Sometimes you need to get away from the intrusions of everyday life to find mental clarity, strike inspiration and seek a path forward.
Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
Years ago — I don’t really recall when — I first heard of a “writer’s retreat.” These retreats are places or spaces where writers and wanna-be writers, and other such notables gather to reflect and write. There are of course, things like workshops and “readings,” where the aspiring writers sit around and read their work aloud, which sounds positively horrifying for those with an introvert streak.
These retreats can be stupidly expensive and last from a week to 10 days. There are even writer residency programs that go for months where people live in the woods in “colonies.” Some are insanely competitive and attract Pulitzer Prize winning types.
That extreme has little practical application for me. However, the idea of sequestering myself in a cabin — with no internet access and nothing to do but write, read and think — has long sounded appealing.
Call me crazy.
So last week, I finally quit thinking about it and did it. Look, I’m no Henry David Thoreau who traipsed off to Walden Pond to live off the land for a couple of years. I’m talking about taking a ferry across the Puget Sound from my home in Edmonds, Washington, and staying in an AirBNB for 48 hours.
Borrowing a page from similar-but-different yoga retreats, the decision to make this adventure a self-imposed “silent writer’s retreat” swiftly took shape. I’d hole up in a small AirBNB, one where the host would agree to hide the WiFi password, and say nothing. Nothing. Like a monk in a vow of silence. No talking out loud, no singing, no video, no music. Just silence. I’d do nothing but write, read and think. Take an occasional walk on the beach for inspiration. Hopefully sleep. And that’s it. For 48 hours.
I haven’t gone 48 hours without internet access since Al Gore invented it. And I haven’t gone two days without talking since I was what, three?
A period of reflection and introspection
The prevailing theory is this period of isolation and silence would allow for reflection and introspection. Deep thought. All that sort of esoteric philosophical hippie stuff that whacked out artists go off into the woods to contemplate.
More seriously, there’s more than anecdotal evidence that some isolation and quiet can be productive in many ways.
Besides, I’ve long had this desire to write a book, why not get that kick-started with a little introspection? Seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do.
With my AirBNB secured (and the WiFi password hidden) I packed my laptop and charger, my reader with several books loaded, some snacks — healthy and not — and some comfy clothes. Oh, a swimsuit for the hot tub too. (Hey, this isn’t some sort of self-torture, suffer in silence, how much can you endure thing. It’s just an experiment to try to improve my focus. There’s no shame in being comfortable. After all, it helps relax the mind.)
Wait, what is the point?
Someone reading this has to be thinking right about now: “Why? Why is he telling us about sitting in silence in some cabin trying to write God knows what?”
Understandable, and a reasonable question/thought.
Because I found it really did help me focus. Like I never have before. And it’s mid-October. You’re a professional, an entrepreneur, and you’d best have a plan for next year. Want to “think out of the box”? Want to “go deep” in your analysis and plan? Lock yourself up for two days. You’ll think like you never have.
So you can check out of this article right now, or you just read how it ends. I implore you to at a minimum pick up your calendar right now and schedule some time for 2020 planning. It’s important.
If you’re willing to try something different, to maybe see things from another perspective, to explore your ideas a little more thoroughly, why not spend a few more minutes reading and think about carving out a couple of days doing some mental exercise and soul-searching?
Setting the ground rules
Upon arriving at the “cabin,” I found that it was, indeed cabin-like. One room, combo sitting area/bed/kitchenette — the laptop came out, and I sat there looking at it. Of course the cabin also had a bathroom, running water and heat. Again, this isn’t a test (though it was super-challenging at times). So I brushed my teeth, fiddled with the heater, and paced around (in a 20-by-20 room).
I didn’t know what to do.
I was tasked, primarily, to write. Of course I have my Inman column, there’s my woefully neglected blog, and there’s the aforementioned book. So there’s plenty to write for, I just didn’t know what to write about.
Thinking (silently, not out loud, which is kind of weird) to myself that setting some guidelines and goals for the 48 hours would be helpful, I opened up Scrivener (the BEST writing software, ever) and wrote some out.
- Just write. No editing, no critique, just write.
- Accept that most of what you write will suck.
- Know that some will not.
- And that there will be isolated instances of brilliance.
- Stand and walk around frequently.
- No talking to anyone.
- Yes, that means not to yourself either.
- Eat. Not just the chocolate and wine.
- Write from 6-11 a.m., 1-5 p.m. and 7-10 p.m.
- Know that’s a long ass day, breaks are OK.
- Stop going back and editing.
That’s it. Pretty simple. Simple, but not easy. When you do this for your business planning, make the hours scheduled work for you. Maybe there are time periods for financial planning, growth planning, community contributions. Whatever. Allow time to do nothing, no one can focus 24/7.
Don’t miss the fact that I documented my rules and goals, and I also wrote out a lot of ideas and thoughts. Documentation is important. I used writing software, because I was familiar with it, and it worked for my application. Find software that works for you. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet, a note-taking app like Evernote, a simple blank Word document. It’s not the software that matters, it’s the fact you’re documenting your thoughts and plans. It’ll help you to assess and modify what you’re doing.
Just do it
Once you’ve got your goals and rules written down, it’s time to execute. I found that within just a few minutes I would be absorbed into my own little world. Having no distractions — no internet, no TV, no music, no phone, no person — having nothing but my thoughts and a laptop allowed those thoughts to spill into that laptop.
It was hard not to focus. Some tips:
Cover up your clock
Trust me, focused and productive as you may be, you’re going to be bored too. Add in the fact that you’ve got no external clues about the passage of time, and it’s quite easy to get focused, and frustrated, with the clock. Watching it won’t make it move faster.
Take a walk
This is harder work than many think. It’s sort of exhausting and easy for your brain to fill up. You’re not a machine. Get up, walk away from the laptop and go outside for a walk.
It’s one of the rules. It’s important. It’s also surprisingly easy to forget. It’s also easy to forget to eat. I know, sounds weird. But what’s weird is sitting alone in a room for two days without a sound other than the incessant tap tap tap of a keyboard. Eat and hydrate, it helps you not GO CRAZY.
Use brainstorming rules to increase output
You’re alone. Sometimes you get stuck. You can’t look on the internet or text someone a question. So move along to another topic, or do some “self-brainstorming” to unlodge some fresh ideas. No self-critique, anything goes, just write down ideas no matter how crazy.
Trust me, sitting alone for two days is not normal activity. You’re brain does weird things. It’s difficult, very difficult, at times. It’s also incredibly rewarding and resulted in almost superhuman productivity levels. You need to take care of yourself. Rest. I found reading a great escape from the mental gyrations that were to be honest, exhausting at times.
Will I do this again? Absolutely. While there was no blinding light of enlightenment, no life-changing revelations, there is no question that I made great progress on the book, and more importantly, I learned a lot about myself, and how my goals fit in my life.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.