DIY deep work retreat
Have you gone on a deep work retreat before?
I’ve done variations of this work/relaxation hybrid vacation—an artist’s retreat with friends last summer, a solo trip last fall—and found them to be really rejuvenating and enjoyable. Jia Tolentino wrote Trick Mirror while staying in rented Airbnbs for a few days at a time, and I can completely understand how this was possible. The change of setting, the nature, the quiet, and lack of decisions that need to be made all help to get in the flow.
I wanted to try a more structured work trip this winter, so I recruited my sister Irene to go upstate to Phoenicia for a few days and work on our projects. We planned the trip in this Notion document, noting what we wanted to get done over the weekend and how to schedule our work sessions.
We had eight total “focus work” sessions over the course of two days. Before each, we wrote down what we would specifically do before each session (e.g. “Write draft of newsletter”). The idea was to make it small and defined so we would reasonably be able to accomplish it between 45 and 50 minutes. I set a random timer to go off in between that interval so we wouldn’t know exactly when the alarm would ring. After a session, we took a 15 minute break for stretching, chatting, snacking or let’s be real, Instagramming.
Irene capturing me doing my morning pages :)
The work sessions turned out wonderfully! Irene and I got a LOT done and felt a bit drained afterwards, but also very deserving of our down time which we spent watching ‘90s movies and BTS videos. It surprised us how much we could get done in 45 minutes and how long it feels, though normally we are used to seeing the minutes pass *just like that*.
We both would love to do another deep work retreat—perhaps every season in the Catskills?—but in the meantime, we talked about incorporating these Pomodoro-inspired on/off work sessions into our routines. Going forward, once or twice a week I want to block off 2-3 hours to decide what to work on and follow this template. It’s the kind of routine that one would need to incorporate little by little to build up stamina; otherwise going HAM on productivity every day would be unsustainable in the long run.
Lest you think doing a work retreat is all about alternating work and breaks cooped up in a house, it’s not! Irene and I spent Sunday exploring the tiny town of Phoenicia, roaming around the park and admiring the several inches of snowfall, and eating at Phoenicia Diner (always delicious).
“This is snow.” - Irene
This was a rare weekend where I really believed that I worked hard and that I worked enough. I felt like I was able to push myself but not in an overly strenuous or stressful way. It made me remember times I felt like this before, like during coding bootcamp when I was focused on goals within a singular context.
While I know I have a harsh self-critic, I think it is normally hard for me to tap into this feeling of “enough” because I am constantly context switching. I have lots of things beckoning my attention at work, never mind the work outside of work, and then sprinkle in travel plans and errands and meeting friends and cooking meals and exercise… To be able to get a reprieve from this and focus on work that I really care about was the true gift from this weekend.
Last year I repeatedly dreamt of leaving all these contexts behind and living a quiet, secluded life in nature. I mean, it still sounds amazing. But I think I see now that there are so many things things I enjoy and get out of each of the different priorities that I juggle. Also, I have the power to change or say no or set boundaries. Being able to claim our own agency over the “attention economy” is necessary for us to be able to thrive in it.
If you have the means and even the smallest inkling of desire, I really encourage you to try a deep work retreat sometime. This doesn’t have to be money-generating “work”; it can be a time for hobbies too. Find a quiet home in nature, grab a friend (or go by yourself!), and think of what you want to focus on over the weekend before getting there. You can try out the structure we laid out, or approach your days in a more freeform manner. And make sure to take lots of walks and relish that down time ☺
Discoveries of the week:
How to cope with climate distress.
Email a letter to your future self.
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