1,500 minutes or so. It doesn’t sound like much. Especially if you treat your Google calendar like a clown car, and cackle maniacally as you crowbar another Zoom session into an already packed day.
There’s an antidote for that: a personal retreat. It’s a way to reclaim – or renegotiate – your relationship with time. To rebalance your energy and priorities. To become one again with the Force.
From transcendentalists to Jedi masters to tech CEOs, the idea of escaping society, communing with nature, and summoning inspiration through solitude awakens the seeker in all of us. As I read about “personal retreats” and “think weeks,” my thoughts swirled with jealousy, admiration, and curiosity.
No constant din of kids in the background? A reprieve from our Zoom overlords? A Google Calendar colored with one solid bar labeled “Me Time”? After a year of quarantine, the prospect of breaking free from Groundhog’s Day-esque repetition sounded like the ultimate heist: the chance to steal time.
Ten years ago, I married an amazing woman – Hi Honey! — and, a few weeks back, she granted me two nights away from home. Two whole nights to channel grizzled Luke Skywalker on the island of Ahch-To, and without any Porgs underfoot. As my sojourn approached, I sought guidance from my personal Jedi council: Twitter.
The suggestions bunched into opposing camps. One advised structured goals. C’mon, team, I thought. That sounds like work. The other counseled “doing nothing”. These are my people. I decided to take the George Costanza of personal retreats. If I ever felt like doing something, I’d do the opposite: nothing.
So here’s what I did (and didn’t do):
Set the tone
The first rule of personal retreats is: there are no rules. (The second rule: you have to write a blog post about it afterwards.)
I avoided goals, but I chose a theme: creativity (one byproduct: last week’s essay.) After a two hour meander through the woods, I sunk into the overstuffed chair in my cabin. My first order of business was to attempt a feat so daring I'd never completed it in my adult life: listening to a full podcast without interruption.
Relaxing back as I heard Tim Ferriss talk with Jerry Seinfeld about the creative process, I felt like an observer in the room. Nothing could get in the way. (Side note: my phone was a necessary evil here. Bring yours if you must, but set limits. Leaving your charging cable at home helps.)
The podcast set the tone. My subconscious absorbed key points about the connection between creativity and the systems behind it. These concepts percolated in my mind over the next 48 hours. I was on my way.
Take the fork in the road
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” - Yogi Berra
When you take a journey without a map, there’s a new destination around every corner. After referencing the All Trails app, I set off with the intention of heeding Yogi’s advice. Spying a mysterious curve ahead on the trail, or down a diverging path, I'd follow. Sometimes I’d circle back to take the other fork, too.
The modern world conditions us to go from Point A to Point B. After living this life of quiet desperation, wandering aimlessly felt, well, aimless. It’s a weird feeling, but I didn’t run from it. I leaned into it.
Back in the cabin, I collapsed onto the king-sized bed and closed my eyes. My thoughts rambled through boundless woods and verdant hillsides. Visions in my mind matched the rhythm of raindrops falling through the forest canopy outside. When I finally stirred from my daydream, my hand instinctively reached for my phone to check the time. But I came up empty-handed, phone safely stowed out of reach in the dresser drawer. I didn’t need to know how much time had passed, and to be honest, it didn’t matter.
I went into the retreat with clear intentions, but limited structure. My aim was to spark inspiration, not solve life's mysteries.
I’m an obsessive planner. Channeling superhuman effort, I resisted the urge to overprepare. I brought enough mental kindling to build a nice campfire and stoke the flames of my imagination. I wasn’t there to construct a jet engine. So I left the heavy machinery and power tools at home.
A notebook and pen was all I needed. Writing primed my mind for elevated thinking. With all that time to do nothing, I experienced more than a few moments of clarity. So I documented them. Even if I never refer back to my notes, putting pen to paper sealed them in my memory, ready to re-emerge back in the real world when the time is right.
Is this point crystal clear? Anyone who meditates knows there’s a deep discomfort in sitting still and avoiding action. We’ve all been told our whole lives to get off our lazy butts and do something. Screw that.
Imagine you’re on a long distance run. Lungs burning with each breath. Muscles complaining louder as you command them to move forward. The pain’s a cruel mistress. Give into it, and you’ll never feel the runner’s high.
We all know time moves differently as we age. The summer days of youth stretched on forever. The summer days of adulthood flash past in an instant. This isn’t just a trick of perception: the physics of neural signal processing makes it so.
Doing nothing bends the laws of physics. An object in motion stays in motion. The only way to stop moving is to stop moving. It took a lot of energy, but I actually stopped. I drove life into a corner, and reduced it to its lowest terms. Deliberately, I lived.
Bring it home
What happens on a personal retreat shouldn’t stay on a personal retreat.
Back at home, I’m attacking my daily task list like a Jedi knight. My calendar has ceased being a clown car that terrorizes me like Pennywise. Instead, it’s a vehicle for me to protect and nurture my priorities. The call to “do nothing” sets off like an early tsunami-warning every time my stress levels rise. I’m already dreaming of my next retreat–hopefully later this year.
How would I rate my two days of nothing? It was everything. Like taking a Dyson handheld to the cobwebs in my head.
Whether you can get away for an afternoon, a couple days like me, or ten days like the beast Will Mannon, just go. Because let’s face it, you need this. Consider it self-care for your brain.