The one-day creative retreat

  • Sometimes you just need to power down. I’m currently doing this after a long period of working pretty hard. Being a creative can be demanding, so a little time off in lieu to restore yourself can be welcome.

As I’ve mentioned before, successful creatives advocate switching off as a means to recharge your mind. The process of doing very little – pottering about, essentially – is just as important as activity, because your brain is freed up to refresh itself, make connections and come up with new ideas.

How can we go about this? Here’s a step-by-step guide to the one-day retreat. (The good news is it’s very easy to do, and it won’t cost you a bean.)

1. Preparation
This is your first action, and in order for the day to be successful, it’s a non-negotiable. Information overload and input need to be stemmed – for the time being, at least. This means no phone, no TV, no computers and absolutely no internet. I know – it’s hard, but it is necessary.

Retreats ban electronic communication

There’s a good reason why creative retreats ban electronic communication: it distracts you. So if you’re expecting any important emails or calls, try to ensure they’re addressed ahead of time and put to bed. Better still, organise your retreat at the weekend, when business contacts are less likely to get in touch, and you can tell friends and relatives that you’re taking a day out.

Your one-day retreat needs to be properly uninterrupted time. You’ve unplugged, and now you need to remove human distraction. If you have kids, pack them off to a sitter or family members (with inducements, if necessary!), or get your partner to take them out for the day. This is you-time, and you won’t be able to achieve the benefits that come from solitude if you’ve a lively house full of people.

The great thing about a creative retreat is that it isn’t a health farm. (On the week-long Arvon writing courses I’ve attended, if there had been no wine there’d be mutiny!)

This time is about enjoyment

I’m not going to tell you to buy in healthy food, avoid alcohol or get up early to do yoga. (If that’s what you do normally, great – carry on!)  On the contrary. Sleep in if you like: if you’re feeling tired, the rest will do you good. Prepare meals that you’ll enjoy; have a glass of wine, eat cake. This time is as much about enjoyment as it is reflection. So take pleasure in your meals and relax.

2.  Plan your day
The first thing I’d suggest is that you sit down and do some freehand. This is a short exercise to get your creative juices flowing.

Freehand exercise
If you’re a visual artist, grab a large sheet of paper and some pens or pencils and let your imagination wander. Don’t pressure yourself to come up with anything particular – this isn’t a test, there is no right or wrong way to approach it. Whatever you do doesn’t have to be perfect. Just put down anything that comes to mind: colours, ideas, shapes, anything. Then, set it aside.

If you’re a writer, do some free writing for a few minutes – again, whatever comes into your head. Treat it as a brain dump: there is no set number of words, pages or topic, unless you’d specifically like to write about something. Then, set it aside.

The reason I’m suggesting this is that it will engage your brain in a different way to how you normally work. Later in the day you will be coming back to this exercise and witnessing what you do when your brain is out of ‘project mode’.

Today is about being free

What you’ve produced could be a simple sketch, some narrative or a stream-of-consciousness poem. It might even give you an idea for something that could be developed into a fully-formed project – but not right now. Today is about being free rather than under the cosh to deliver. So don’t worry about it.

Get some lunch, take your time. Savour your food, and have a rest afterwards.

Commune with nature
In the afternoon, go out for a walk – preferably in the countryside if you can, or by the sea if you’re within distance of the coast. If you’re urban, choose a park or other type of green space you can get to easily, and breathe it in: sights, sounds, everything. Feed your senses.

I live in a city: my favourite place to reboot is the botanic gardens.  It is located in the centre of town, between two major arterial roads; but follow the winding path into the interior, among the trees and flowers, and you’re transported to an oasis of calm.

Research has shown that green space has positive effects on our well-being: being stuck indoors at work all day, every day deprives us of fresh air and visual and mental perspective, especially if we are urban-based.

Green space has positive effects on our well-being

There is something about being out in nature – particularly at this time of year, when the world is waking up after winter – that reinvigorates us and brings optimism and colour back into our lives. Spring is a really good time to do a creative retreat.

Again, there is a caveat to this part of the day: no iPods, and no cameras. If you Instagram your walk, you won’t be fully experiencing it. This is about being present: concentrating on something else detaches you and defeats the purpose. So, leave the tech at home.

Review the freehand exercise
When you get back, make yourself a nice warm drink, find a comfy chair and go back to the free work you did earlier. Take a look at it and take some time to reflect.

Does it tell you anything? If so, what? What do you like about it?

Finally, have a rest, and start to think about preparing dinner. At this point, if you like, put on some music. I would suggest something preferably wordless and calming. (My personal preference is ambient music by Jon Hopkins and Brian Eno, and experimental by Michael Hedges. I also love film soundtracks by Patrick Doyle, Gabriel Yared and Thomas Newman. If you like classical, that’s good too.)

After dinner, just relax and take some quiet time. Think about your day and what you’ve experienced. If you like, make some notes – again, nothing formal or prescriptive. Just jot down your thoughts, however randomly.

  • Have you made any connections or associations that might help you?
  • Have you learned anything about yourself and your work?
  • Do you feel better? More relaxed and energised?
  • How will you take this learning forward?

Hopefully the mini-retreat is a tool that you will want to return to periodically. It can be difficult to get away for longer stretches, especially at organised retreats which, while wonderful, can be expensive.

Integrating regular retreats into our schedule can help to break the seemingly endless project–delivery–next project treadmill that we often find ourselves on as creatives.

So, treat yourself. Give yourself the gift of time and space, just for a day.


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