo camping trips, claims solitude is at least as essential as exercise or healthy eating. He thinks it promotes a healthy mind.
“It really lifts you out of problems. It really, really has a powerful function for making you understand your predicament in this universe,” Fong said.
“Decisions and observations made alone in managed solitude are 100% right,” Dr. David J. Schwartz
I can’t say quiet time, alone, has always been positive because reflecting can lead to acknowledgement on what you did (or likely, didn’t do) that contributed to the problem. I’ve realized where I botched something at work. Reflection time is not necessarily freeing, but humbling.
What has helped you solve problems?