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The Upside of Loneliness – Four Essentials for a Working Retreat

by Sean Ogle | Last Updated: October 27, 2011

This is a guest post from Location Rebel expert Alison Gresik. She is a writer and coach for accomplished creatives who want to design amazing lives in support of their art. If you are an artist of any kind and keen to make more space for your creative work, stop by her website. You can also sign up on her mailing list to get news of the Field Guide to Truth and Beauty, or follow her on Twitter.

I’m a newly-fledged location rebel in Penang, Malaysia and I am lonely.

I consider that a good thing.

Yes, my husband Shawn and our two kids are here and we’ve met a few other vagabonds. But my extended network of family and friends are all back in Ontario, Canada, and my social life has taken a sudden turn toward the monastic.

Not that I was ever a party animal — I’m an introvert, after all. Rather, I had a steady diet of daily contact with people who knew and loved me: our day care provider, fellow parents who met up in the park, church friends, and writing buddies. I really miss those casual connections (although not the Canadian weather).

I’ve actually been location-independent for six years, working from our Ottawa home first as a freelance technical writer and now as a creativity coach. Then, this past July, Shawn left his job for contracting and we sold our house and belongings to start slow-traveling the world.

So the loneliness is something new. And not entirely unwelcome.

I have a history of using retreats to get work done.

I came up with the idea when my life was crazy busy and I needed space for writing fiction. I would find a retreat centre or a cheap hotel and hole up for a few days with my laptop, my knitting, and some good books.

There’s something about that dedicated time, the long stretches of unbroken quiet away from my home with its clutter and demands, that primes the pump for writing. I could write thousands of words, finish long-standing pieces, and do lots of planning and outlining.

I loved these weekends and tried to get away once every three months. I even converted a few friends to this retreat practice, and sometimes we would go away together, gathering over wine after a silent day of concentrated work.

Retreats became especially important after my kids came along.

Parents of young children are never really off-duty and I craved the chance to set aside my mom responsibilities and submerge myself in my current manuscript. Going away let me reconnect with myself and think more deeply without having one ear open for someone who needed me.

I have especially fond memories of one end-of-year retreat that allowed me to finish a novel before the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2009. Another weekend, I listened to the entire audiobook of Martha Beck’s Steering By Starlight and did all of the exercises. Many of my decisions to stop doing what drains me and start doing what I love can be traced back to that book.

Want to design your own weekend working retreat?

If you’re still working a day job and plotting your escape, weekend retreats can be a great way to blitz your business development. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in a focused forty-eight hours.

Here’s what you need:

1. A space that doesn’t make demands of you

You need to be in a place that you’re not attached to, that you don’t feel the need to care for beyond the basics. Even if you live alone, make sure you get out of the house.

Some ideas for keeping your costs low:

2. Low-maintenance meals

Ideally someone is cooking for you. One of my favourite retreat centres in Ottawa included three delicious meals a day, eaten in silence with a view of the river. Eating out or ordering in is great if you can handle the cost.

If you need to prepare your own meals, make dishes ahead of time and keep the menu simple so you can just reheat, dine, and get back to work. And don’t forget snacks!

3. Time alone

This is, of course, the retreat part of the retreat. You’re withdrawing into silence so you can give yourself fully to your labours. If you do go away with other retreatants (yes, that’s a word), set clear boundaries for work time and socializing.

I highly recommend that you make your weekend media-free. No Internet connectivity, no radio or newspapers. Nothing to crowd into your brain and distract you. The quiet may make you feel uncomfortable, but stay with it and you will be rewarded.

4. A clear purpose

Pick a specific project that you want to make big progress on. Set a measurable target — I suggest something that feels like a stretch. Without the usual interruptions, you will probably outdo your usual pace.

Tell one or two other trusted people about your goal so you have some accountability.

Build a Lifestyle Business Giving You Freedom You've Always Wanted

Our 6-part course gives you a strategy to start right now. Put control of your life back in your hands. Sign up below and let’s do this together.

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In many ways, our sojourn in Penang feels like an extended working retreat.

We’ve traded our 3-story townhouse for a small ocean-view apartment. We eat out or make simple meals at home instead of complicated recipes that require kitchen accoutrements we don’t have. A housekeeper comes twice a week to clean our floors and bathrooms. My domestic responsibilities have gone way down and hallelujah for that.

I do still have lots of personal contact with friends, family, and colleagues. But our chats are constrained by the limits of Skype and time zone differences. There are no invitations to book launches, birthday celebrations, or dinner parties. Although I loved these events themselves, I used to mildly resent how they made life hectic. Now I’d jump at the chance to go to a concert or host relatives for the weekend.

And that’s what I mean about loneliness being a good thing. If I could, I would naturally fill up my free time with visiting. Since it’s harder to do that in a new city, I don’t. Instead, I work.

I could write a whole other post about the downside of loneliness. There’s no question, I don’t want to live a recluse’s life forever.

But right now I have a home-grown incubator to foster my projects. During our planning for this trip, I kept saying, “Let’s just get ourselves somewhere warm and cheap so I can put my head down and grow my business.”

Lots of entrepreneurs want to build a location-independent income so they can travel, and it also works the other way around — this kind of slow retreat-style travel can help with income-building (I know that Sean and others have used the same strategy).

Yes, too much free time can be a bad thing (I went a little loopy when I first quit my corporate job and had to learn how to create my own structure). Shawn is in that more open-ended space — decompressing from his office career, adjusting to contracting, and looking around to see what entrepreneurial opportunities he wants to follow.

What helped me this time around was that I already had several projects underway just waiting for me to ramp up. As soon as we got the kids settled in school and my time became my own, I ran with it.

So it makes sense that the first product I’m offering since our arrival in Penang is a self-guided retreat called a Field Guide to Truth and Beauty.

Even when you can’t move to a remote city, you can take a few hours to get quiet and reflect on what’s important to you. Field Guide to Truth and Beauty takes creatives on an exploration of their body of work, looking for the values and beliefs concealed there. Making peace with past accomplishments and discovering one’s uniqueness leads to moving ahead with purpose.

I’d love to hear what kinds of working getaways you’ve fashioned for yourself. (Sean wrote about his impromptu summit just a few weeks ago.) How do you use retreats to move yourself forward?

Alison Gresik is a writer and coach for accomplished creatives who want to design amazing lives in support of their art. If you are an artist of any kind and keen to make more space for your creative work, stop by her website. You can also sign up on her mailing list to get news of the Field Guide to Truth and Beauty, or follow her on Twitter.

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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