Discover the Cognitive Benefits a ‘Silent Retreat’

Discover the Cognitive Benefits a ‘Silent Retreat’

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Each summer, I take a few weeks off as CEO of Jotform, travel to my family’s farm in Turkey, and do my best to truly check out. Instead of tending to my inbox, I tend to our olive groves and go for long nature walks with my kids. As this time off unfolds, I inevitably begin to feel refreshed and re-energized. Upon returning to the office, this form of life hack produces thinking that’s reliably sharper, and I’m increasingly convinced that much of this has to do with the absence of noise, both internal and external.

Their grounding in the principle that “…natural quiet has become an endangered species and needs to be protected” (as Condé Nast Traveler writer Sarah Allard phrases it in a 2023 article on vacation trends), “silent retreats” are on the rise. And though many of these literally encourage no talking, it seems that their effectiveness stems from a lack of informational/digital noise. A fascinating El Pais story by Silvia López Rivas includes a 2011 observation by then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who pointed out that until 2003, humans had produced an amount of information equivalent to five exabytes — the same quantity generated every two days in 2011. It has been estimated that by 2025, we’ll be creating 463 exabytes of information every single day. In short, the sound of information, already deafening, is poised to get much louder.

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The benefits of quiet

Meditation retreats, even when they’re not totally silent, have been shown to deliver multifold benefits. One comprehensive study published in a 2016 edition of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that meditation retreats reliably reduced symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, in part because of their ability to foster mindfulness — being fully present and engaged in the moment. It is, after all, virtually impossible to focus on creative work when your mind is racing. Mindfulness, meanwhile, leads to clearer and more innovative thinking.

Many retreat participants additionally report that an extended experience of silence helped produce a better night’s sleep, and it’s no secret to anyone reading this that rest is fundamental to sharp cognition. A telling 2004 study from the University of Lübeck involved asking subjects to complete math problems that relied on algorithms, with shortcuts hidden deep within formulas. About 25% of the subjects discovered them at the outset, but given the chance to get eight hours of sleep, that figure rose to 59%.

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Go easy at first

It’s challenging to quit noise cold turkey. That’s why silent retreat organizers approach the process gradually. For example, they recommend that participants, especially first-timers, ease into the practice by refraining from checking phones for a few hours before arriving.

Even if you’re not jetting off to retreat in a 16th-century castle in France, there are ways to proceed gradually into encouraging quiet, say by carving out just 15 daily minutes away from devices, emails, meetings, social media and news notifications.

It’s tricky for me to commit to anything that isn’t scheduled, so I make regular appointments to have silent time. For me, mornings work best before the day has a chance to catch up. When the appointment pops up, I’m not deciding whether or not I’m in the mood to be silent; I just switch off devices and begin.

Objectively observe your internal dialogue

Making time for yourself in this way is, on its own, an achievement that will deliver myriad benefits, but applying some actionable advice can help take the practice one step further.

During silent time at the office, I use some of the practices from Vipassana meditation — scanning my body from head to toe and paying attention to sensations. If my shoulders ache from a morning training session or my stomach grumbles after a skipped breakfast, I take note while tuning into what’s happening in my mind.

The key is to not react, just observe, as many have found that engaging in this discipline helps both body and mind better tolerate painful and unpleasant situations.

Related: How to Stop Information Overload in its Tracks

Get comfortable with discomfort

In our incredibly noisy world, sitting in silence can be jarring, and it’s not unusual to experience a knee-jerk need to escape from it. In a 2016 Guardian article, one journalist attending a silent retreat in New Zealand admitted to having the urge to run through the hall screaming. It’s perfectly natural to want to give up when you’re first engaging in this process, and that’s okay. The trick is to stop expecting perfection and learn to be with things as they are, which can reduce stress and anxiety and boost creativity and the need for productive connections with others.

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