How to Take Yourself on a Work Retreat

Pollock Autumn Rhythm

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter.”

— Confucius

In February 2012, plagued by the feeling of life moving past me, of not achieving the things I set out to do, and generally feeling unsettled in my career, I decided to plan time to reflect and make sure I was working towards the things wanted in my life. For my excursion I planned a day-long solo retreat (“emphasis on TREAT” say my notes from the day) which I spent walking along Ocean Beach and through Land’s End, taking myself out to lunch at a favorite pizza place, and writing out some reflections and feelings as I sipped coffee at a cafe. I came to no new conclusions per se, but it felt great to organize the feelings of discomfort and discontent that had been circling around in my head and to expel them onto a page.

Since then, I’ve kept up a regular habit where I take some time alone (a day or overnight trip) every three months or so to think through the current issues in my career and life. I started calling them “quarterly retreats,” but my friend insisted this was too corporate (like I should report back on profits and earnings), and suggested renaming them “seasonal reflections.”

 If you are curious to try this, there are three rules I adhere to:

1. Set aside time. I leave a big chunk of time free so that I can be relaxed and leisurely. When I’ve had other obligations that encroach into my retreat, I felt rushed and less able to focus. I like to plan more time than I think I’ll need. I’ll cut things short if I feel done, but it feels counter-productive to be hurried. The minimum amount of time for me is about 6 hours.

2. Leave the house. I think a change of scenery is essential. Seeing something different can stimulate new ideas, and removes me from the distractions of home (so many chores to do there!). I don’t have a car, so I don’t usually go farther than I can walk/bike/bus. Where I actually go for the retreat varies depending on how much time I think I need and what sounds appealing to me. Some retreats have been excuses to go new places while some have been close to home. My retreats typically involve some nature. One friend advised, “Either go up high or go to the ocean.”

On past retreats, I have:

  • Stared at the ocean
  • Hiked to a scenic view (easily done in San Francisco, where I live)
  • Eaten alone at restaurants
  • Hung out at cafes
  • Had my tarot cards read
  • Spent a night at a beautiful spa/hotel
  • Cut the retreat short after I decided that life was good and I didn’t want to reflect.

 3. Do what feels right. I often set out thinking I need one thing, only to discover something else. I try to be flexible and go easy on myself. Sometimes this means pampering, sometimes walking, or seeking solitude. Make it the right kind of easy… this is a time to face what you’ve been avoiding, so put yourself in the best position to dig in.

After these basic tenants, it’s up to you. I always spend some time writing. I find that things come out when I’m writing them down that I haven’t quite voiced, and I like to re-read what I’ve captured in the past. I often write myself letters. Sometimes I forgo full sentences, writing lists or drawing diagrams and doodles. You might find it more helpful to draw, sing, listen to music, talk a long walk, or to talk to someone else. I like my retreats solo, but some people might enjoy doing it with a partner and taking turns talking things through.

The practice of quarterly retreats, which creates dedicated time for me to focus on my feels and goals, gives me great pleasure. I love spending time both alone and with friends, and since I have a terrific group of friends nearby, I often end up shortchanging time alone. I look forward to these them as opportunities to check in with myself, re-align my priorities, and — importantly and very literally — give myself time and space for new ideas.

Good luck! Remember: there is no right or wrong way to do this; it’s only for you. To get you started, here is a sheet of seasonal prompts that I’ve found helpful >>> download here!


Image: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950 by Jackson Pollock

seasonal icons


  1. steph

    Irene– I usually do this on a weekend, sometimes taking advantage of a long weekend (e.g. MLK Day for my winter retreat). Taking a day off of work also sounds great though!

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