The Value of a Self-Imposed Writing Retreat

Every year for the last couple of years, I’ve been sequestering myself for several days at a time, borrowing beautiful homes in beautiful places for self-imposed and self-directed writing retreats. I find myself checking off a huge number of tasks on my to-do list in just a few days, more than I’m usually able to…

Linda Ly
The value of a self-imposed writing retreat

Every year for the last couple of years, I’ve been sequestering myself for several days at a time, borrowing beautiful homes in beautiful places for self-imposed and self-directed writing retreats. I find myself checking off a huge number of tasks on my to-do list in just a few days, more than I’m usually able to do in a week in my own home.

And why is that?

Because there are no distractions. There are no husbands to cook for, animals to pick up after, dishes to load, laundry to fold, or errands to run. While I adore my home and see it as a sanctuary, the reality of being home is that there’s always something to do here… something other than work. It’s especially difficult considering I work from home, and every day as I’m typing away on my laptop, the garden or the kitchen or the ocean view always calls to me.

So, I am a big fan of self-imposed writing retreats. I love to get away, focus on my passions, and find inspiration in a new environment. I love to hunker down and tackle projects that would otherwise be near-impossible for me to start (or finish) at home. I retreat in order to move forward.

A few years ago, I escaped to a modern architectural retreat in Joshua Tree. It was there in the majesty of the desert that I spent four days working on my first book proposal, and I left with a finished outline in hand and a solid idea of how I wanted to shape my book. When I wasn’t writing, I was outside photographing Joshua trees and taking in nightly sunsets from the fire pit.

Modern retreat in Joshua Tree

Modern retreat in Joshua Tree

One summer, I spent three days poolside at a midcentury modern retreat in Palm Springs. With a stunning view of the mountains just beyond the backyard, I powered through my manuscript edits in between dips and drinks and outdoor showers. That heated saltwater pool… divine! It felt like I was swimming in a private resort. And with the wifi reaching out into the yard, I could work uninterrupted.

Midcentury modern home in Palm Springs

Mid-century modern home in Palm Springs

With both retreats, I found myself more productive, more creative, and less inhibited. I recharged, regrouped, and came home reenergized, despite writing and researching for at least 10 hours a day.

I believe that every writer, blogger, freelancer, entrepreneur, or any aspiring form of these careers could overwhelmingly benefit from a self-imposed retreat at least once a year. Look at it as a worthy investment in your business. It’s a valuable time to begin or revise your business plans, dive into current projects, develop new ideas, revisit old ideas, and otherwise plot your world domination.

At the end of every retreat, I’m on a motivational high and feel like I’ve just come home from vacation — only I actually feel renewed, and not like I need a vacation from my vacation. (I know I’m not the only person who sometimes feels that way!)

So if you’re ready to up your game and get in a little relaxation at the same time, here’s how you can make the most of your self-imposed and self-directed retreat.

Plan for at least three days away.

A typical two-day weekend will only feel rushed. The first day you’re just settling into your new space, the second day you’re getting ready to check out. That doesn’t really leave a lot of time to work, especially if your retreat is a few hours from home. Plan for at least three to four days (even a full week if you can swing it) to acclimate in your new surroundings and accomplish what you’ve set out to do.

Go with a goal in mind.

Before you arrive, make a list of all the things you want to accomplish on your retreat. Focus on one major goal — the one thing you really need to get away for — and several smaller ones that are easier to attain when you’re feeling stuck. Oftentimes I write down many more things than I can realistically achieve in the few days I’m there, but they motivate me to push harder and stay focused.

Pick an inspiring environment to work in.

My last two retreats have been in the desert, but I’m equally happy in the mountains, by a lake, or on a river. Choose a place that speaks to you spiritually and creatively., VRBO, and Airbnb are good places to start for rentals, but friends, family, and co-workers are also a great source of leads. (By the way, using my Airbnb link will get you $40 off your first booking!)

I usually prefer a vacation home to a hotel room because it’s private, quiet, and you often get much more space for much less money. But, a full-service boutique hotel is always a plus because you can utilize the room service, gym, spa, or any other amenity that helps you feel more productive.

Avoid any deal that involves house-sitting or house-swapping because the things that distract you at home — piles of mail, plants that need to be watered — are the same things that will distract you in other people’s homes. You want to feel like you’re really getting away from it all.

Put yourself in a space that inspires, whether it’s a modern cabin with views of snow-peaked summits or a rustic cottage filled with fountains and flower gardens. Since you’ll be spending most of your time indoors, all the amenities inside are just as important. Do you want a fireplace and a big leather armchair to curl up with your laptop? Or a sizable farm table in the kitchen to lay out all your sketches and mood boards?

Personally, I like little towns that are somewhat remote (so I’m not tempted by big-city amenities) and cozy homes that I can really settle into and put my feet up in. I like bright, airy spaces with ample sunshine streaming through the windows. Above all else, I must have wifi to work. I like to Google things, I like to listen to Spotify all day. There are people who prefer to disconnect completely while they’re working, but I have no trouble shutting off my social media when I’m away. Know how you like to work, and nurture it.

Remember: no distractions.

It’s all too easy to get distracted when you’re supposed to be working. Maybe you’re prone to calling your best friend, shopping on Amazon, flipping through magazines, or catching up on Pinterest under the guise of “research” or “inspiration.” Don’t let these time sucks take away attention from what you’re really there for.

In the same vein, avoid staying in a location that has too many things to do outside. I could never stay on a beach that’s known for having an epic point break, for example, because I’d be looking out the window and doing a surf check every hour. But, I could see myself thriving on a tranquil beach that invites short strolls in the sand on my writing breaks. Think about where you’re staying, and determine if the outdoor activities, cultural sights, or promenades are too tempting for you to ignore.

Take out or order in.

I usually make a small breakfast in the morning, consisting of coffee and maybe a pastry or a simple omelette, but I almost always order in food for the rest of my meals and make sure I stock the fridge with plenty of drinks and snacks. Simply put, there’s just no time to do all the cooking I usually do at home, not to mention the dirty dishes on top of that.

If you need to get out of the house to stretch your legs and sit down to a meal, make it a casual restaurant and not a lavish one where you linger over many courses. Now is not the time to fall into a food coma.

If you bring a friend, bring a “work” friend.

Even though I like to work alone, I like to work with another energy present in the room, especially if that energy is also deep in creative pursuits. Maybe it’s some sort of subconscious collaborative spirit that kickstarts the creative mojo, but I find myself more open and inspired when I have a friend along.

I like to share the momentum with someone, track our progress over dinner and have another brain to bounce ideas off of. At the same time, that friend needs to have a project of her own and be dedicated to the purpose of the retreat as well. Bringing someone who’s just along for the ride and wants to be entertained the whole time will only be frustrating for both of you.

Since I started my annual ritual of writing retreats, I’ve felt more focused and empowered than I have in my entire freelance career. They put me in pure create mode. They force me to stop talking (or thinking/pining/procrastinating) and to start doing. And hopefully, they will do the same for you.

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on November 12, 2014.


  1. Very inspiring! I am planning a retreat (although I am catsitting and working in my office I am hoping to pull it off by changing up my routine a bit) and would love if you shared any other resources you found helpful for planning your retreat time, thanks!

    1. I feel that your goals will help you plan your retreat time. You have to establish concrete goals first, tangible ones that you can complete (and not vague ones like “increase blog traffic,” for example). Think more like HOW, and not just WHAT. Have a real plan of action for what you want to achieve. At the same time, try to stay flexible… I don’t think you necessarily need to block out specific times in your day to do something, unless you thrive on schedules.

      As for resources, I’m not sure if I know what you mean by that. I keep a lot of notes in Evernote, but I’m old-fashioned and like to work with pen and paper. I feel that the act of physically writing something down reinforces my desire to do it and motivates me more to cross it off. I guess it feels more permanent that way, rather than a string of words that can instantly disappear with the delete key.

  2. Cheers to being productive. I would love to be caught up with photo and videos editing and focus on the blog, but with baby three on the way this will not be happening. Thanks for the suggestion, maybe I will impose a day each week to focus on one of the three goals…baby steps.

    1. Even just one full day a week to yourself is progress. It’s nice to get to be in your own head, especially when you have your hands so full! Good luck!

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