How to plan a successful personal retreat

The background

In September 2016 I moved from full-time employment to a blend of part-time employment and part-time freelancing. The plan was to use the time I’d released from the full-time job to explore new ventures and develop a sustainable training and consultancy business. The first few months were great, I had plenty of work coming in, my time was flexible and I had a healthier attitude to my job.

Roll on six months and things weren’t looking so rosy. I wasn’t making any progress with developing new business ideas and I didn’t feel in control. I’d got into a rut and knew if I didn’t do something then years could pass while I just drifted.

I realised that I’d been trying to make big decisions about my future at the same time as taking on new freelance work and contributing to a significant digital transformation programme. On top of that, I was also running a hockey team, which can sometimes feel like a full-time job!

It clearly wasn’t working so I pressed the pause button and took myself on a personal retreat.

Taking the time to step back from work and other commitments gave me the space I needed to think. I came back from the retreat refreshed, motivated and with a clear idea of what actions I needed to take to get me out of the rut and start building for the future.

Planning your personal retreat

My experience of the personal retreat was transformative and I’m keen to share how I planned and executed it. Although the exact details and purpose of your retreat will be unique to you, I hope this will act as a guide to help you start planning yours.

Find somewhere to stay

It was important to me to have a change of scene to make sure I couldn’t be distracted by the details of my everyday existence. My low-cost option involved offering to ‘housesit’ for my parents while they were on holiday. Staying somewhere that’s comfortable and familiar was a great benefit and I only had to think about the cost of getting there.

The key factors for me in this option were being in control of my routines, eg meal times, and the luxury of space to spread out. Both of which you may not get if you’re staying in a hotel.

I also found that being somewhere that had access to an outdoor space was ideal. I do my best thinking when I’m out in the fresh air. I was lucky with the weather so spent a lot of time sitting in the garden, but even a nice view to look at from the window can help.

Book the time

I took a full week off work for my retreat. this felt enough time to switch off properly from everyday life and settle into a new headspace. I also made sure I had a clear weekend after I got home to ease myself gently back into the world, rather than returning to work immediately.

The length of time for your retreat is up to you but don’t underestimate what you’ll need – better to have too much time than too little.

Having the support of my partner was essential. Not only knowing that she understood and was supportive of why I needed to get away, but also that my being away for a whole week would not impact negatively on her. Consider what impact you being away from home for a period of time will have on the people you live with. What do you need to do in preparation that will help to make things easier for them while you’re away?

Be purposeful

There’s a reason you’ve decided to go on this retreat and it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve from it. My main goals were to understand what I’m good at and what motivates me, with a view to use this knowledge to make a decision between three possible career options.

Having some specific questions to answer or prompts to work from was essential to make sure I didn’t spend my time staring at a blank page. I followed the reading and activities in Pete Mosley’s book The Art of Shouting Quietly. This gave me a guide to reflect on my values, strengths and interests, as well as what holds me back.

I paired this with working through the texts and exercises in the 2016 Stoic Week Handbook. This gave me a thematic focus for each day and some broad areas of personal development to work through.

To give myself some structure I blocked out time each day for working through these activities. Planning this in advance allowed me to make the best use of my most productive time in the mornings and spend the afternoon reflecting on what I’d done earlier in the day.

Get creative

I didn’t want my retreat to just focus on thinking about the future of my career so I planned in some other activities. I know from experience that I think best when I have some mental space to allow my ideas to marinate. Therefore I made a conscious decision not to fill my spare time with consuming content (watching TV, reading etc).

I found it more conducive to the purpose of the retreat to occupy my hands and allow my mind to wander. I chose to bake, sketch and write poetry. These activities are things I’m confident in and enjoy doing, taking on something new at this time felt like it would take up too much of my brain power.

Prepare well

Being away from home meant that I had to consider what I wanted to do and how I want to capture my progress before I left to make sure that I took everything I needed.

I chose to keep all of my output from the week in a single notebook and wrote it like a journal with what I’d done each day. Having everything in one place has made it easy for me to go back to what I did, see the progress I made and reflect on it.

My kit list included:

  • my favourite notebook
  • a pencil case full of pens of different colours and types
  • a ruler
  • sticky notes
  • plain paper
  • index cards
  • glue stick
  • washi tape
  • reading material and activities

Look after yourself

The retreat is all about you, so you need to remember to look after yourself.

I know that for me to feel well mentally the biggest factors are:

  • fresh air and exercise
  • eating well
  • being around people

I managed the first two easily. I made time in my schedule for a daily walk or run (I took the featured image for this post on one of my walks). And I cooked myself healthy and comforting meals.

Making sure I had human contact was equally important but harder to navigate within the context of a retreat. I knew I’d need to see someone during the week but didn’t want to dilute the benefits of stepping out of my usual connected life. The compromise was booking in time to catch up with an old friend over lunch, eating dinner with my Mum one evening and a couple of phone calls with my partner. The key thing about each of these interactions is that they all knew what I was doing and why so that we were able to talk about the retreat and what I was working towards.

What happened next

As I mentioned earlier, my retreat was a successful and transformative experience. I returned home refreshed, focused and having made some big decisions about my future.

With a clearer understanding of my values and motivations, I feel more able to prevent myself from getting stuck like I was before. I now have some foundations that I can go back to and reflect on when I start to feel things slipping out of my control.

Over to you

I’d love to hear your thoughts on planning and participating in a personal retreat. If you’ve been on one before, do you have any reflections to share about your experience or tips to add? If you’re planning a retreat what are the key factors for you to make it a success?

Subscribe to Gathered Thoughts

Get updates from the blog plus a selection of links from around the web.

about emma

I am a coach and facilitator helping people to pause, reflect and make conscious choices about what comes next. In my writing I explore themes of personal development, reflective practice and what it means to live well.