Why You Should Always Eat Lunch Alone (Well, Almost Always)

Do you crave solitude or do you fear being alone? Let me share something I discovered about myself in the last few days. I discovered one of my lifelong desires.

I read this today and I began to think about my life. I have always craved solitude. But I rarely find it. With two small children at home, a moment of solitude and silence is precious.

Finding solitude was much easier as a child. I used to walk the wooded bank of the Red River alone and listen to the wind rustle the leaves and the current rush against the dead logs jutting from the river. I sat on a stump next to the bank and daydreamed for hours. I threw sticks in the water and watched them slowly work their way down the river. As I sat there, I pondered questions about the world:

  • Where is the water going?
  • Why does the stick float?
  • What makes the wind howl?
  • Why is the wet dirt black and the dry dirt gray?
  • What is this moment and where does it go when it passes? Is it lost? Will I ever get it back?

While sitting on that bank I had my first realization of the permanent loss of passing time.

I looked forward to moments alone so I could read. After bedtime, I sat under the covers with a flashlight reading books.

I walked for miles in Buffalo River State Park, wondering if the world looked like this before Lewis and Clark mapped the way west.

I recall being wrapped up like a three-foot styrofoam mummy shuffling alone across the hardened drifts of North Dakota snow. Watching in wonder as the snow sparkled and scurried over the crests and through the valleys like a magical howling mist. I intimately know and crave the magic of aloneness.

But I never needed to be physically alone to feel alone. I recall standing with fifteen of my burnout buddies at the bottom of hill just off of Jr. High School property, waiting… gazing at the top of the hill…completely focused…knowing there was no way out of the fight I was about to fight…and seeing my nemesis come over the rise of the hill and charge down the hill toward me with hundreds of people behind him. In that moment, I was alone and I saw everything and nothing all at once.

Have you ever had the feeling of aloneness while public speaking? It’s a strange but wonderful feeling if you accept it.

Great marketers know there are many of us who crave solitude. Do you remember the great Marlboro cigarette ad depicting the Marlboro Man trudging alone through the snow along an endless fence line? I know that ad was one reason – among many – that I started smoking at thirteen. Phillip Morris wasn’t selling cigarettes; they were selling solitude and escapism. I quit smoking seven years ago. Up until the day I quit, I had the ability to solve complex technical problems in my mind while sitting alone and smoking a cigarette. I once read that nicotine causes your synapses to fire faster and I believed it, but today I believe that the solitude I found stepping away from work and going outside gave my mind the peace it needed to find an answer.

Every addiction I have is a substitute for solitude. I seek solitude in a world with increasing connectedness.

I love to create. To first interact with others, then retreat to solitude, and create something useful from what I learned during my interaction. But solitude is hard to realize in our society. I crave the creative flow that Tom Demarco, and Timothy Lister describe in Peopleware (one of the finest team management books ever written) or Steve Pavlina describes in this post; the mental state of flow where you lose track of time and space and ideas manifest into reality.

In corporate America, there is little privacy, much like public school. When I developed software, the only time I could find satisfying creative flow was Sunday afternoon when I was sure no one would interrupt me. I have fought for solitude to create all through my technical career and I still haven’t found the right balance. Some say telecommuting or working from home is the answer, but when you have small children, home is a place with constant interruption. My schedule relegates creative flow to 4 AM or 10 PM.

Corporate cubicle hell is frustrating because we are asked to do creative things like write, design, or program, but cubicles are the least productive places to create. In the past, when I requested that we dump cubicles and build offices – and I have pages of data that prove cubicles lower worker productivity – I invariably get the same response, “you may be right, but no one else is doing it, so we aren’t. If cubicles are good enough for fortune 100, they are good enough for us.” Maybe that is why so many talented people are leaving cubicle land and starting micro businesses.

I’ve booked meeting rooms for myself so I could work alone.

Former Northwest Orient CEO Donald Nyrop built entire office buildings without a single window – not even the doors were glass – because he didn’t want his employees frittering away time looking outside. I’ve seen the buildings. They are giant gray cement rectangles. He ordered all the doors taken off the bathroom stalls because he didn’t want employees wasting time on the toilet. Can you imagine what it must have been like to work under his leadership? You couldn’t even defecate in solitude.

I haven’t read Keith Ferazzi’s book Never Eat Lunch Alone. But I can say I disagree with the title. I eat lunch alone on most days. I find a quiet place outside and I think. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I visualize the future. Sometimes I visualize the past. Other times I just soak in the present. It is sanity time. Lunchtime is the only pure solitude I get.

I can spend an hour during my workday writing a single email because of the constant interruptions. Don’t misunderstand me, the interruptions are necessary. I don’t want to live in a tar paper shack like Ted Kaczynski. I want people to feel free to talk to me and my door is always open, but I must block time for pure solitude.

Our interactions with one another give us the material to create, our alone time is where we allow ourselves to create. We must balance them.

For years, I listened to talk radio in my car during my daily commutes. Four months ago, I turned it off. I don’t need some blowhard putting angry thoughts into my head about things I cannot change. Now I spend my commutes in quasi-solitude. Sometimes, I listen to podcasts or music, but mostly I listen to my thoughts and try to control them. Today, I enjoy my commute. It is a time I can think my own thoughts without interruption. I used to hate commuting; I would swear at the drivers on the road and honk at the slightest provocation. This Christmas vacation I missed my commute because I lost two thirty minute chunks of solitude. Is it crazy that life has become so hectic and connected that I find commuting peaceful? My wife said she’s heard stay-at-home-moms say, “yeah, he has to work but a least he gets peace and quiet while he drives to work. That’s more than we get.”

When I’ve spent too much time alone, I do get depressed. But if I spend too much time around people, I also get depressed. The key is finding your personal balance between connectedness and aloneness. I know that neither my wife nor I get enough solitude to meet our needs. We are working on that.

For me networking is easy. I have millions of people to network with at any given moment. The problem is deciding whom to network with. On any workday, I could eat lunch with 400 different people. I don’t have a lack of people in my life. Maybe I’m blessed but I have never feared loneliness.

For me solitude is a rare commodity. I cherish my moments alone, when I can think, plan, and create. That’s why I almost always eat lunch alone.

19 thoughts on “Why You Should Always Eat Lunch Alone (Well, Almost Always)”

  1. Interesting point, Steve. I’ve not read Ferrazi’s book either, but have read his articles and newsletters in the past. For the most part the advice can be helpful for business professionals.

    I think there is a difference between cultivating social capital for business reasons, and cultivating self development for growth reasons.

    Sometimes we don’t always think (or care) about the difference.

    Jane Chin

  2. Good post. I also find that I can’t get enough solitude. Even when I’m alone it’s still hard to get away from the distractions technology creates. I’m under the impression that most people don’t feel this way though. Most of the people I know don’t like solitude, they get bored or lonely. Maybe they don’t have enough thoughts to occupy them.

    I’m glad you wrote on the topic because it is something I empathize with. Also the part about cubicles. I’m lucky I work in an office, but even that is bad enough. The only thing cubes do is scare people into doing mindless jobs faster.

  3. I just got rid of my blackberry last week for this exact reason. Being connected is great, but with that blackberry you’re connected with everyone and everything all the time.

    Turning that thing off putting it back in it’s box is the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time.

  4. Great post, Steve. The childhood moments you describe are very similar to my own childhood growing up in rural Northern Ohio. With only 2,000 in the town, it was actually very easy to find time and places where you could be alone for hours. After 20 years here in Los Angles, I miss that more than ever.

    I also relate to your alternating desires to be with people and then be alone. I need interaction to charge the batteries and then some solitude to use the power to create something. It is finding the balance that is so difficult.

    I often spend my lunches alone, reading and writing and thinking and I like it that way. Joining someone for lunch is different and sometimes I will find myself urging the end of the lunch so I can get back to something I can feel in my body and mind…something alone.

    As for technology, whenever anyone complains about the burdens of Blackberry’s, pagers, email and such, I simply tell them to “Turn the damn thing off!” We are in charge of our technology, at least for a little while longer. As either Huxley or Orwell or both fortold, when there no longer is an OFF button, we are truly lost.

    Keep up the good work!


  5. Interesting post,

    Mr. Winfield got to live his dream. What you see in the Marlboro Picture was his real life ( I think in Wyoming). However, in the end he got cancer and went across the country (as I understand) lecturing about the hazards of cigarettes up until his death.

    This is, in my opinion an area of life that balance is required. If we totally isolate ourselves we will seek our own selfish longings, desires and resolves. That doesn’t make for good society. It doesn’t promote good health.

    Studies show that loving and being social can lengthen your life.

    We are social creatures.

    On the other hand, if we don’t have the ocassional isolation, we forget to think about ourselves and the necessary reassessment so that we can grow or like you reminded, solve problems which is also one of the things we do well.

  6. Here, here! I take 40 minute walks at lunch because I find most people don’t want to walk so I get to spend some time with my thoughts. Never mind, that I’m really not interested in having lunch with my coworkers. When I want human contact, and sometimes I crave it, I call up a friend and ask them if they want to have a lunch date.

    I need equal time in solitude and among the multitudes. Too much of either and I get short circuited. Too little of either and I get depressed.

  7. Not only are we in charge of our technology, we are in charge of our lives. We are responsible. What good does it do to blame society for never being alone. You make alone time, not the people around you. Of course I could be with my husband, children, friends all the time… and when they’re in bed, I could get in touch with everyone in Germany. It’s my choice to take “me” time, and I take a lot of me time. I need to be alone… a little bit every day.

  8. Nice post Steve, it is definitely a healthy balance between solitude and social interaction that brings good spiritual and mental health. Although I’ve never been a person that has gone to the movies by myself, I definitely do enjoy my lunch breaks alone – tucked away in a corner and away from my cubicle. Although strangely, I also do enjoy some background noise, like a semi-full coffee shop with free Wi-Fi – which sounds very much like your description of feeling alone although you’re not physically alone.

  9. Is it possible to be highly sensitive AND a true extrovert?? There is so much about me that I think would qualify me as a “highly sensitive” person. I am always aware of my surroundings, the sounds, the smells, the visual distractions. In fact what is hilarious is that my friends and my husband nicknamed me “Super Sensitive Sense Girl” because my hearing is very acute, my sense of smell is very strong, I can feel vibrations that nobody else can feel, and my sense of taste is very highly developed.

    YET, I don’t crave solitude like it seems most highly sensitive people do.
    I do crave CALM, order, and I despise chaos (big surprise that I’m in the industry I’m in huh??) but I genuinely enjoy people, and as a true extrovert, I am energized by interacting with them, as long as I can choose the size of the group. I also love public speaking and any type of group discussion, until it gets chaotic and then I want to run to a corner. Also, large bustling crowds stress me out, as does prolonged loud music, cacophony, and visual clutter. Am I an anomaly?

  10. I thought I was the only one who craved solitude! Thanks for this really great post. I really like your writing style. It is honest and from the heart.

  11. Funnily enough the idea of solitude has come up twice in the last two days. My husband was talking of a friend who is taking his family on a two-week holiday in a hotel ‘family room’. I said that this was my idea of hell – I love my family but two weeks of not being able to have any alone time would drive me mad. We always go self-catering so I can at least go into another room for half an hour or so.

    Then today I was talking to the secretary at my daughter’s school. She noted that I always turn up early and I said that the half hour before I collected my daughter was ‘me’ time. I have usually been studying or doing the housework with constant interruptions from family and so on and so this time in my car, sometimes freezing cold in winter, was my time to unwind. I find I especially need it as the children get older and go to bed later. They will be going to bed the same time as me in a few years (10pm) so alone time then will be gone (my husband works evenings as an entertainer so he doesn’t really factor in at this time of night).

    I love my family and enjoy spending time with friends but I do think that everyone needs some time alone with their thoughts. As Brian says – I thought I was the only one. It’s great to know I’m not.

  12. First of all why is every mother trucker writting a blog named steve? Second, I love the point you make about the importance of alone time to get some good thinking done. I do my best thinking on the John, before I fall asleep in bed, or when ever one else has left the office building and I’m free to talk to myself and verbally sketch out ideas. Thanks for the great read, makes me realize I need to seek out more alone time.

  13. I eat lunch alone almost every day I work. I have worked for a Fortune-50 company for about seven years. I use to have to turn down numerous calls to have lunch with various people — usually groups of people. Now, it seems most people I interact with just know that I eat lunch alone. Occasionally I have to revisit my explanation of why I eat alone. Which, I kind of like because it reminds me of who I am — and how I am “wired.” I explain, “I enjoy the alone-time … I enjoy reading a book or an aritcle … I enjoy being alone with my thoughts and thinking about the things I think about — not the thoughts of a group of lunchers.” I get arguments from some. But people are alway pleasant about it. However, I always feel odd in some way. It seems to me that, where I work anyways, the “norm” is to have lunch with others. And the thought of changing my ways makes me shutter. Thanks for sharing. I feel a little more “normal” now.

  14. Andrew,

    I understand. When I first started at my current job. About nine years ago. I ate lunch alone. After about a year I began to eat lunch with groups everyday. After a while I began to miss the alone time and I withdrew from the lunching groups. I was afraid they’d think I was arrogant. You know, many introverts are mistaken for arrogant jerks. Anyway, for the last several years I eat lunch alone, and it has helped me mentally and physically. I don’t eat as much food. I still go out with a group a couple times a month, but mostly I eat alone.

  15. While I was reading this, I experienced my own childhood flash by my eyes. Even I am an intense solitude lover. I agree to each and every point you mentioned, Steve. Great writing, indeed.

    Loneliness inspires creativity. Almost all my achievements have happened after all are asleep at home. I start working after all have left office.

    Another interesting aspect that adds to this solitude addiction in my case, is trance music. It really gets us into our own world, making us achieve the impossible!

    Trance Music + Loneliness = Marvelous Results!

  16. Like so many of the people who responded to this well-written post, I too have an indigenous desire for solitude. I suppose I’ve always had it.

    I was still a child, really, when I recognized the need to be totally alone at times. Looking back at the period between my childhood and young-adulthood, there were many people who could not comprehend this.

    At present, I have a wonderful wife and a 6yo son who both understand the importance of solitude. Even now, there aren’t many people who agree with our views.

    Solitude allows humans to ponder questions they cannot find time or space to address elsewhere. Those who spend time in solitude return to the world
    renewed and bring to their lives a heightened sense of balance and focus. Solitude, then, is essential for living life well.

  17. My husband and I are very close, but we spend very little time together compared to other couples…or maybe we are close because of it. We are both very creative and need a lot of ‘space’. He jokes that he loves me because I ignore him 🙂 When we are together we tend to talk on a deep level, mainly about essentials, we really connect. This is very satisfying. He is my best friend.

  18. I can relate to you on being able to enjoy the solitude and ‘think time’ offered by the daily commute to work. I used to hate commuting too, but now I have begun to appreciate it , this is the time when I feel truly on my own and can reflect or just be.

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