When did you last spend time alone?

The CEO of a Fortune 100 company shared with me a remarkable experience he had. We were both in Florida for his senior leadership conference, but he arrived a few days earlier for a board meeting. With a day between the end of the meeting and the start of the conference, he found himself suddenly, unexpectedly free. It was, he told me, the first day in nine years that he had spent alone.

What was it like?

Confusing. Exhilarating. Strange.

The Importance of Solitude

As business leaders, we find ourselves besieged by peers, colleagues, employees, board members, assistants, family members. Nobody gets enough of our time--and that includes ourselves. Instead, life becomes an unending tennis match, in which we're constantly responding to whatever comes over the net: successes, mistakes, challenges, doubts, needs. The most essential quality of an entrepreneur isn't boldness or creativity. It's stamina.

People may feed and inspire you, but they also deplete you. And you need time to digest all the information that an interaction contains. If you think this isn't important, bear in mind that long-term studies show that working 11 or more hours a day at least doubles the risk of depression. Working more than 55 hours a week induces cognitive loss, so that problem solving and reasoning become weak. By contrast, creative and critical thinking are enriched by mind wandering, by rest, and by sleep: things you do best on your own.

Time alone is recovery time. Here are three ways to find it--and protect it--even when it seems like everyone needs you.

  1. Follow this CEO's example and book a buffer day into your schedule. This is time when you're out of the office and away from home. You might use the time to think, sleep, watch movies, or catch up on work. But see no one. You'll be amazed how restorative it can be.
  2. Use long-haul travel as time off. If you're traveling with colleagues, don't sit together. (They might appreciate this, too!) Do a few hours' work, and then stop. Stare out the window. Daydream. Let your mind wander--but keep notes, because you're bound to get inspired.
  3. Get home before your family does. Being home alone is a rare and delicious privilege and will recharge you for both your professional and personal life.

Would my CEO repeat the experience of a day alone? He was ambivalent. He found it immensely refreshing, he said, but uncomfortable. I'd say he needs to do it more often.