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Academic Achiever

The surprising power of intellectual retreats

By removing yourself from familiar surroundings, you will be able to zero in on a particular task or project without all the usual distractions.


We are all familiar with the idea of a retreat: leaving your familiar surroundings to immerse yourself in something (like yoga) or to give yourself some space (like meditation). There are retreats for couples who are in therapy, there are retreats for clergy and caregivers and there are retreats for people who have won awards or special recognition to meet with like-minded people.

In this column, I propose something free and self-guided: a retreat specifically for academic work. One of our most difficult tasks is to separate and compartmentalize parts of our lives. We have the teaching part, the home part, the family part and the research part. We usually need to think about all these responsibilities in one day (unless we are very lucky), and often switch back and forth several times a day between them. Although we know from a great deal of research that “task switching” creates a heavy cognitive load (and takes us up to 20 minutes to regroup after an interruption), we mostly cannot avoid it in an average day. And, although it is nice to think that you could spend a quiet Sunday morning working on writing a book chapter, we should not reserve just our time off or our well-deserved down time for focused work.

In addition, many of our projects require several hours of concerted effort. By the time we warm up, remind ourselves what we are doing, and then do the task, many hours may have gone by. When the pressure is on, and we have a lot on our plates, we often feel guilty devoting a big block of time (or, we simply cannot justify doing it).

Enter the idea of an intellectual retreat.

My suggestion is that it take anywhere from half a day to a whole day, that it takes place with a friend or colleague, and that it is done away from your normal work and home locations. Here’s why:

  1. If you are really going to gain ground on a project, and particularly a project which you have been avoiding because “it takes too long”, you need at least a three-hour period and perhaps a whole day to get some traction.
  2. Having an accountability partner is important to check in with, to make promises to and to provide some company on this retreat journey. I used to go on a retreat regularly with someone who is not in my field. We would go to a coffee shop where a little white noise aided in concentration and of course there was a lot of caffeine and the occasional snack. We each had a specific project we wanted to work on. The rule is we did not talk about our project but instead checked in at certain break times and compared notes on our progress. The silent presence of another person made me feel like I needed to stay on task.
  3. This retreat cannot be done in your office, home study, or home. There are simply too many distractions and reminders of other tasks and projects. A quiet part of a library that you don’t normally work in, a coffee shop (if you can tolerate background noise), or a building or location that you don’t necessarily associate with work are the best choices. Wi-Fi is good to have, but if you don’t specifically need the internet, it is best to unplug. Then you can also avoid the distraction of checking social media.

This past summer, I needed to do a major revision of a book proposal, and I just did not have the brain space to do it amongst my other projects and tasks. Since it was my most important proposal of the year, I blocked off three days in a remote location, by myself, to deeply rethink the scope and content of the proposal. I was able to use a meeting room at a local church (air-conditioned, which was a must) where no one was likely to be on a weekday. Someone kindly unlocked the building for me and provided the Wi-Fi password. I brought my lunch, my laptop and some paper pads to write ideas on. It took me an hour to rethink the project, but only because I knew I had the luxury of three days and no interruptions. I had faced this task for a long time unsuccessfully, because I felt too busy with everything else I had to do, and I needed more time and space. In the end, the mental processing that went into it worked because it was truly the only thing I was thinking about. The rest of the day and the following two days? I moved on to other things and was much more productive because the weight of this revision was not hanging over me.

I have used retreats to tackle other large important but not-urgent projects, and in every case  my retreat partner and I have experienced profound results. You should time the retreat to coincide with the end of term, a study break, or some other time when you can carve out a few hours. Don’t do it when you are exhausted and don’t do it when you have other distractions, like grading or course prep. This is a highly effective practice that most people can fit into their schedules, and the rewards are so substantial that it is worth devoting the time to a retreat.

Elizabeth Wells is a professor of music history and musicology at Mount Allison University as well as author of the book The Organized Academic.

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