The top 10 things I learned about productivity living in reclusion for 10 days

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 52s. I’ve bolded the golden nuggets if you don’t have that long.

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I almost quit this productivity experiment on Day Five.

I hated this experiment. Hated hated hated hated hated this experiment. Every morning I woke up with no energy, no motivation, and feeling like the life had been completely sucked out of me. I had no social support network to fall back on, felt completely isolated nearly all of the time, woke up sick most mornings because the basement was so goddamned cold, and experienced deep, emotional trenches that left me tired, exhausted, and depressed.

And at the same time, I loved this experiment. I loved living on an island, a cocooned paradise where no one could contact me or reach me. I felt unburdened by the commitments that come with people. All of my time was mine – I wasn’t being tugged in a million directions – I could move freely, productive or otherwise, in whatever hell direction I wanted.

You could say that this experiment had its ups and downs.

The purpose of living in reclusion was to dive deep into how social interactions impact productivity, and I certainly did that. At 5pm today I’m stepping out of my cocoon and back into the real world, but not before writing about the things I’ve learned down here. Here are the top 10 things I learned about productivity while living in reclusion for 10 days.

10. Wait a bit before sending important emails/messages

I think almost everyone has tweets, emails, text messages, pictures, and other online stuff they’d like to take back, and can’t.

On my computer’s desktop I have a big ass text file with a ton of emails, tweets, and blog comments that I wasn’t allowed to send during the course of this experiment. Here’s the interesting part: as the file has been sitting there for the last 10 days, I have significantly revised the more important messages in the batch, and sometimes completely changed some after I would have already hit ‘Send’. Most of my edits took place in the 24 hours after I wrote the original message.

When you give your mind time to collect and form thoughts, what you say is more complete, valuable, creative, and generally, better. Before hitting ‘Send’ on your next important email, try waiting several hours, or even a day if you can. The world certainly won’t fall apart, and you’ll be able to get your point across much stronger.

My main living quarters for the week (plus a futon). Click for a larger image!

My main living quarters for the week (plus a futon, not pictured). Click for a larger image.

9. Don’t eat several mandarin oranges when you’re going to live in the same small room for 10 days

The room I lived in for the last 10 days is tiny, and mandarin oranges give me a lot of gas. Needless to say, this is a lesson you should take to heart if you ever find yourself spending time in reclusion.

8. It’s easier to ‘let yourself go’ when there aren’t people around

Toward the end of the experiment, especially as I began to write more and make less videos about the experiment, I began to care a lot less about my appearance. I dressed sloppier, ate poorer, and didn’t care a hell of a lot about impressing people (and not in a badass kind of way, either).

I’ll personally admit that one of the reasons I want to become fitter, more focused, smarter, and so on is vanity. It isn’t the only reason, but it’s one of them. I want people to look at me and think, “holy shit, is that man ever    blank   !” Without people around to impress, I found myself letting go of my appearance.

I’m not sure if this lesson can be generalized, but I’m going to do it anyway. When you’re surrounded by more people, especially if receiving validation motivates you, you will try harder to make yourself into a better person.

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timechart7. Meditation is the key to staying sane

Over the last ten days, I’ve meditated for 47 minutes a day on average, and this has undoubtedly kept me sane in reclusion. At the beginning of my experiment, I found my mind racing and restless, but after each meditation, my mind revved down considerably. Meditation may just be the key to keeping your mind calm and in check.

As the old Buddhist saying goes, “you should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”1

6. Digital connections provide a much smaller return than real connections

Over the last 10 days, as I separated myself from my real and digital connections (people I haven’t met), I came to the realization that my real connections are profoundly different then digital connections. Real connections are deeper, more valuable, and provide greater returns as you invest more time and energy into them.

The problem is, and maybe you’re like me with this, I invest way more time into my digital connections than my real connections. That’s not to say that there isn’t a human being on the other end of every twitter account (except for Horse ebooks, of course), but that is to say real relationships will provide you with much larger returns. The trick is to spend your time in a way that matches up with that fact.

Interlude: My 10 favorite productivity experiments from my year of productivity

10 of my favorite experiments from my year of productivity, in no particular order. Just click on any picture to visit the experiment’s article.

5. The most boring, cliche things are the things that actually work

I think that behind every cliche is a truth that’s so powerful that people feel compelled to repeat the phrase over and over and over. Work out. Get a good amount of sleep. Eat well. Take a vitamin every day. Drink a lot of water. The problem is that they’re repeated so often that they lose almost all of their meaning.

By day three, I was sick, stuffed up, had trouble breathing, and generally felt terrible. But then I started drinking a ton of water, taking vitamins, eating impeccably, and began to focus more on getting a good amount of sleep each night instead of trying to wake up at 5:30 every morning (for another productivity experiment). As soon as I started doing these boring, cliche things, my health, attitude, motivation, and energy levels all instantly perked up. These things work.

Every day I was allowed two, 10-minute trips upstairs, so throughout each day I made a list of what to get on my trips.

Every day I was allowed two, 10-minute trips upstairs, and throughout each day I made a list of what to get.

4. Without people around, you have high highs, but lower lows

Two news articles were published about my project while I was in reclusion, and to be honest, this made me feel just as good down here alone as I would have felt surrounded by friends.

But when I hit the ‘lows’ of this experiment – taking three hours to fall asleep, battling a huge cold, getting fatigued because of a lack of sleep, and becoming sadder than I had been in months – I had no social support network down here as a safety net.

I think a lot of people think they don’t need people when they’re on top of the world, only to find they’re alone when they inevitably come back down again.

As a rule, I think people embellish pretty much everything.

Sunbeams in Spring Forest

3. Sunlight elevates your mood, regulates your sleep, and gives you energy and motivation

This was a lesson so big that I wrote a whole other article about it. When you don’t have enough exposure to sunlight (like me throughout the experiment), your sleep quality severely suffers (since the sun regulates your sleep cycle), you’re less able to handle stress and manage your attention, and you have significantly less energy.

sunset2. Stepping back from what you do gives you a valuable, bigger perspective

We spend most of our time at ‘ground level‘, entrenched in whatever we’re doing. It isn’t until we step back from what we’re doing that we can see it from a broader perspective. Living in reclusion, I focused mostly on work, and I found it incredibly difficult to step back from this project. But at the same time, I was about to gain an incredible perspective on where things like my relationships, finances, and health fit into who I am, mostly because I was able to step back from those elements of my life. Stepping back from the elements that comprise your life gives them meaning, gives you purpose, and allows you to see how what you do fits into the bigger picture of who you are.

1. People matter (more than you think)

At the end of the day (well, 10 days), I was less productive in reclusion than I would have been normally. Everyone has a different definition of productivity, but most of the benchmarks I use to measure how productive I am involve people, such as how happy I make other people, and the difference I’m able to make. When you take people out of that equation, either a), you’re not able to accomplish much, or b), what you do accomplish doesn’t mean a hell of a lot.

For me, people are my tapestry; so interwoven with who I am and what I do that I take them for granted. But over the last 10 days, like electricity, I’ve missed all of the people in my life when they were gone.

Throughout this experiment I have been less motivated, energetic, enthusiastic, and happy than I have been for a long time. Sure, some of that is because I’m not getting any sunlight, but I think it’s mostly because I have had no social interactions for the last ten days.

People matter, perhaps a lot more than you think. This isn’t an experiment I’ll repeat, but that said, I sure as hell learned a lot.

The next experiment I’m going to be diving deep into is reducing my body fat percentage to 10% (from 17%), and gaining 10 pounds of lean muscle mass. I’ll be posting periodic updates to that experiment on the front page of A Year of Productivity. Thanks for reading!

Rock on path photo credit. Sunset photo credit.


  1. I think people make meditation out to be a lot more complicated than it actually is. Here is a secular meditation guide I wrote if you’re curious. 

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30 Comments

  1. Lori O'Hara-Hoke says:

    Great work Chris!

  2. Awesome lessons learned, Chris! #10 took me a LONG time to figure out. I always sent things out the moment they were done but now I know the rule is to let it stew a bit and go over again so it’s fresh to look at again.

    • Thanks man! It’s very true. I watched a recent talk by John Cleese about creativity, and he talked about how you should wait until the *very last moment* that you can to send something, because that time will allow you to be a lot more creative. It’s funny the returns patience brings. Here’s the talk if you’re interested! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc (36:10, so it’s a bit long.)

  3. Doug LeMesurier says:

    Absolutely fascinating perspectives and very well written. Thank you for sharing your findings.

    • Thanks a lot Doug! A compliment on my writing is truly one of the highest compliments someone could give me, so thank-you. I’m excited to share more findings with you in the other experiments I have coming up!

  4. Wow, this is a cool experiment you did. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but have always had a tad bit of fear in doing. And your results were also very insightful.

    • Thanks a lot man! And thanks for reading :) Next up is gaining 10 pounds of lean muscle mass and reducing my body fat to 10%.. Hopefully that one’s a bit more fun! It’ll be interesting to see how that one impacts things like my ego, self-confidence and energy levels, only in different ways.

  5. Charlie Stokes says:

    Great job buddy, welcome back to society :)

  6. Harvey Smith says:

    It’s an interesting experiment and some of your conclusions have probably been felt by others but never written down as you have done. THe only thing I’m wondering about is the fact that you knew hoe long the experiment would be and you knew that you had people on the outside waiting for you. I’m assuming that you have your parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, good friends and close friends all waiting for your return. To go into seclusion like that knowing that you will be back with your family must have buoyed your spirits a little. For those people who lose a loved one or their parents or just are not very social , they are in seclusion even when surrounded by people. The conclusions you have come to appear very insightful and I’m amazed that you had reached them in so short a time. Very well written

    • Hi Harvey – thanks a lot for the comment! I can say first hand that this did impact the quality experiment, and in a way, it often became a way that I found comfort during the more difficult days. That said, I think the extent to which knowing I had people on the outside affected the experiment depended on my mindset at any moment. Looking back, when I was only thinking about the immediate, short-term, having a social support network on the outside didn’t help much, but when I thought about my time in the medium-term, it certainly did. I’d say my mind was 50/50 between both mindsets. Very good points!

      Thanks a lot for your nice comments about my article!

  7. Kevin Cole says:

    This is a badass experiment man. I’m always a fan of testing limits and seeing what lesson can be learned.

    I’m totally with ya when it comes to socializing, sunlight and relationships. Since I work from home I really don’t have to leave the house if I don’t want to. I can just chill here for days and never experience fresh air or other human beings. But after doing that once or twice I realized how easy it was to lose my freakin’ mind lol.

    So now every day I make a conscious effort to connect with people (in person) and get outside, even if it’s just for thirty minutes. I’d also like to add to the mandarin oranges point and say “Avoid large quantities of eggs.” It’s not a fun situation :)

    Very cool experiment man. Looking forward to future projects!

    • Thanks man!

      Haha, I found the same working from home last summer. I worked mostly with folks who were out of the country, and that made it feel even more isolating. I settled into a similar 30 minute daily walking ritual to process my thoughts, energize, get a bit of exercise, slow down, and jot down any thoughts or notes that came to me. Any chance to get out there and see some actual humans was awesome!

      Happy you enjoyed, excited to hear your thoughts on other experiments :-)

  8. Nate McNeil says:

    It’s funny, everything you describe is what I went through living alone in Gatineau last winter, wish you had done this before I moved there!

    • This is surprisingly (to me, at least) a common refrain I’ve heard from a lot of folks! It’s interesting that the effects of this relatively short-term experiment can mirror other people’s longer-term experiences living without people around. Hope your new living arrangement is going better buddy! :)

      • Nate McNeil says:

        It is! it’s amazing, the difference of talking to someone for even a few minutes a day has helped improve my grammar, voice volume and articulation. While I was on my own people commented that I was mumbling all the time and not speaking clearly. No I’m starting to work on getting into voice over work.

  9. No offense there bud but spending 10 days on your own is nothing. There are a lot of people who spend years of their life like this.

  10. Sam Jamieson says:

    I find it very strange that “Take a vitamin every day.” is a boring cliche. Different cultures!

  11. Hello Chris. As I see you missed one important thing to consider. Are you more extravert or introvert? From what you wrote it look to me, that you are strongly extravert so any type of total reclusion will be a killer for you. If I am correct I would suggest slight change: total reclusion for whole day, BUT you must spend 1 hour a day in circle of friends.

    • Hey Robert! From the tests I’ve taken I’m a blend of the two, but introversion/extraversion is definitely a topic I want to explore more deeply over the course of the project. I like the idea of controlling for extraversion with an hour a day of social interaction, but at the same time I love designing experiments that are as concentrated as possible.

  12. It’s a really interesting experiment you did! :)
    I would be curious how plants effect productivity in such an environment.

    Personally, I’m most productive when separating things in:
    working alone in a “cave” (well, that would be an even more interesting experiment ^^) – with some input coming in from time to time
    and in social time.

    I think I’m more productive this way, because I don’t need to fear judgment of my work and thus can think freely, plus there are no people to distract me.

    I once read of a game developer who worked remotely on a tent next to a lake in the woods for some weeks.
    Theoretically it’s a way more work-friendly environment – natural light, fresh healthy air, exercise, an inspiring atmosphere and lots of plants.
    If you ever are gonna to do an experiment like this again – I would suggest to spend a week in the woods and then compare both experiments.

    Anyway, cool experiment, thank you for sharing it freely! :)

    • Absolutely, happy you enjoyed it! I like that idea, might have to explore it :) Have you heard of the book, Your Brain on Nature? It’s on my to-read list; sounds like it’s up your alley as well!

      • No, I didn’t, thank you for the suggestion! I’m still thinking of buying it – the book is way to expensive if I import it here (62€/86USD), but the ebook is somewhat affordable. Will see, it sounds interesting.

  13. I think that this could work differently for introverts than for extroverts. For example, for an extrovert, being in recluse could severely impact productivity since it is quite draining energy wise, but for an introvert, the benefits could be more pronounced. Personally, I know that I do my best work alone as well. Either extreme of being in total recluse, or interacting with people constantly has its advantages and disadvantages.

  14. This is interesting to me because I require a fair amount of solitude. I’ve never tried a 10-day stint, but I’d like to. What this made me think of more than anything is what it’s like for prisoners in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Even prisons are beginning to realize that the “benefits” are far outweighed by the negative outcomes.

  15. I wonder if seclusion in nature instead of a small boxed up space would have had different (maybe more positive) results.
    4 years ago I once spent 5 days in a hut by an almost deserted beach. I returned to civilization with an energy and a peace that was so foreign to me that I can’t forget it till today. I was the happiest man on earth.
    I would suggest it! And thanks for your productivity experiments! :)

  16. Did you tell people that you would be offline for those ten days, or did you just disappear?

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