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My Solo Creative Retreat Taught Me A Hard Lesson In Balance & Accountability

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Like most people, I toggle between my 9-to-5 life and my passion project: poetry. I started getting serious about it after my first book launch in 2018, and though I haven’t figured out a way to make enough sustainable cash on poetry alone just yet, I still like to spend as much time working on it as possible. However, at the end of last year, I was struggling with finding carving out this time. After work, I’d feel so burnt out, I just wanted to collapse on my couch and binge-watch reality TV. But when I noticed I had a few vacation days left to burn before the end of the year, I came up with a glorious plan: I was going to take a solo creative retreat to work on personal projects.

For context, all my getaways up until now usually included other people or the typical tourist itinerary — meaning relaxing, recharging, and taking time for myself was just not on the agenda. For example: My first adult vacation was to Europe in 2015. My best friend and I hit up four countries in two weeks! Though we made the most out of our time there and saw dozens of sites each day, by the end of week one, we were exhausted. By the end of week two, when it was time to go back to our regularly scheduled programs, functioning felt nearly impossible. I came back to work tired, with most of my PTO days used, and under more stress than when I left. Though I still love going to new places, I realize now that I overdid it.

In the Instagram age, vacationing for personal refreshment is the last thing on people’s minds. Why spend all day in solitude or in one place when there are colorful walls to stand in front of for your followers? I knew if I was going to have a true vacation — a refreshing one — I’d need to tweak a few details in order to find the perfect place. The first: I couldn’t go somewhere where sightseeing was the number one activity. I didn’t want to feel like I was wasting time writing when there were places to see. Next, I still wanted my location to be a sight to see; let me explain. I wanted to park myself in front of a glorious backdrop so I could feel inspired without going anywhere or checking any tourism must-sees off my list. But then came the hard part: Once I knew where I was going, I actually had to figure out how to focus and put my poetry first. And it was much more complicated then it seems. Here’s what I discovered.

My Relaxing Solo Vacation: Lake Tahoe

When I planned my solo vacation, I chose Lake Tahoe, Nevada because a.) I’d never been there; b.) it was just far enough away to feel like a real vacation (and good use of my PTO days); c.) all there is to see in Lake Tahoe is, well, Lake Tahoe. I stayed at the Edgewood Tahoe resort because it’s right on the lake and nestled in between glorious pine trees. I was free to go for walks around the property, but everything I needed to see was all around me.

With so much beauty surrounding me (and a soaking tub at my leisure!), I got straight to work and cranked out 25 award-winning poems. Just kidding. Actually, I sat in silence and felt the weight of the empty page slap me in the face. Already, in my first day, I felt like a failure, but according to Dr. Juhee Jhalani, a psychologist and professor at St. John’s University, this is fairly normal. She says, in our culture, doing nothing or setting aside personal time for reflection is often seen as unproductive. But for those moments when you really want to tackle a task or goal, the key is to learn how to not be so hard on yourself, but still hold yourself accountable.

“When you have the urge to lounge or do nothing while you should be focusing on your work assignment, then take a moment, focus on your breath and mindfully observe the urge with self-compassion and remind yourself that you will be able to enjoy much more once the task that you have undertaken is accomplished,” she says. “Allow yourself a treat/retreat at the end or during the day. It is OK to decompress and have fun. Down time fuels the creativity in the brain.”

To create the optimum creative environment, I set my writing space up right by my window, so I could look up at the lake with I needed inspiration, and took a few minutes to close my eyes and talk myself through it if I felt intimidated by all the time that was ahead of me. Most importantly: I tried to be kind to myself. If I felt stuck on a poem, I didn’t push it. I moved on to another task. It seems this strategy was a good one. At the end of my three-day vacation, I not only had a few solid poems I was really proud of, but I was able to put together a submission packet to send out to literary journals.

How To Spark Creativity Wherever You Are

So often the idea of taking time for ourselves is overtaken by the panic and pressure that can come when you finally have it. Since I put myself in a beautiful place with the intent of working, I found it easier to push myself to make use of my time. But when I’m home, the simple act of carving out personal space can seem much more daunting. “If you enjoy doing a mindless activity then allow yourself to indulge in it,” says Dr. Jhalani. “Here, moderation is the key. If you have the tendency to feel guilty about not having an ‘accomplished’ or a ‘fun weekend,’ then visualize what activities would make it fun or accomplished."

The key to success is planning and learning how to hold yourself accountable. “If you catch yourself procrastinating then ask yourself how you will feel and what will you think when you have accomplished the planned activity," says Dr. Jhalani. "If you are planning on canceling a plan with a friend, then think about how your friend will feel and how it would impact your relationship with them. This often serves as a motivator to address the mental block of procrastinating or second guessing yourself."

The idea of taking a creative respite alone can seem intimidating, but when you prioritize scenery over a bunch of different sights to see and things to experience, you can feel like you’re doing something special while still getting the recharge you need. Your work-life balance will feel much easier if you make time for the projects you truly want to tackle during your time off.