The art of the stay-treat
Having worked from home, essentially, for the last decade, I have a lot of thoughts about the way that work and life can blend when they happen consistently in the same space. I've also been around a lot of people in corporate or business settings that go on "retreat" to do deep thinking and planning away from their normal routines and spaces. I was always jealous until I realized that I could hack the concept for myself!
Retreat means to move backwards; to go on retreat means (for me) to take time away from your normal routine in order to do thinking that is not your normal thinking. While a change in scenery can help amplify the sense of "different", you can have an effective retreat without going anywhere special (read: spending a lot of money.) Here are the steps to follow in order to create your own "stay-treat":
- Decide what you want to focus on, think about, or do during the retreat. A retreat without a plan is just a break. Make this time purposeful by deciding ahead of time on the agenda. Are you going to outline your dissertation prospectus? Are you going to make a business plan for your side gig? Are you going to do some deep evaluation work about your overall life plan, where you are now and where you see yourself going? The magic comes from picking one task to deeply focus on, and it feels especially magical if you don't normally get time to focus on that kind of thinking, or on that topic.
- Make rules about what you will NOT do during the retreat. Decide in advance what things are off limits. Consider a vacation responder on your email, or simply pausing your inbox for a few hours. Make it clear to family members or others who might share your space that you will be unavailable outside of emergencies. Make a rule about not touching your grading, Twitter, your other writing projects, or your other work during the retreat. If you're going to be fanatical about one thing, make it this: protect your time that you're working so hard to set aside.
- Enlist community, if you'd like. Invite friends to join you at your dining room table. Agree to meet at a library with all your materials. Set up a group text or slack room to exchange ideas virtually if you can't meet in person. Other people help you feel accountable to the spirit of the retreat - and almost everyone needs one!
- Pick an element to make it feel special. At big fancy corporate retreats, there's often a beautiful space rented, nice food catered, a sense of occasion! You don't have to spend a lot, or any, money to get that sense of occasion for yourself. Maybe treat yourself to a piece of cake or latte from a cafe. Break out that special notebook you've been saving to take notes in. Make an effort to use your favorite pen. Reset your desktop background to an image that inspires you. Go for a walk to start, end, or break up the day. Take time to make yourself lunch and really savor it, rather than eating hunched over your desk. Schedule a celebratory get-together for the end of the retreat to debrief what you've learned with your fellow retreaters.
- Take time to recap what you've learned, felt, or done during the retreat. Count up your new words written and put them on a post-it note with a big smiley. Call up a friend to discuss the ideas you came up with in your new business plan. Schedule time in the next week to make deadlines and milestones for the new project you brainstormed. Set aside an hour to journal about how the space and time to focus on this idea made you feel. But make a real effort to stop and notice the effects of the retreat, and congratulate yourself for both taking the time to focus on this idea, AND for protecting the time and space that made it happen. Without this step, it's easy to let the retreat feel like just another marathon workday - dig in to why it felt different.
It is so easy to let grad school (and life beyond it) feel like a grind. The days are stressful, but the months run together. Taking time out to purposefully do something different - to treat your time like the valuable resource it is, and your work like the worthy recipient of effort that it is - can restore some excitement, some sense of progress. You deserve to focus deeply, and you don't have to take a week in Bali to do it.