Incubating Ideas through Personal Retreats


Is it weird that I dream about going on a retreat to a kick-ass cabin somewhere, preferably in the middle of nowhere, to read and create and come up with crazy ideas? Let me set the scene for you, a la Schmidt from New Girl:

Your weekend bag is packed with your computer, journal, planner, and a brand new Leuchturrm 1918 softcover notebook — and of course the necessities like clothes, toothbrush, etc.

You hop in the car, put on your favorite podcast (or playlist — need a good winter one? I’ve got you covered), and hit the open road. Your destination is a cute A-frame cabin you discovered on Airbnb, cozily nestled in the woods just minutes from an adorable small town.

You’ve given directions to your best friends who are joining you tomorrow afternoon for cocktails and dinner, but for tonight it’s just you, your planner, and some good ol’ fashioned dreaming.

I now realize how extra this sounds, opening up this blog post in the voice of Schmidt, who is hashtag so extra. I’ve been watching way too much New Girl recently. But the dreamy visual is real — a weekend of you, no distractions, and your creative muse.

I don’t know about you, but my best ideas come away from the routine of everyday life. Bonus points if the environment is inspiring and beautiful, but it’s definitely not a requirement. I’ve had some pretty good brainstorming sessions in public library meeting rooms, my best friend’s basement, the Starbucks down the street, even my own home office (which is basically just a desk next to my husband’s desk, so not the most inspiring space).

The trick is to make it feel like a retreat, even if you’re not leaving home. Here are a few of my best tips for creating a retreat experience, or an ‘idea incubator’ as I like to call it, regardless of your location:

Create a feel-good environment.

Even if your retreat location is steps away from where you wake up everyday, plan a time to set aside the normal daily tasks or pass them off to someone else. Give yourself anywhere from 3 hours to a full weekend to avoid any activities that bring you out of a brainstorming state — except for making food. Food is essential to a good retreat. We’ll get into that later.

Think about your ideal retreat environment — lots of natural light, maybe? A comfy sofa? Set yourself up in a space that feels good to be in, and make it yours for your allotted retreat time. Light candles, put on the Netflix Fireplace, make a blanket fort. There are only two rules for your retreat environment:

  1. it must be as free of daily distractions as possible, and 2. it must feel good for you to be in.

Set a goal.

What are you hoping to achieve from this retreat? This is where I usually struggle. I tend to air on the side of packing too much into a retreat, so I like to have one big takeaway, like read a particular book, flesh out an idea for a product, create a content plan, or complete my seasonal planning.

Try to define what success looks like for your retreat so that you go into it with an idea of what you’d like to get out of it. You can even create benchmarks for yourself along the way if that’s helpful, especially if you’re doing a multi-day event. Maybe Day 1 involves brainstorm, Day 2 involves fleshing out the ideas you come up with in Day 1, etc.

Don’t forget that this is an idea incubator, though, so if your goal morphs into something completely different in the middle of your epic brainstorming session, more power to you!

Create a loose schedule.

With a goal and some benchmarks in mind, you’ll probably start to see a schedule coming together. See if you can flesh that out a little further. You know yourself — how long can you really sit and read a book for? Is it realistic to spend 6 hours in front of a computer during your retreat? Consider both the idealistic version and the realistic version of your most productive self and find a happy medium. Add in breaks or make a plan to go for a walk or move around.

You won’t know what you’re feeling until you are in the middle of your retreat, but it’s smart to have a loose structure so you don’t show up to work and then suddenly feel overwhelmed with what you want to accomplish. Plan a little time for productivity, a little time for relaxing, and a wind-down time to wrap up your projects.

Most of all, make sure you create a plan that you’re actually looking forward to executing! Retreats should be fun and spacious, a time away from the norm to focus on exactly what YOU want to focus on. If that includes tai chi and bread making in-between brainstorming sessions, you should totally include that in your schedule.

As with most of these tips, don’t feel tied to what you put down. The goal in creating a schedule is to set some boundaries for yourself, but depending on how much time you have you may need to be flexible with your plans.

Don’t discount meals and company.

Let’s talk about food. Even if you’re retreating at home, it’s zero fun to wonder what you’re going to make for lunch in the middle of cranking out your best ideas. Plan your meals ahead of time so you don’t interrupt your flow with making an unplanned trip to the grocery store or ordering takeout last minute because you can’t find anything to eat. But if grocery store wandering is your jam and your muse’s favorite place to show up, make sure it’s a part of your schedule!

Inviting people into your incubator may be an awesome idea or a terrible one. It depends on how you like to focus and take breaks, but having a planned event, even if it’s just casual drinks or a meal, can give you a time to put away the work and relax, share what you’ve been working on and create a mini collaborative incubator for a few hours.

However, introducing people into your retreat can also complicate things and put unnecessary pressure on you to host. As you’re setting up your retreat goals and schedule, consider if having people join you will be a bonus or an energy zap.

If the world has been a little too much for you lately (raising my hand), a retreat may be just what you need. Hopefully you can envision an experience that won’t break the bank and can be done even while the world is still reeling from COVID — your ideas are inspired and deserve to come to fruition. Let’s create a space for them to do just that.

To help you along the way, I made a tiny planning sheet for you to brainstorm your ideal retreat. Find it inside the Think Tank Library!

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