Why and How to Plan a Creativity Escape
You have a hundred good ideas that need exploration. But they compete with a thousand perpetually accruing tasks – some key, some trivial. The psychological weight of the latter can dictate your life and grind creativity to a pitiful nub of chewed up pencil waiting in a drawer. The owner of the pencil feels unfulfilled and frustrated because time and effort is increasingly diverted from the passion and intensity that best fuels their work.
Time to systematically plan a creativity escape. Get yourself to the beach, the woods, the dessert, or an Airbnb around the corner to have a monastic experience of solitude and focus. Bill Gates takes annual book binging retreats. Among his top picks for 2021 are: “Making the Modern World” by Vaclav Smil; “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker; and “On Immunity” by Eula Biss, in the top 12. Richard Feynman escaped to Brazil learn samba drumming and to have time to “play with physics,” and productivity gurus sing the praises of renewing escapes.
Retreats are not an exclusive luxury of CEOs, senior faculty, and entrepreneurs. Early in faculty life my partner and I agreed to cover bands of time with kids, pets, and community responsibilities to allow each other singular time to dig deep into topics that needed focus. Over time our reasons for retreats have evolved to include preparing for comprehensive exams, drafting grants and papers, getting quiet to develop proof of a theorem, and engaging in reading and news immersions to inform strategy for a class or event.
In the process we’ve found five phases of the work retreat:
Time. You’ll need more time than you think (see entry and re-entry below) Remember this is work time to cultivate intellectual capital, not vacation. Try four days for a start; Friday to Monday is a good way to ease in. Travel and getting settled eat part of first day, the second day requires some stewing that feels non-productive but is necessary, third day is often the liberating breakthrough day for new ideas coming together, and the fourth day can be subsumed with winding down and getting home. Work up to a week if you can swing it.
Retreats take discipline to get calendar, teaching/mentoring/clinical duties, and research forces to align. (Share this post to launch discussion of how you and your group could build a tradition for helping cover each other’s day-to-day duties to make individual retreats possible.) Low-hanging fruit may be extending anticipated breaks: long weekend holidays, fall break, portions of winter break or intersession between semesters.
Location. Pick an escape destination that allows for rambling walks, sitting and reflecting, and few distractions. Or plan to contain yourself in an apartment that offers urban anonymity for walks and parks. Surroundings matter to the extent that the lure of other activities needs to be minimal.
This is not typically the time to splurge (save that for vacations). Aim for affordable and guilt free. Be bold and ask for favors. Our individual escapes have include calling friends to use an unoccupied apartment over their garage, using a colleague’s place while they were on vacation, staying at free/low cost retreat centers, using hotel points from work travel, and house swapping.
Focus. Determine what you want the result of your retreat to be. Avoid being completely product oriented. While getting a manuscript or draft grant ready to share with others can be rewarding, check your gut and be sure that is really what you crave to accomplish. Look around your office and your home. Is there a theme to the books and articles accumulating? What things are on your “when I get time” list? What opportunity or project did you last think, “if only I had time, maybe next year, that would be fun, or I would be good at that?”
Work retreats should be intellectually rewarding and renewing. Feed your brain and your curiosity. Unlike typical work goals (specific, measureable, agreed, realistic, and timed to a completion goal), retreat goals should be more aspirational and vague:
- Catch up with where others outside my field have been going with techniques for [your research methods].
- Infuse more recent conceptual material and new examples into my course curriculum.
- Develop multiple concepts for and privately rehearse an important talk.
- Steep in [new area] to determine if it might connect with [challenge you are working on].
- Get more deeply familiar with the work of X group to understand if they are worth approaching about collaboration and what connections we might share.
- Develop ideas for a panel at the national meeting that is a new alignment of content.
- Core dump everything I know about a career topic into brilliant advice on edgeforscholars.org.
- Be bold and have no goal.
2. Clearing the Decks
Tell only those who need to know about your time away in advance. Supervisors, coworkers, and mentors with whom you have frequent contact or share responsibilities deserve ample notice to anticipate if your absence has consequences for them. With peers it is ideal to figure out a calendar and duty swap in advance to be able to come with a solution in hand. Telling a more distant circle of contacts before you set your away message has a tendency to stir up new requests anticipating your absence.
Block time in the weeks preceding your work retreat to viciously attack your to do list. If you don’t use an approach to break larger projects down to tasks, get started. List every single thing that is hanging fire and every thought that crosses your mind in the form of: “I need to do X, I need to catch up with her about Y, or I need to close the loop on finding out the details for Z.” No item is too inconsequential. If it is on your mind it has some weight.
Two to three weeks of focused effort to close loops and complete tasks or initial steps of larger activities can radically diminish the “to do” burden. Measurable progress and the intent to clear the decks starts to be its own reward. It’s exciting to see minor nagging items disappear, and the value of getting prepared for time away keeps the fly wheel turning. Even if you don’t get the stack to zero, you’ll be better prepared to grant yourself permission to really escape.
3. Making Your Escape
If you can, be completely indiscriminate about the materials you bring. Throw in everything you think could be helpful to your goal. Agree with yourself in advance that you will not use much of it. The point is to have it there if you want it.
Set your away message and strongly consider being completely off the grid. If you must be in email or online, meter your time and make it sparse. Do the experiment and discover that the world doesn’t end when you are not reachable. Having key folks know your cellphone contact for emergencies can make this feel safe to do.
What you need:
(Pack so you don’t waste time running errands or finding online when you arrive.)
- Loads of interesting, inspiring, and varied materials related to your retreat goal.
- Raid your university and public libraries to assist the above.
- Print resources if possible or download to avoid urge to surf.
- Resolve to bypass television and radio as well.
- Your favorite comfort clothes.
- Supplies that make you feel effective – highlighter, ruler, tabs to mark key passages, a retreat notebook, etc.
- Some downtime distractions for diversions/rewards – DVD of movie that has been on your “to watch” list, recreational reading, puzzle, good bottle of wine or favorite beverage for sitting and celebrating the day’s wins.
- Plan for food that is simple and healthy or strongly associated with reward and celebration.
- Exercise gear, at minimum shoes for walks.
- Music if it’s part of your focus and reward system.
- Whatever you need to sleep well.
No matter how well you clear the decks, remaining ordinary tasks will continue to pop into your head. Create a list to jot them down through the retreat. Resist using these pop-ups to procrastinate. If some feel essential, designate one or two specific times a day to tackle them. For the rest practice cultivating your “it’s not on fire, it can wait” mantra knowing the list will hold the item until you are ready on your return.
Uncouple your time from the clock. Take down clocks and put sticky notes over those on appliances. Sleep when you need to sleep, eat when you need to eat, move when you need to move, and stay in the flow of your thoughts, breaking when you need a break. This approach is why retreats are solitary activities.
If you find yourself stuck consider Pomodoro method or similar time block approach. Commit to the next 25 minutes for a micro goal: find and read a relevant chapter; free associate a list of questions; unload the stream of distractions that are interrupting your thoughts by writing them down. But resist a boot camp approach; if you’re not finding your intellectual groove it may be that you need time to escape the overload we all experience.
Exercise, walk, cry, scream, stand in the shower, play raucous music…but don’t add to the overload by going back to usual patterns (checking email, Twitter, calling friends, etc.) Do what is not normal for you. Buy an actual newspaper, eat out alone, sit in silence, draw. Give yourself time and a lack of structure to let inclinations and thoughts appear. Shelves are filled with books about the nature of scientific and other breakthroughs that endorse the importance of downtime and lateral thinking. Relax into it. Maybe that’s what you need most.
Don’t judge the quality of your retreat on immediate results. Many of the benefits will not be apparent for weeks and months to come when ideas or insights connect in new ways. As a group, academics are prone to metrics and evaluation. Do celebrate wins but remember that getting away and feeding your brain is itself the win.
Do plan flexible time at work for re-entry. You are very likely to come back with a bushel of things you want to put into motion. Having to subjugate that new energy to a “normal” or, worse, a more crowded than usual day feels like a setback. Plan for your first day back to be intentionally light. If at all possible, don’t use it for starting a demanding set of experiments, completing a substantial goal like manuscript submission, or having back-to-back appointments to catch up. Do designate a schedule for working through your inbox from your absence (consider setting your away message to for an extra day to buy yourself time).
Do wait a week or so and reflect. Write down what your retreat accomplished, what worked, and what you would do differently next time. Then look forward on the calendar and consider how to get several retreats of different intensity into your calendar in the coming year(s).
Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answers. – William Burroughs
Your ability to generate power is directly related to your ability to relax. – David Allen
…periods of “incubation” or rest can enhance creativity. – Wand and Sanders