In early 2014, when I was finishing up a draft of a novel, I faced a common writer’s dilemma. I could carve out time here and there to work on my manuscript amid deadlines and family duties, but I felt like I wasn’t seeing the big picture. I wanted to work with no distractions. To do that, I needed to get away.
So I traded off kid time with my husband, and took a 48-hour retreat to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which was the real life version of the fictional town where my story was set. I checked myself into a historic inn and got to work. By the time I drove back home through the snowy mountains, I’d made a lot of progress. Perhaps not as much as I would have during a two-week stay at an artist’s colony, but I don’t believe retreats need to be long to be useful. I also think short breaks are necessary for a productive life. As Michael Simmons, cofounder and partner at Empact, told me about what he calls his “dates with the soul”: “Without taking breaks, I start to feel like I don’t have a grasp of all the balls in the air and what my priorities are for each day and even my life overall. I feel like I’m behind on stuff, but I don’t know what.”
If you’d like to carve out space to think or create in your busy life, try these tips for making the most of whatever time you can seize.
Getting away for a few hours or a few days is great, but without an intention it’s a vacation, not a retreat. So ask yourself what you’d like to achieve with your time off. If the answer is “relaxation” or “clearing my head” that’s fine, but those answers suggest different activities than if you’re trying to think up a new direction for your business, or edit a collection of essays.
Figure out what needs to happen for your designated block of time to be all yours. Would it be best to take a day off work, or repurpose an existing holiday or half-day? Can your partner take your kids (perhaps in exchange for some promised me-time later?), or could you trade off with a friend? Mark your retreat on your calendar far enough ahead of time that you can anticipate it, and start pondering ideas in advance. That way, when it’s go time, you’ll hit the ground running.
If you’ve given yourself 24 hours or more, spending 1-2 hours of that time driving somewhere beautiful could be a great investment. Check into a hotel and enjoy a real change of scenery. If you’ve only got a few hours, you’ll have to be more practical. A friend’s vacated house or apartment is a cheap option (you won’t feel compelled to distract yourself by cleaning her dishes). I’ll sometimes go to the library for a few hours, and a surprising number of people told me they do their mini-retreats at Barnes & Noble. There’s usually coffee, lots of reading material for inspiration, and people-watching opportunities, but the vibe is more chill than a street corner Starbucks. If you just want to think and don’t plan to do much research or writing, going for a long walk in a nearby nature preserve is an excellent choice.
Yes, you’re probably bringing your phone, if for no other reason than needing directions to the start of the hiking trail. So figure out rules for yourself. It’s not a retreat if you’re checking your inbox every five minutes like you do during a regular day at work. Don’t fear boredom. Boredom is your brain’s way of getting ready for all sorts of new insights to come roaring in. You might give your loved ones your hotel phone number for emergencies, and then resolve to only turn your phone on twice a day. Alternately, be disciplined about filling your mini-retreat with actively relaxing events such as massages, so you’re less tempted to check in on real life.
You won’t take mini-retreats daily, so you do want to maximize this time, but be gentle with yourself. It’s impossible to have deep thoughts every minute. While I spent most of my time in Jim Thorpe in my hotel room working, I did wander around the town, and I’d leave for meals. I’d return recharged and ready to work. Breaks are like a mini-retreat within a retreat. They make your focused time even better.