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The most important thing no one ever taught you

Do you know yourself? If you don't take time to disconnect and reflect, you won't reach your potential.

7 min read


The most important thing no one ever taught you

Keegan Houser/Unsplash

How well do you know yourself?

We plan for retirement and vacations, but we seldom plan for how we’ll become a better person — the person we want to be, not the one shaped by our circumstances. Most of us assume that we’ll get the gist of this whole how-will-I-live-my-life thing somewhere on the journey. Only we’re too busy with life to take the time to figure it all out.

In today’s connected world, it’s become hard to carve out time for yourself to unwind and reboot. Whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, this is your reaction: “I’m too busy to take time for myself.” The reality is that you’ll benefit from time for yourself and away from others.

Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher and mystic, said “All human evil comes from this: our inability to sit still in a chair for half an hour.” 

If you think this is an exaggeration, a 2014 study at the University of Virginia said that 67% of men and 25% of women would sooner endure an unpleasant electric shock rather than be alone in silence for even 15 minutes!

Information technologies dominate our culture, and there’s no doubt they’ve brought our world closer together. We’ve also begun to experience the downside. We’re connected to everyone, except ourselves.

Here are four reasons you need to take time out for solitude:

1. Allows time for reflection

A quiet space provides you with an opportunity to think about your goals, relationships and changes you need to make in your life. Alone time invites you to go deeper into who you are and who you want to be.

There are no outside influences to redirect your attention. When you’re in a group or with other people, you’re more likely to adopt the thoughts and behaviors of the group. They may not be the actions you’d take on your own.

Not everyone is born with a backbone of steel. Many of us assume that our natural gifts are the only ones we will possess in life. We assume our disadvantages are permanent.

People with mental toughness do not accept a bad start. They’ll remake their bodies and become Olympic athletes. They’ll study hard and learn how to become the best at what they want to be. They prepare themselves for the hard road.

How to make it work for you: If at home, close your door. If at work, close your office door and place a sign outside that says: “I’m writing, so don’t knock. The only exception is if the building is on fire.” Turn your phone off and close your computer. Often, writing in a journal helps the mind process all that floats to the surface as you reflect on what’s important to you in life.

2. Sorts urgent from important

An interesting 2018 study found that “subjects were more likely to perform smaller-but-urgent tasks that had a deadline than they were to perform more important tasks without one,” wrote The New York Times. The reason is that the brain seeks the goal of completion.

What’s even more interesting is that Marcus Aurelius said the same thing hundreds of years ago:

“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed … Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure time and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?”

Research has confirmed what good old Marcus knew all along: We should never settle for urgent tasks that are easy rather than pursue important tasks that will move the needle.

How to make it work for you: While in solitude, take a long, hard look at your to-do list. It will be a combination of easy, urgent tasks as well as the important work. While your mind is quiet, identify when your brain is most creative and full of energy, and then schedule those hours for the important work. The easier tasks also need to be completed, but you don’t need to be in top form.

3. Regulates emotions

Like medicine that tastes bad, it can be difficult or hard to spend time alone with ourself. We know it’s good for us, but we don’t always feel excited when we close that door or take a walk.

We’d rather use the noise of technology to block out the discomfort that arises when we sit in a quiet space to deal with ourselves. In our world today, we can live our entire life without digging beneath the surface of who we really are, deep down.

And that’s not a good thing.

We’re conditioned to doing rather than being. We resist crossing that barrier, we become uncomfortable with it. The reason is because one of the major functions of solitude is emotional regulation. Studies reveal that solitude helps us balance the continual flux of negative and positive emotions that we experience daily.

Researcher Reed Larson speculates that the negative emotion we may experience before we enter a time of solitude might be masking a deeper issue that hasn’t risen to the surface.

How to make it work for you: Don’t let a negative mood hinder your quiet space because you’re too busy to pause and experience your feelings. Spend time on important issues — relationships, your direction in life, your past, etc. When you are alone, your attention becomes inward-focused, and the problems that you’ve suppressed can come to the surface. Layers start to peel back and you see things for what they really are.

4. Helps your get your life organized

It’s hard to keep life organized and tidy because we can’t predict the outcome of each day. Some days are better than others; there are days where the bottom falls out from under us. Life is a crapshoot, but you have more control than you might think.

Very few people organize their life according to what is deeply important, such as relationships, health, and life goals. No one cares about your success more than you do. If everything in your life is important, you become weighed down with shallow activities and day-to-day stuff.

As Aurelius reminded us, if you carry too much baggage, your progress will be hampered. The best day of your life is the day in which you decide your life is your own. Life is about the choices you make.

How to make it work for you: 1) Don’t settle for vague goals; be specific. 2) Work backwards to create a process that will achieve the goal. Break the process down into concrete steps. 3) Make certain that each step includes a timeline. The process needs your commitment, not another plan. 4) Review the commitments on a regular basis. If circumstances have changed, you may need to modify the steps as you go.


Are you mentally tough? Take this FREE assessment.

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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