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This is what taking a solo writing retreat taught me about focus

I needed a change of environment to be able to do deep, focused work.

This is what taking a solo writing retreat taught me about focus
[Photo: Olivier Guillard/Unsplash]

For the past six years, I’ve been a full-time freelance writer, working from a home office in rural Illinois. Remote work allows me the freedom and flexibility to work collaboratively with teams from all over the world. But just as living and working within the same square footage has its perks, this setup also has its drawbacks.

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For one thing, it gets a little dull. It can also be distracting at times. Tasks like folding the laundry or putting the dishes away are always there as an excuse to put off writing projects just a little bit longer. It’s not always a great environment for highly focused work.

So when my workload started to mount, I decided it was time for a change. I needed some fresh scenery and a different work environment to spark my creativity and to keep my chore-related distractions at bay. Data backed up this decision: A survey from cloud solutions provider CoSoCloud showed that 77% of professionals report greater productivity while working offsite.

I ended up renting a home in Galena, Illinois, at the Eagle Ridge Resort for a four-day solo writing retreat so I could finally accomplish some deep work. Here’s how I picked my location, how I structured my time for maximum focus, and some tips for anyone considering a solo writing retreat of their own.

What it takes to do deep work

Author Cal Newport defines deep work as the ability to focus without distraction on a mentally demanding task. He says, “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

The trouble is, deep work isn’t always easy to do. According to one report by UK-based financial services firm ThinkMoney, distractions eat up an average of 759 hours per worker each year. Research from time tracking platform RescueTime found that of 50,000 professionals surveyed, most spent just 38% of their workday on “core” work that helped them make meaningful progress on projects.

For me, I knew that to do deep work, I needed to put myself in a distraction-free environment where I could put my head down and focus on writing.

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How I chose a location

When I weighed different location options for my solo writing retreat, I had a few must haves on my list. If you’re planning a writing retreat of your own, these are good things to keep in mind as well.

  • Short driving distance—I didn’t want to spend full days traveling to my destination, as that would’ve eaten away at my writing time. Instead, I wanted a location I could drive to in four hours or less, which helped narrow down my search options.
  • Quiet—I prefer to write in a quiet environment, so I needed a location that would accommodate this. Hotels weren’t a good option because they can be noisy depending on who’s staying in the rooms around you or where you’re located within the building. Instead, I sought out a rental home so I could have the place to myself and create a peaceful setting where I could be most productive.
  • Amenities—Amenities were a big priority for me, so I looked for a home to book since I’d be spending so much time there during my retreat. Some of the things on my must-have list included:
    • A fireplace—I don’t have a fireplace at home, and since I took this retreat during the cold winter months, I specifically looked for places that boasted this cozy feature. The home I booked had one that was wood-burning, and it came fully stocked with firewood.
    • A sleep-conducive bedroom—A good night’s rest is essential for productive workdays, so I made sure the home I booked had a good bed and light-blocking curtains.
    • A kitchen and refrigerator—I bought a bit of my own work fuel along with me, so I needed a home with cold storage and a kitchen area for basic food prep.
  • Dining options—The last thing I wanted to do during my writing retreat was to spend time tracking down food (or cooking it), so another necessity for my location was nearby dining options beyond fast food. Eagle Ridge was a good fit because it offered several restaurants right on the grounds of the property, as well as the option to have food delivered to the home I stayed at. They also had a small general store for any snacks and drinks I needed during late-night work sprints.

How I structured my time

I knew that to achieve maximum productivity and focus, I needed to take a strategic approach to the four days I had for this retreat. As a result, I implemented a few best practices to keep myself on-track.

  • Time blocking—I tend to want to get lost in the editing process while I write, so I implemented time blocking  to keep my days hyper-focused. The first half of each day was for writing, and the second half was for editing. Time blocking kept me from hopping back and forth between the two activities.
  • Working in sprints—Using a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, I worked in one to two-hour sprints with short breaks in between. During the sprints, I turned off all notifications on my phone, stayed out of my inbox, and didn’t keep any other tabs open on my laptop. During my 15-20 minute breaks, I got up to stretch and get a snack but then got right back to work.
  • Time to recharge—At the end of each day, I gave myself time to decompress after such intense, focused work so I could mentally (and physically) recharge for the next day. This looked different each day, but these activities were all focused on relaxation and included things like getting a massage, doing yoga, or taking a hot bath.

What I accomplished

During my four-day writing retreat, I finished a major project that included writing and editing more than 20,000 words. This meant I averaged about 5,000 words a day, which was a 100% increase in my normal daily productivity.

Wrapping up this large project also freed up my mental bandwidth for new projects. As soon as I returned home, I could start a fresh to-do list without this large assignment holding me back from moving forward.

How to plan your own solo writing retreat

If you’re considering planning your own solo writing retreat to do some deep work, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Find a space that’s conducive to your productivity—Be honest and realistic about what type of work environment you need to stay laser-focused. Choose a space that plays to your productivity strengths.
  • Set your priorities and objectives before you leave—Make sure you’re clear about what you need to complete during your retreat, in what order, and what benchmarks will indicate success. Maybe it’s a word count, pages written, or assignments completed. Whatever the case, make sure to formalize your objective.
  • Take notes on what worked—This type of getaway is a great way to learn about yourself and your focus-related habits. If you find particular strategies that helped boost your productivity during this time, make notes of those and implement them into your daily routine.

A solo writing retreat can not only be extremely productive. It can also teach you how to hone your focus within day-to-day work, long after your time away has wrapped up.

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Kaleigh Moore is a writer and consultant for companies in the SaaS industry.

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