How To Do an Effective Personal Work Retreat

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 09-01-22

No matter what your profession, everyone should consider at some point in time a personal work retreat. For me, it is usually about research and writing. Certainly, almost all of People Solve Problems was written across multiple retreats up to the mountains. Bill Gates would take his “think weeks” away in a cabin to read and work on strategic decisions. The purpose of your retreat could be research, writing, strategic work, or could be as simple as career planning or personal reflection. You certainly shouldn’t wait for your employer to provide this opportunity for you. This is you taking the time to do deep work, whatever that means to you.

My friend Lehigh Professor Josh Ehrig was recently preparing for his retreat and asked for my advice. After providing it, he suggested I write it up and post it, so here we go…

First, you must break from established rhythms and routines, and second, you must engage in deeper thinking patterns. 

To break from established rhythms and routines, you should be changing as much as possible. The location is the first thing. It could be as simple as a day in a park with a notebook but could be a cabin or cottage (a choice both for myself and Gates), a hotel, or something else. While this will sound like a strange example, I actually wrote most of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean (long ago) in a Starbucks on long afternoons, and the reason was that it was not busy and they didn’t have wifi, so I couldn’t get stuck in on emails or distracted by lots of traffic. 

From there, change other aspects of your personal routines. It could be waking up a couple of hours earlier or later than you normally do. If you work out in the morning, instead wake up and get right to work and work out mid-day. Eat different foods, drink less coffee and more tea, or less wine and more whiskey, or wear sweatpants and a cozy sweater (well, the right time of year). The whole point is to change your rhythm, perspective, energy, and focus. These disruptions will inherently make you more aware. 

The second aspect is to force yourself past your normal levels of depth and focus to engage in deeper thinking patterns. I wouldn’t normally think I would write for four hours, but I found that the best flow in work would always come after I’ve gone past a bit of a breaking point but keep with it. 

I would also spend more time looking at or thinking about a problem. This could involve reading more and following trails of footnotes into old texts, or loads and loads of building mindmaps to get ideas out and explore connections between key points, or even taking a question and going for a long hike just to think about it more. The objective is to think past what you already know that you know. Pushing those boundaries is where new ideas, connections, and creativity come into play. 

So that’s the general advice. In part to share, and in part to make myself more aware of how I’m doing this, this is some of what I do on my deep retreats. You probably don’t need these details, and certainly shouldn’t just copy them, but here they are. I’d always wake up without an alarm clock whenever that would be, and would stay up later at night. I’d often start with making a stovetop espresso on a Moka pot, sit outside even if it’s cold, and do some reading. I’d get some work done then right away before taking a break for a hike, swim, or even yoga. I’d often have a little wine at lunch, and a little whiskey in the evening. I would probably snack more than I should, although I don’t think that’s helpful but likely a result of using all of my brain on my work and none of it on making good dietary decisions. I would sit and work outside as much as possible. I would keep my work area quite clear, except for a pad of engineering paper, my laptop, and any books I’m reading including a Kindle. In the winter I’d wear sweatpants and a heavy, professorial, knit cardigan, and in the summer would be shorts and Hawaiian shirts. And most importantly, I would clear my schedule. No meetings, email on auto-reply as if I’m on vacation, and no calls either. 

What are your best practices?