We all know the boss who regards taking time off work as a suspect act: something that’s borderline flaky. Like: yes, *technically* you’re allowed holiday but it’s really inconvenient that you’re actually taking it. Naturally they don’t say this (hello, lawsuit), but it’s implied in every suppressed eye roll and reluctant signing of a holiday form.
More fool them, since science is clear that regular holidays make us more productive and boost creativity levels. And solo travel carries a particular advantage in the workplace. Those who travel alone – a growing demographic of adventure-thirsty solo’s – are able to take advantage of a very rare quality in our modern age: solitude.
Cut through the noise
In a world where we’re forever distracted by the flash of a news alert or the ping of a Whatsapp message, time alone and apart carries huge benefits. “I define solitude as a state of mind, a space in which to focus one’s own thoughts without distraction,” says psychology professor Mike Erwin, co-author of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. “Having the discipline to step back from the noise of the world is essential to staying focused.”
Unfettered access to information and people has made it harder to concentrate than ever before. Against this backdrop, solo travel is a particularly effective tool for creating solitude. The head space gained through solo travel goes full circle, feeding back to enhance performance at work. But how?
Space for big thinking
Space to do some hard thinking is “essential to good decision making and leadership”, according to Prof. Erwin. It’s easy to get so caught up in your day-to-day life – the emails, the meetings, the after-work drinks – that you leave no room to facilitate high-level thinking. Even if you have a spare 10 minutes by chance, your brain is too exhausted to make the most of it.
When you travel alone, you open up a unique window of opportunity where bigger ideas can float around and percolate. Whether you’re on a train travelling through Bulgaria or lying on a beach in Belize, rich ideas will suddenly float to the surface. Unencumbered by the minutiae of your work routine, and free from the distractions of those around you, you’ll gain a clarity and focus you just can’t access in everyday life. That work dilemma you’d been turning over for weeks might suddenly find its solution. Or you could be flooded with ideas for a project, when previously you’d grappled for any. The distance you achieve with travel, coupled with the space of being alone, mean the conditions are ripe for top-line thinking.
It takes real discipline to tune out from the noise of everyday life at work. You might vow to stay off YouTube in the afternoon, but then you also have messenger apps, instant notifications and a never-ending stream of decisions and demands. When you travel alone, all of these distractions peel off, one by one. You don’t use many apps on your phone because you don’t want to drain your data. You’re more drawn to the present moment, so you’re less likely to compulsively phone-check anyway. Who has time, when you’re people-watching in Rio? Trekking in the mountain valleys of Bali wouldn’t allow you the reception. You don’t have to worry about being entertaining or useful because hey: there’s no-one to impress. You’ll meet people along the way of course, but there’s zero pressure in how you interact.
For one reason or another, the little things that annoy you and drain your energy at work have no relevance when you travel alone. And you start to wonder why they ever managed to monopolise your attention to begin with. Solo travel forces perspective on the pointless noise of your everyday life. Not only do you get time out from this when you actually travel, you’ll also be more aware of how distractions lure you in when you return to the fold.
Be less busy
“One of the biggest reasons we struggle to focus is because we fill our schedules with too many commitments and we consistently prioritise urgent tasks over important ones,” writes Erwin. “Leadership development and training opportunities exist to enhance your ability to understand yourself better, to reflect, and to grow.”
Think of your solo travelling expedition as your very own training opportunity. You’re taking time out from the relentless pace of your work. Without the faces and tasks that fill your usual life, you can revel in the chance to slow down. This will bring benefits of its own, as we’ve seen. But the solitude carved out from solo travel will also give you the breathing room to gain perspective on your work life.
Only when you’re less busy do you have the time to figure out how to be less busy. What commitments litter your daily life that you could ideally chuck? “Solitude gives you the space to reflect on where your time is best spent, which provides you with the clarity to decide which meetings you should stop attending, which committees you should step down from, and which invitations you should politely decline,” says Erwin.
The life-altering potential for solitude is amplified by travelling alone. You narrow things down to: “where do I want to eat tonight?” Or, “what time is my train leaving?” By doing so, you create the space for bigger and bolder ideas, and you learn how to better prioritise your time. Something to bear in mind, the next time your boss raises an eyebrow at the time you’re taking off…