An aspiring computer scientist's musings on technology and society.

Structured Solitude

These are trying times, and it's pretty clear to everyone that solitude can mess up your mental health. A surprising flip side is that I'm enjoying the calm tranquility of structured solitude. I can spend days without unwanted social contact, needless decorum and the stress that accumulates in my hopelessly introverted soul from it all.

We all know though, that we're not alone. I'm sure most of us are consuming more content online than ever, spanning from Netflix and Youtube videos to video games and online communities. Cal Newport says that true solitude only arises when we're immune from external voices. In other words, a focused meditator in the Manhattan can be experiencing more solitude than a hiker on a remote mountain that's listening to a podcast. Cal would argue most of us are not alone at all. Furthermore, he would say that we are not getting enough quiet time crucial to self reflection and creativity.

Here's the thing with isolation: It's nice until you need some social interaction to not go insane. Solitude, too, is nice until you need a spark of inspiration from external sources. This means that isolation can be best harnessed through a systematic filtering process. We decide who and whose ideas we entertain, not others. As we are stranded working from our own homes, this is the perfect opportunity to eliminate distractions from life that would've been difficult to remove in an office or a busy campus.

Without the structure and restraints of a normal working routine, it is far too easy to fall into a rabbit hole of media consumption. I've personally spent over twelve hours on Youtube, Reddit, and Discord one Saturday. That's way too much! After a certain point, it ceases to be entertaining, instead a debilitating force keeping me from doing other things. I would become unable to focus, my mind a bit hazy, like a drug addict.

As such, I've taken some drastic measures to structure my isolation. First, I opted out of all sources of news feeds but the essentials. No Youtube, Reddit, nor Discord. No RSS feeds. No email newsletters but a couple of my favorites. While this extreme information diet may not be sustainable in the long term, I felt pushed to the edge, to the point where a fast is necessary. Next, I blocked all potentially distracting websites using a web browser extension. I also disabled Safari from my mobile devices. Not only that, I started turning off the internet entirely during deep work hours. These measures, when combined, make it virtually impossible to consume online content.

After a few days of this ascetic regimen, the first thing I've noticed is that I'm immeasurably bored. So bored, I would stare out of the balcony and watch the city move. This level of solitude has somehow made me crave physical exercise such as hiking just to pass the time, a seemingly impossible achievement. In addition to my physical health, my productivity has also risen. For instance, you may have noticed my more frequent blog posts. As I addressed in my last post, I'm also taking a summer course, reading two textbooks, preparing for the GRE, learning game development and tutoring. The craziest part is that, after all this, I still have time left.

Yes, I do miss my creature comfort, the on-demand dose of dopamine rush. However, I would say that preserving time – the essential unrenewable resource – and my brainpower – the knowledge worker's key asset – is surely worth it.