There’s a certain kind of person who gets excited about staying in a hotel just to get some work done, and I am that kind of person.
I don’t know if taking time away from home in order to get a big chunk of work done is a luxury or not. In the obvious sense, of course it is — only a small number of people can afford to do it, and an even smaller number can easily escape from ordinary life overnight. And honestly, it feels like a luxury; the work I do when I step away often feels like something I get to do instead of something I have to do.
But when I look at how much it can benefit my work, I’m not sure luxury is the right word. I’m a pretty disciplined person, but sometimes the amount of work I have to do seems debilitating. I get stuck, and spending money to break away from the everyday has never failed to give me what I need to get moving when I get back. I usually get through a big chunk of work, yes, but I also get a renewed sense of focus and vision that lasts for weeks.
I tend to think of my times away as “retreats,” maybe because the word means “rest” and “withdrawing while under attack,” and both feel accurate. I’m usually doing a writing retreat because I’m a writer, but I think they can be used for any kind of creative work, or even for studying or catching up on whatever you’re behind on. (Although obviously, if you have a project that requires dedicated tools or space to make a mess, you’ll have different needs.)
I’ve thought a lot about why retreats work. There’s the obvious, that paying money and carving out time is an investment I don’t want to lose, so I work to make the sacrifice worth it. There’s the fact that I take time to plan and think through my project before I leave, and that prep time helps me focus when I actually sit down to write.
But I think the big magic of the writing retreat may have to do with getting away from distractions. When I’m at home, I constantly see things that need my attention, because they’re literally all around me: the laundry’s not done, the dishes are dirty, we need groceries, etc. When I’m a writing retreat, I obviously don’t do the laundry. But I don’t usually give in to the distractions I take with me, either — it’s somehow easy for me to avoid Netflix, social media and work obligations, even though I could still easily access them if I wanted to.
I think it’s because I do those things partly out of habit, and our surroundings are part of our habits. When I’m not sitting in the chair where I tend to fall into an Instagram binge, it doesn’t feel as natural to pick up my phone. When I’m not on my own couch, grabbing the remote isn’t instinctual. Those few seconds of having to make a choice, instead of sliding into the same old patterns I do at home, turn out to be critical.
I have a lot of thoughts on solo retreats (believe it or not, this blog was originally even longer), but instead of giving you every detail of how I do it, I thought I’d share the basics that could help you craft your own retreat:
Find Your Space
I like to go to a hotel or an AirBNB, and my basic priorities are cleanliness and access to a coffee maker. Housesitting is a great way to get access to a new space without spending money (you might even make some). If you absolutely can’t get away, it might even be possible to set up a space in your home to feel different for the weekend.
Each time I’ve done a retreat, I’ve brought at least some food with me (snacks and even full meals), and it really helps to keep me focused on my work instead of thinking about where I’m going to eat. It’s hard to focus when you’re truly hungry. (Be sure to check whether or not the room you’ve rented has a microwave, fridge, coffeemaker, etc. so you don’t show up with food you can’t prepare.)
Sometimes I have an exact plan for what I want to work on at the retreat, and other times I don’t, but I always bring supplies that help me get organized when I’m on site. For me, that means a couple of legal pads and pens, 3×5 cards, Post-It notes, markers and washi tape. (I like to map out my projects by sticking Post-Its all over the walls, and washi tape helps them stick better without messing up the wall.)
Bring whatever will make you feel comfortable and like you’re getting a treat. This will help make the whole retreat more fun, and it’ll keep you from feeling run down when the work gets intense. I always bring comfortable clothes and socks, a candle, face masks and tea or hot chocolate.
Pack a way to procrastinate that doesn’t include looking at a screen. When I scroll through Instagram or watch TV, I’m a lot more likely to get pulled into an hours-long binge, but when I read a book, especially a non-fiction book, I can break for 20 minutes or so and still come back to my work. If you’re not into reading, knitting, puzzles or magazines could serve the same purpose.
If you’re taking time away from your normal life “just” to do work or pursue something creative, you’ll probably start to doubt yourself — and if you tell other people you’re doing it, they will definitely doubt and criticize you. As much as possible, remind yourself that getting away is a tried and true way that artists throughout time have pushed forward in their work.
Tell as few people as possible, and don’t post anything on social media until after you come home (it’s okay to take pics and videos while you’re gone and post them later). Remind yourself that the muse usually comes shows up after you do, and the magic comes after you’ve been disciplined enough to make space for the work. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, and remember that guilt won’t give you your deposit back, so you might as well leave it behind.