Alonement: Learning solitude skills to make time alone fulfilling and pleasurable

The time is always right for solitude skills: journaling, scheduling time for yourself, treating yourself well ...

It can be a challenge to make solitary periods quality time

Time alone. In some ways we’ve had too much of it during this pandemic, when social interaction is verboten. But it can be a challenge to make solitary periods quality time, to not wish away this time away but make it count, and perhaps an opportunity for personal growth.

On the face of it, it's good timing. Francesca Specter was a busy twentysomething journalist in London with what sounds like an excess of social connections, a self-described "extreme extrovert" who would do anything to avoid being alone and didn't have the capacity to be on her own. She had come out of an intensely co-dependent relationship and what started as a new year's resolution in 2019, to learn to spend time alone, became an exploration of what she eventually named "alonement". Now in a pandemic the concept of alone time – pleasurable, fulfilling solitude that you cherish – has come into its own.

What she explores in her resultant book and podcast seems like a growing up, a coming to terms with the nature of being human. And while it is in some ways self-evident, her alonement journey offers wisdoms that it’s no harm repeating.

Specter says “it definitely taught me a fear of being alone doesn’t just make being single difficult, it makes relationships difficult.” Learning to be alone is also about moderation, and the pandemic has sometimes led to “the paradox being of not being able to appreciate my alonetime in the way I want, as quality time set apart and novel, because it hasn’t been novel.” Social connections are “a sort of scaffolding for my alonement to take place within. But then obviously, the balance completely shifted with Covid. A lot of people are looking for more social company during this time. That’s so valid. I equally think many parents or cohabiting couples are maybe looking for some alone time. There’s no balance, everyone is experiencing some extreme. Alonement is something that, even when you’re on holiday with friends, can be an hour away from them for recharge, or if you’re living with a partner, it could be going out for your walks separately or just having an afternoon alone at the weekend. It can be a really short, but nonetheless very important amount of time.”


Specter caught Covid – thankfully a moderate dose – in April 2020. “During that seven days I really committed to continuing to practice what I had been training for, and putting the solitude skills into practice, doing all the things I know are beneficial to me in solitude.” Those skills offer useful strategies for embracing our enforced alonetime as deliberate action.

Francesca Specter. Photograph: Wil Coban

Most important was “journaling every single day, and gratitude journaling”. She usually journals first thing in the morning, writing three pages long and in a journal, “getting in touch with your thoughts and sitting with them”, removing negative mental blocks. “It’s not alonement per se but it’s the entrance fee, because if you’re not able to sit with your thoughts, you will always avoid alone time. While it’s not always easy, even though I struggle with it sometimes, I think developing your ability to do this and coming back to that practice is essentially what you need to commit to alonement.”

She mentions “morning pages”, Julia Cameron’s term in The Artist’s Way, and also Michael Harris’s “bogeyman of the naked self”. She describes these reflections as “meeting myself on paper”, a debrief examining how things have affected her. “The very act of writing it down stops you ruminating on the same negative thoughts, which can happen in alone time. Having that daily practice, facing the Bogeyman, regularly stops alone time being this scary thing with negative associations.”

Then there's avoiding "only me-ism", as in "it's only me so I'll have cereal for dinner

As a writer, she prefers journaling for this emotional regulation but it doesn’t suit everyone; “alternatives are something mindful like mediation, or dancing, or knitting or anything that lets you sit and think and focus on one thing, creating that environment where being alone with your thoughts isn’t scary. It’s the baseline solitude skill.”

Also, within her confines with Covid, Specter planned “solitude dates every night”, maybe “as simple as saying at 7pm I’m going to switch off my laptop and watch a specific series on television, or I’m going to cook X. You have to schedule it in, because we’re used to scheduling time in with other people. If we’re going to consider alone time as valuable as time with others, you have to treat it like you would quality time with others, which is something we’re used to doing.”

Then there’s avoiding “only me-ism”, as in “it’s only me so I’ll have cereal for dinner. [In isolation] I made sure to be really nice to myself and treated myself like I would someone I love. Because I do! It really reinforces your self-esteem, when you’ve made an elaborate effort for yourself. It gets in your head. If you have a partner who’s constantly doing nice things for you, you feel really good about yourself. You can give that to you.”

She stresses alonement exists “within a framework of social connection”, so she spoke to someone at least once a day by phone or videocall. Alone time and social connection give each other a flavour. “You can’t appreciate one without the other.”

Another solitude skill is communicating with other people about your alonetime, because it “creates an environment of alonetime being respected and valued mutually”. It prevents perceptions of rudeness, and “avoids those terrible moments when you end up slamming the door on a loved one’s face because you just need 15 minutes of quiet or reflection. We’re not used to having these conversations, because we’re not used to respecting or having a language around alonement. The more you do it, the more you feel justified and calm about pursuing your alonetime. Also, you’ll very likely inspire” someone else to pursue theirs.

She encourages people to “embrace positive selfishness, and to make quality time”, the other side of the coin to only-me-ism, celebrating time with yourself without hurting anyone. “Be unafraid to be specific about details of your solo time, whether that’s having the TV at exactly the volume you like or cooking what you like.” Outside of lockdown that could be going to a restaurant you like alone, or planning a day around your own interests and hobbies. “Pay attention to the quality of that time and embrace the positive selfishness.”

Specter has recorded 30 episodes of her podcast since starting, alongside lockdown, in March 2020. Lessons from her podcast guests crop up in her book. Her first guest philosopher Alain de Botton talked needing to create a positive narrative. “If we’re looking for how to cure or solve the problem of loneliness, what we have to start with is changing what being on your own means. In a way, at times, all of us can feel quite comfortable being on our own, but other times it’s anguishing.”

Food writer Felicity Cloake talked about the “glamour” of dining alone as an example of owning alonement in public (“it implies that you’ve got the confidence to go and do it and you’re happy in your own company”, an “international woman of mystery”).

Journalist and author Daisy Buchanan talked about alone time as the antidote to both the need to perform for others in company, and sharing your life on social media, talking about "this core of me that I don't have to share".

Specter is “so proud of how proactively kind I was to myself, such a friend to myself” during Covid confinement. “I took that very seriously and made it a value”, like making it a value to be a good spouse, or parent, or colleague. Her year of alonement exploration before Covid “really sustained me. As someone who had never valued any time alone, it would have felt like a sentence, whereas instead it felt like an opportunity to put my value of alonement into practice. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about telling other people about this. It’s such an important part of your emotional toolkit. People don’t think of solitude skills, they think about developing social skills, but actually solitude skills are what personally got me through a very difficult time. And will help people get through similar crises, whether lockdown or divorce or whatever.”

Alonement How To Be Alone & Absolutely Own It by Francesca Specter is published by Quercus Editions.