How to Give Yourself Time to Think
Whether it’s for a few hours, a few days, or a full week, everyone needs dedicated time to reflect. This guide will help you plan a personal creative retreat in the city or in nature.
is the best way to engage.
— Rick Rubin
If there’s one thing our society insists upon, it’s productivity. We’re all supposed to be achieving as much as possible, in the shortest time possible. For many of us, our sense of self-worth can come to depend on it.
Productivity isn’t a dirty word. Gaining a sense of achievement is a wonderful thing. If you’re fortunate enough to do work you enjoy, then your career offers a pathway to at least one form of real fulfillment. And even if you see your current job as a stepping stone to something better, it can still be meaningful to perform at a high level.
The problem is that fixating on productivity can backfire. We get trapped by our to-do list and our inbox, chasing a fleeting sense of completion. But sometimes our most important work doesn’t fit nicely on a list of achievables — or, at least, not in the day-to-day grind of immediate tasks and small emergencies.
Planning for the future. Looking at the big picture. Finding a spark of inspiration. These are just some of the activities that require space and time to come to fruition.
If you think of yourself as a gardener and your work as a plot of soil, some of the things you grow will sprout quickly and take up lots of space. They need to be contained or they’ll overtake your whole garden. Other aspects of your work will be harder to nurture, but the yield will be greater and more rewarding.
So how do you do that? It’s not about taking a vacation, necessarily. It’s about switching modes and tapping into other parts of your mind. If you lack the space and time to reflect, it could mean that you’re failing to recognize your creative worth. Want to tell a new story? Start by giving yourself a change of pace and a change of scenery.
For a lot of people, the word “creativity” possesses semi-mystical overtones, and these can become a barrier. In his best-selling book The Creative Act, the music producer Rick Rubin affirms what we all know in our hearts to be true: that everyone is creative, but the daily grind interferes with our ability to access it.
Just as animals in the wild must concentrate on a narrow set of concerns in order to survive (food, shelter, predators, procreation), humans tend to fixate on our immediate, practical concerns and neglect our creativity. The truth is that for us, too, meeting all the demands on our time and attention can feel like survival.
This is why we need to take a big step back every now and then.
The purpose of taking a creative retreat is to put yourself in a context where it’s easier to allow the seeds of ideas to flourish into substantial reflections that you can share with others.
This guide will help you plan your next personal creative retreat, whether it’s a few hours, a weekend, or a whole week. You can do this anywhere: at a cabin in nature or at home in the city. Here are some tips and strategies to help you find your flow and make the most of your time, so you can come back refreshed and brimming with ideas.
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Step 1: State your intention
Before you start planning a thinking session, take a minute to write down some of the things you dream about doing in your year or your career but haven’t found time for. Think about the things that you’d be most proud of achieving. Naming them might give you a feeling of frustration — you KNOW you’re capable, but you’re blocked.
“You just can’t invent or discover at whim,” wrote the design theorist Charles Own. “The myth that creative people deliver brilliant ideas on demand discourages otherwise perfectly able people from trying. The fact is that ideas seldom come without extensive preparation.”
Setting an intention is a vital part of this preparation; the whole thing just works much better if have a goal that is specific and realistic. To support your intention, return to the list that you created and pick one concrete goal. Take some time to imagine what it would be like to actually accomplish it during your retreat.
Visualize yourself as the person who has finally done that thing, and done it well. Let yourself feel the pride and satisfaction that you would experience completing it.
To help you find the right mindset, here are a few examples of concrete objectives that would make sense for a thinking retreat.
- Write or rewrite your company’s mission statement.
- Describe who you want to be in ten years. Draw a simple map to get there.
- Compose a synopsis of the book you’ve always wanted to write — or just the first page.
- Read one good book about your biggest personal or professional passion.
- Take advantage of the safe space you’ve created to try out a brand new skill.
- Surround yourself with inspiration and create a moodboard for your next big project.
- Brainstorm a new workflow for your team or for yourself.
- Set up a camera, then write and deliver a speech on a topic that’s important to you.
- Invent new customer personas. Be hyper-detailed and descriptive.
One tip from Rick Rubin is to lower your stakes: “We tend to think that what we’re making is the most important thing in our lives and it’s going to define us for eternity. Consider moving forward with the more accurate point of view that it’s a small work, a beginning.” See your creative retreat as the first important task towards a larger, more fulfilling project or new and happier way of life.
Step 2: Change your environment
In her studies on creativity, the Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile made a surprising discovery. She found that “extrinsic” motivators harm rather than help our creativity. Being evaluated, feeling watched, anticipating rewards, competing with others: these things may work well as incentives for some activities, but they don’t help us think outside the box.
To foster original thinking, Amabile found, you need to draw from your own resources — your unique experiences, your authentic questions, your particular curiosity.
By putting yourself in a novel setting, you remove a lot of the outside demands and judgments that interfere with your creativity, as well as the familiar triggers for reflexive behaviours. Changing your context helps you shift to a more open and intuitive frame of mind, which in turn encourages lateral thinking. With a fresh perspective, you can be more playful and confident in finding associations between ideas.
“It’s those interconnections among different ideas. That’s where new ideas come from. And your environment helps to create those interconnections,” says Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research.
There are many ways to achieve this. If you always work from the office, then you might be able to obtain the effect by working from home (or vice versa!). But you’ll have a more meaningful experience if you invest something extra to make it happen. Consider booking a private office in a co-working space, or renting an AirBnB. The ideal — we’re admittedly biased — is to rent a cabin and go into nature.
Research in environmental psychology has demonstrated that spending time in nature actually provides an “attention restoration” effect and encourages “effortless brain function.” Multiple studies have also shown that being in nature increases verbal and visual creativity, as well as problem-solving skills.
Jeffrey Davis, the author of Tracking Wonder, suggests that spending time in nature helps us access parts of our brain responsible for generating insights. He theorizes that outdoor environments “allow us just the right amount of sensory stimulation and calmness to let us watch our minds at work.” Which is exactly what you’re trying to do: slow down and listen to your thoughts while you attempt to do something unique and important. And to achieve that, you’ll want to perform the next step…
Step 3: Truly disconnect
This is one of those pieces of advice that has been reduced to a dreary bit of dogma. We know we can’t argue with the idea of disconnecting, but the suggestion is almost impossible to put into practice. Still, we can no longer afford to treat disconnection as a nice-to-have.
It goes without saying that the human propensity for digital addiction is being diligently exploited by entire networks of well-trained (and well-paid) professionals. They have the science, they have the tools, they’re winning.
So long as we’re opening our phones anywhere near the North American average of 344 times per day, our minds are on a short leash.
The point of a thinking retreat is to let your thoughts float around and make interesting connections, so you don’t want the dashboard in your brain constantly pinging to look at whichever infinite scroll you like best. It’s hard to do lateral thinking with a one-track mind.
The good news is that it’s actually really easy to unplug. There’s literally an on-off switch. Or if, like me, turning off the WiFi or turning on Airplane Mode doesn’t quite cut it, there are apps that will limit your access to distracting apps and websites. You can even lock your phone in a box with a timer, or leave your computer at home. Really.
But don’t just rob yourself of the fix. Replace it. You can’t stop taking mental breaks with social media and suddenly gain infinite intellectual stamina. Instead, bring things to do with your hands and your eyes.
Buy some nice pens and beautiful paper, and start doodling. Try a 1000-piece puzzle. Pick an image that expresses your desired mental state. Bring a stack of design and photography books to flip through. Go outside and make an ephemeral sculpture out of rocks, twigs, and leaves.
The beautiful thing about these sorts of activities is that your unconscious mind will keep working while you do them, and when you come back into focus mode, your synapses will be ready to fire in all sorts of interesting new shapes and patterns.
The point of disconnecting is to practice awareness. Of what’s going on inside yourself and in your environment in real time. And that can lead to authentic and creative thoughts.
Bring a friend or a colleague: Even though you’re disconnecting from distractions, you don’t have to do it alone. If you draw energy and motivation from others, a thinking retreat can be much improved by the presence of a friend. Give each other plenty of space and quiet, then come together for a boost of encouragement and celebration.
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Step 4: Capture your ideas systematically
Though we all do different things for work, we all have the same basic responsibility: to act on our best ideas. In my experience, even seemingly low-skilled jobs require lots of problem-solving, and the further we advance in our careers, the more we are called upon to fix things and make them better.
If you can manage to give yourself a proper stretch of hours or days to simply think, then it’s your duty to preserve the ideas that come to you. Because — as you may need to argue to your boss — this isn’t a holiday. (That’s for when you need to NOT think about work, which is equally important.) To pull off a “think week” and make it count, the most important thing you’ll do is take notes.
We all have our own way of note-keeping, but a creative getaway is an ideal chance to take it to another level.
Invest energy in taking your own ideas more seriously by documenting them better than you ever have before.
Analog: Pen and paper are good because they keep you disconnected and create space for drafting and sketching. Also, if you’re not in the practice of writing notes by hand, the novelty might be inspiring. Bring a set of highlighters to be able to group your notes by category. If you go this route, plan extra time at the end to sift and then digitize your ideas.
Digital: For digital notes, use a system that lets you tag your notes and click through to see connections easily. This is sometimes called a Zettelkasten system, and pretty much all note-taking applications and project management tools support it. Personally, I use Workflowy, because I like the clean interface.
The final step is to schedule a period for synthesizing and reflecting on the ideas you’ve generated. You can do this again when you get back to the office, but don’t skip this part of the process while you’re still in the protected mental space of the retreat. Humans are iterative creatures — we build in layers by cycling backward again and again. So go back and see what you’ve done, and no doubt something new will come.
PHOTO: NEVER WAS AVERAGE
Step 5: Take strategic breaks
This may be a thinking retreat, but that doesn’t mean we put our brains in jars. Thinking, pondering, reflecting, dreaming: these are embodied acts. We do them with our full selves, including our achy joints and tight hamstrings. Approach the creative process with your full body — you’ll have a better time and accomplish more if you do.
Take reflective walks: This is different than a work break. For these walks, you want to pick a topic or question, perhaps something you feel stuck on, and then get moving. As you walk, keep bringing your mind back to the subject you’re focusing on.
Move your body: Get loose and do things that would feel awkward at the office. Swing your arms, jump up and down, lie on the floor, hang your head upside down, wiggle your butt around. Forget the concept of “exercise” and just keep yourself energized. Your brain likes having fun.
Get your heart rate up: Research has demonstrated a direct correlation between exercise and creativity. The endorphins you release during a brisk jog will boost your confidence and fuel your original thinking.
Go for a swim: Wallace J. Nichols, author of BlueMind, draws on neuroscience research to explore how being in water “opens us up to a whole toolbox of cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social skills that are not always available to us.”
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Make it a habit and make it last
One of the best parts of a thinking retreat is that you’ll gain a new appreciation for your creative potential, which will inevitably spill over into your regular life. When you start honouring your capacity for creative reflection, you can extend those practices into your day-to-day.
“Each of us creates our day through how we interact with the world, with ourselves, with other people,” writes Madeleine Dore in her book I Didn’t Do The Thing Today.
“If we see creativity as a way of being rather than of doing, we can attempt to live each day as if our life itself is a work of art — we can be what I like to call ‘day artists’.”
Dore’s concept of the “day artist” offers a way of deepening the practice that we have begun on retreat, so we can keep learning “how to go with the ebb and flow of the creative process, how to work within constraints, how to find what works for us day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute.”
You’ll make your own habits and routines. There are so many ways to nurture your personal and professional artistry.
- Find the odd corners of the city — the small park, the perfect bench — where your body can rest and your mind can wander.
- Cook a meal slowly. Eat it even more slowly.
- Watch a sunset from start to finish.
- Go to a random cafe in a different part of town.
- Spend the afternoon in a friend’s apartment when they’re at work.
- Map out a project with notecards on the floor of your living room.
“Creativity isn’t reserved to a select few — we all have access to this innately human trait,” writes Dore. Whether you’re just discovering your own creative potential or looking to strengthen an existing practice, giving yourself special time away to think and reflect will help you become the visionary innovator you know yourself to be.
Mark Mann was a freelance journalist and editor before joining BESIDE as Associate Editor-in-Chief. He loves interviewing people and telling true stories.