I build solo, DIY retreats into my schedule as a freelancer - and they've made me better at my job. Here's how I do it.
- Susan Margolin is a freelance writer who creates data-driven corporate content.
- She commits to at least two "do-it-yourself" (DIY) retreats per year for her professional development and mental health.
- Before she goes, she sets her time and budget constraints, picks a quiet location, manages family logistics, and forwarns that she'll be turning off her phone.
- While there, she sets intentions for her day, but doesn't strictly adhere to her agenda.
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"How was your escape?"
My friend's question threw me. I had just returned from two solo nights away in rural Massachusetts. I had informed clients not to email me. My phone had been silenced to "Do Not Disturb." My husband and kids survived without me.
To my friend, my time away was "lucky." In her world - like that of most professionals and parents - a trip to the moon was more realistic than carving out two days alone. But for me, it's not a fantasy. It's my strategic priority.
"I didn't escape," I corrected her. "I created a retreat."
The benefits of a 'DIY' retreat
As a work-from-home freelance writer and mother of two children (ages 11 and seven), I commit to at least two "do-it-yourself" (DIY) retreats per year for my professional development and mental health. My retreats are more than "self-care" or "me-time." They are intentional time alone when I hit pause on daily tasks to focus on long-term priorities. DIY retreats are my cornerstone practice for work-life integration.
Four years ago, I had never heard of work-life integration. I was in the midst of a career break in Singapore, where I had worked and lived with my family for almost a decade. But I struggled against my decision to take some time off. I cringed at the question, "What do you do?" On one particularly frustrating day, I calculated a simple, shocking truth: Since becoming a mother, I hadn't spent more than a day alone.
So I booked an extended weekend trip to Bali, including two days in silence. I wrote. I wandered. I took copious notes in the margins of William Bridges' book "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes" as I mapped potential paths for my future. Sometimes I did nothing.
In between these focused bursts of reflection and meandering moments of solitude, I discovered that uninterrupted alone time centered me. "I want to bottle up this feeling and bring it home with me," my journal entry from the airplane home reads.
Over four years, I have designed seven DIY retreats. They have resulted in a marketing plan for my consulting business, numerous articles, and ideas for a book I've dreamed of writing for years. But the greatest benefit outweighs these outputs. I've created a space where I am 100% myself. I've gained perspective. As my husband explained to our daughter, I "go away to come back with more to give."
The 4 priorities I set before I leave
DIY retreats combine strategic planning skills that I developed after more than a decade in international business with my creative impulses as a writer and working mother. I've distilled my planning process into four priorities:
- Time and budget constraints: DIY retreats can be short and inexpensive. My time is most constrained by family obligations; I block out dates at least one month in advance. In the US, it's cheapest to drive to a remote location. Over two to four days, total costs can be a few hundred dollars for food, gas, and rental for a one-bedroom studio, especially off-season. For example, my two-night retreat in Putney, Vermont cost $220 to rent a studio on Airbnb, $40 for gas, and $30 on flip charts and office supplies - all of which were business expenses, excluding meals.
- Location: Taking breaks in nature is correlated with creativity. I choose quiet locations in nature, avoiding tourist destinations. For example, even in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I rented a room on a secluded family farm which I didn't leave. Now that I live in New England, I look for artist studios or lofts on rural properties. For safety as a female solo traveler, I only rent spaces where the owner lives on property.
- Family logistics: My husband manages our family differently when I'm away - and everyone benefits. Back-up childcare is my highest priority. I have a reciprocal "on-call" agreement with a friend who arranges an impromptu playdate if my husband's work schedule changes. Peace of mind doesn't cost a dime. It takes a village.
- Communication: Repeat after me: If I say it, I do it. I explicitly tell my family, friends, and clients about my retreat. I set deadlines around it, clear my calendar, and activate an automated email message that says I'm offline. While I'm away, I silence my phone and turn off my computer's WiFi often.
How I make the most of my time away
I think of each retreat as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end and one compelling question at its core.
I begin planning the agenda months before. Throughout the year, I jot down nagging life questions, dream projects, and business ideas in my planner. About a week before my departure, I review these lists to identify an overarching work-life question that deserves a deep dive of attention. How can I be financially secure and also creative? What does it take to scale my consulting business? How do I define success?
My agenda is a guide - not a fixed schedule - that incorporates my attention span, energy levels, and travel time. The night before I leave, I map out my retreat with one personal or professional focus per day; intentionally, I don't mix them. I select audiobooks or podcasts for my drives that relate to my retreat's theme to help me transition from "real life" into a retreat mindset. If I identify a project that requires intense concentration - like working on a business plan - I don't schedule it on my first day but preface it with walks, personal writing, or reading. Like playing the accordion, I stretch and compress my agenda with empty space to make room for creativity.
It's well researched that people who write down their goals - and track them - are more likely to achieve them. My retreats are my time to set, revise, and work on strategic goals.
I kick off my goal-setting with my computer off, and write by hand. Research from Princeton University and the University of California concluded that students who handwrite rather than type class notes have higher retention rates and deeper understanding of material. I draw and color code each goal with markers on flip charts. By my retreat's end, my studio is wallpapered with my goals. I'm a visual learner, so the colors and pictures help me remember them when I return home.
Returning to real life
"I've needed so much isolation, but now after this trip, I feel ready to integrate," I wrote in Thailand. The goal of all DIY retreats is not to go away, but to return.
Before leaving, I document key insights in my planner and list action steps in an Excel spreadsheet that I can track. Calendar in hand, I schedule two-hour appointments to review my monthly and quarterly progress. Like mini-retreats, I follow-up without distractions, usually in the quiet of my public library.
Then what happens? Life.
Priorities shift. Kids need attention. Work stress increases. And I can't get a story idea out of my head. In other words, it's time to begin planning my next retreat.