clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An illustration of a woman with brown hair wearing a red shirt and gray pants sitting on the floor in front of a window with her dog curled next to her. They sit on a green striped rug. Sun pours in from the window. Getty Images/fStop

Filed under:

How to be alone with your thoughts

Spend some time with your inner monologue (and actually enjoy it).

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Sitting in silence is, for some, an experience more dreadful than physical pain. One oft-cited study from 2014 found that many people would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend just a few minutes alone with their thoughts. So don’t be ashamed if you’d rather listen to a podcast while you shower than bathe with nothing but the dull thrum of water on tile — when so much entertainment is readily available at all times, why wouldn’t you take advantage? With few moments of silence in your routine, you become less practiced at sitting with your thoughts.

One reason people find spending spending quality time with their inner monologue so wildly unpleasant is that, left to your own devices, every embarrassing memory, every argument, every sad recollection can come flooding back, effectively derailing what was supposed to be a moment of peace. But while people often dread, and therefore avoid, mining their minds, they can find the actual experience enjoyable in practice, says Thuy-vy Nguyen, an associate professor at Durham University and principal investigator of the Solitude Lab, where researchers study the effects and experiences of both lifelong and spontaneous alone time. Thinking about people and memories that are meaningful to us is more enjoyable than other pursuits we regularly engage in during downtime, like playing video games, checking social media, or texting, according to a 2022 study.

Harnessing the power of silence can have profound benefits. Left to work without distractions, our minds can dream up imaginative musings, solve problems, and create — as well as allow us to savor pleasant memories, set goals, reflect on our lives, and build excitement for the future, says Ethan Kross, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. “You’ve got to give yourself space to have those kinds of insights,” he says.

So how can we disconnect from the noise and tap into positive and inspired thinking? In short, structure your time strategically, avoid tempting distractions, and know how to cope when troubling thoughts arise.

Make a plan for your thinking time

People often grab their phones during unstructured downtime, a habit that neither enriches our lives nor is too detrimental — it simply cures boredom, Nguyen says. Being intentional with how you’ll spend your free time alone with your thoughts can help make the process easier and more enjoyable. Researchers refer to this practice as “intentional thinking for pleasure,” as opposed to daydreaming or mind wandering, which often occurs unintentionally when you’re attempting other tasks.

Turn off notifications on your phone or stow it in another room for 15 to 20 minutes to create space for thinking, Kross suggests. Apple and Android offer Do Not Disturb modes that easily make your phone distraction-free. Maintain a list of topics you want to explore, like your upcoming wedding day or what your life would be like if you lived in Paris; this helps keep your thinking on track, according to research, and gives you something to return to should your mind wander toward less pleasant thoughts. For example, Gloria Mark, a professor emerita in the department of informatics at the University of California Irvine and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, reflects on three positive things from the day before bed each night. When the topics of thought are more personally meaningful and positive, people find the practice more enjoyable, studies show.

Kross is a proponent of using time he already allots in his schedule to specific activities, like running or cycling, to think of creative solutions to research or writing blocks. “I’ll just activate what the issue is that I want to work through, and then I go on the treadmill,” he says, “and inevitably, my mind starts working, coming up with all sorts of solutions. I have lots of insights that way.”

Other activities conducive to thinking include a walk outside (research has found walking to improve creativity) and other undertakings that don’t involve much attention, like bathing, driving a familiar route, or folding laundry, Mark says.

Embrace negative thoughts as they come

Now for the unfortunate truth: A product of sitting with your thoughts is facing negative ones head-on. No one is immune to worry or embarrassment. Some negative thoughts may be fleeting, like a memory of a joke that didn’t land in a meeting. This is where a list of thinking topics can come in handy, Mark says, so you can return to the items you want to mull over. “It’s pretty easy [for me] to manage getting rid of that negative thought,” she says, “because I had this goal of moving on to get to these three positive things.”

But some negative thoughts are more persistent and require assessment, Kross says. For these more profound instances, try to think objectively about the issue at hand — say, improving communication with your partner if you keep circling back to a recent fight — to determine why you encountered the issue and to find a meaningful way forward. Or take the conversation out of your head and into the real world with an adviser, like a therapist or impartial friend. Mark uses negative thoughts as a learning opportunity: How can you grow from the negative experience you’re thinking about?

Keep in mind that if you’re constantly mulling over the same issues, getting stuck in the emotions of the experience without finding solutions, you may be ruminating. Rumination is repetitive thinking of negative emotions or experiences. Those who ruminate may not be able to process emotions effectively and may have increased anxiety and depression.

“Rather than coming up with a solution, you instead start spinning, rehearsing the emotional elements of those experiences over and over again in ways that can be really debilitating,” Kross says. “Rumination can lead to problems in your ability to think and perform, problems in your relationships, and it can also undermine your physical and mental health.” Try to look at the memory from an outsider’s perspective so you’re less likely to become immersed in the emotions, he suggests.

You don’t have to sit with negative feelings, either, Nguyen says. You want your solo time to be one of enjoyment and not despair. Switch to an activity you enjoy doing, like listening to music, reading, exercise, or gardening, to shift gears.

Start small and keep practicing alone time with your thoughts

As with any skill, the more time you dedicate to solitary thinking, the easier it becomes, Nguyen says. Begin with a few minutes alone with your thoughts each day and build up as you feel comfortable. Maybe you’ll come to an epiphany in the shower or while on a walk. These aha moments don’t simply materialize out of thin air — we have to give our minds space to wander.

If your goal is to maximize your thinking power, you have to be intentional with your time. Instead of reflexively reaching for your phone during a break at work, see what happens when your mind is left to its own devices. Try thinking through ways out of an interpersonal conundrum or imagining the perfect vacation. It can be just as entertaining as whatever’s happening on TikTok today.

“You can be more deliberate,” Kross says, “about giving yourself opportunities to have those experiences more regularly.”

Even Better

Everything you need to know about finding mental health care

Even Better

What kids lose without snow days

Politics

Mascuzynity: How a nicotine pouch explains the new ethos of young conservative men

View all stories in Life

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.