30 days of solitude - what I have learned

When I left university mid-January, all I wanted to do was hop on the first plane to Thailand.

My knee jerk reaction to this drastic lifestyle pivot was an urge to get as far away as possible. Instead, I decided to make like Thoreau (my hero) and spend a month alone in the countryside first. The reasons for this were myriad. My scrambled brain needed time to sort itself out. I needed to outline my strategy for the time ahead and make coherent plans. Plus, part of me felt fear at the prospect of traveling alone. I wanted to practice it somewhere not too far from home.

I rented a little room in a converted barn in the depths of Devon for 30 nights. Something midway between Bill Gates' 'Think Weeks' and Victor Hugo instructing his maid to lock away all his clothes until he finished his novel. 

Despite being an introvert, I have never spent anywhere near as much time alone. It was not quite a cabin in the woods, but it was close enough for me. If you have the opportunity to escape civilization for any length of time, take it. 

At the same time, it was not an easy month. I had a misguided idea that isolating myself would insanely accelerate my personal growth. I thought if I removed all distractions my work would skyrocket towards the level I want to achieve. In some ways, the space to do a lot of deep work has been amazing.

However, I overestimated the extent to which one can improve within a month. The distractions which form a part of regular life are not the enemy. Most of the time they are actually helpful. Without the breathing space of walks to get coffee or to the library, I spent a lot of time staring into space. I am bad at winding down and have realized how dependent I am on it being forced. As in, I need Chapman to make me watch H3H3 or look at goat pictures every so often.

I did get a lot of work done. I wrote ~50,000 words, read ~20 books, relistened to almost every episode of School of Greatness podcast, reset my productivity systems, learned the Hebrew alphabet, improved my German, wrote the talk I am giving next week and did research for the book I am working on. 

Some thoughts I had during this time:

-Maintaining good habits is somewhat easy once willpower is removed from the equation. I took this time to reset my behavior and work on certain habits which I find problematic. Although I quit smoking 3 weeks before leaving for Devon, it was easy to ignore cravings here. I had no way of buying cigarettes, being a 3-hour walk from civilization. No willpower required there. It's surprising to see how our minds only crave what is known to be available. Well, it's cheaper and less stigmatized than rehab. 

-Horses are a lot like blog readers, in the nicest way possible. Bear with me, I promise this metaphor makes sense in my head. They ignore you to start with. Only when you offer something enticing like a handful of hay does one approach. The others follow soon after. If you chase them or try too hard to get their attention, they run away. Sound familiar? I could probably turn that into a book on online marketing. 

There was a field of three horses next to where I stayed and I completely fell in love with them. I found myself looking forward to my midday walks when I could spend some time with them. Whitney Cummings talks about a form of therapy in which you lead a horse using your body language. No harness or rope. The idea is that all anger, tension and negative emotions have to be let go of. Only when you are calm and open does the horse oblige. 

She sniffed my camera lens whilst I was trying to take a picture. 

-Also, ideas are like pheasants. I swear this works too.

One day in my first week, I woke at 6 am, made coffee and sat down straight away to write. By 11.55am I had written about 500 words and hated all of them. I decided to go for a walk. After all, the countryside is stunning and I hadn't been outside for 3 days. Walking along a lane, I spotted a pheasant beneath some bushes. I stopped to admire his plumage because I have always found them to be beautiful birds (if a bit brainless.) Then he keeled over on the ground without warning and lay there, twitching his feet. Panicking, I knocked on the door of a nearby cottage to ask for advice. The lady there gave me a towel and told me to take it to safety, away from her cats. Somehow, I managed to swaddle the pheasant and carry him to another field. I unwrapped him and gingerly lay him on the ground where he remained limp and silent. After an hour, he began to recover from the shock and got to his feet. A few hours later, he managed to wander off.

Right: the pheasant in a towel. Left: him beginning to recover and wake up. 

Right: the pheasant in a towel. Left: him beginning to recover and wake up. 

What does that have to do with ideas? A lot. When I write, I brainstorm for a while, then am dazzled by an idea (pheasant) which appears to be beautiful. Yet the moment I try to write it, that fades and I'm left with something limp and useless. If I protect it from distractions (cats), it somehow finds its feet. Keep it safe and steady it when it wobbles, and it can fly at last.

Also, there are millions of ideas around and most of them have short lives, like pheasants. When my writing is going badly, I now imagine myself cradling a helpless pheasant. It works.

-When I have the freedom to do what I want, all I want to do is work. Except, that never works.  My days in Devon consisted of 6-10 hours asleep, 6-8 hours working, 1-2 hours walking and the rest consisted of reading or cooking. It was satisfying and somewhat enjoyable. I found myself often entering a flow state and losing track of time more often than usual.

Without any constraints on my time or external commitments, my work ethic intensified. Distractions felt uncomfortable. Isolation has long been popular amongst writers. Thoreau put it best: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Albert Camus also wrote: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion."

I learned a lot about what enables me to work the best. A contrast between intense periods of work and structured relaxation is vital. I was under the impression that I would be able to write for every waking hour. When I tried to do this, I wrote crap. 

- Forgetting about physical appearance feels amazing. I relished being a slob, wearing old jumpers, no makeup and letting my hair grow out. Without the need to impress anyone, I lost any awareness of my physical appearance. This is heaven for someone as self-conscious as myself. I often felt like a floating pair of eyes and hands without a body.

-Meditation is the best thing in the whole world. I have been trying to turn it into a habit for over a year and kept failing. Once I found myself alone for the majority of the day, I CRAVED meditation. My own thoughts grew too loud without a morning session. Meditation retreats now make a lot more sense. Completely alone in a cave, I would be glad to spend 12 hours a day meditating. It's on my bucket list.

-Authors who don't know I exist make good company. Thoreau, Seneca, Robert Greene, Virginia Woolf and Plato were my best buds. I turned to them for solace or advice and they never let me down. This brought back memories from my school days when I had no friends and books were my life. 

Next stop is Paris. If you have recommendations (outside of the obvious ones) or live there and want to say hi, drop me an email.