Why & How I Take Creative Retreats

Sarah Firth
4 min readOct 3, 2016

Back in August I went on a creative retreat in the Tasman Peninsula for two weeks. It was quiet, right by the sea and so cold I wore thermals and a sleeping bag each day. My time was spent writing and thumb-nailing my graphic novel, looking at cows and bushwalking. These retreats are an annual ritual, a dive into fertile solitude for a week or two — and are immeasurably important for my mental health, creative projects, and business strategising.

Whenever I do one, and particularly when I took a sabbatical, people want to know why and how I go about crafting these space time oases. Here are some thoughts.

The why came about, because back in 2010 — when I first started my creative business — I realised that if I didn’t take some time away from the daily pressures of meeting client needs and running the business, I quickly slipped into a reactionary frame of mind that lead to overwork, personal compromise and burnout.

After talking with various artists, writers, entrepreneurs and parents, a few mentioned that they take short retreats to help them carve out time for creative projects and strategising, allowing them to refresh their outlook and make meaningful progress amidst the competing demands in their lives.

The first retreat I took was a breath of fresh air. Getting perspective, having time to take stock of what was and wasn’t working, get my priorities straight, develop a strategy and step into a proactive, intentional and generative frame of mind was invigorating. I also found that physically going away made a big difference. It helped set the intention for the duration of time. It helped me commit to making the most of it, and assisted with momentarily unplugging from daily life.

It can seem scary and indulgent to go away by yourself for a couple of weeks. Plus, it’s never a good time. When you plan to go away, inevitably urgent matters pop up. It can be really hard to say no. People may not understand what you are doing. Clients have emergencies, partners and children miss you, jobs get offered, friends have babies, opportunities pop up, your family decides they want to visit. There are lots of things that can stop you. But what matters more, urgent or important?

Whether solo or not, retreats create a unique space for reflection, emergence and planning. It is important. This is exactly why businesses have end of year reflection workshops and team planning retreats. The benefits are huge. It’s an investment. Without quality time thinking outside of the box, generating new work and thinking strategically are very hard.

From a business perspective, my solo retreats are a time to reflect, make sense of challenges, celebrate successes, learn, grow and chart the way forward. From a creative perspective, taking time out is essential for creative recalibration. Even with a creative business — you are still making creative work for others — and it is a fundamentally different process to making personal, sometimes risky, emergent creative work. Time out allows for breathing space, creative exploration, writing, daydreaming, experimentation and the opportunity to tune into and listen to myself, away from the noise of everyday life and people’s opinions.

How do I plan and structure these business and creative retreats? Firstly I make sure to save up some money so I can take time off. I chose a week in January for a business retreat and plan creative retreats after that. Over the week in January I follow a scan, focus, act methodology — reviewing the work of the previous year, reflecting, learning, exploring and then plan the upcoming year. I set things like financial targets for the upcoming year and each month, project ambitions, who I want to work with and why, and the kind of work I want to be doing. I also plan in time for creative projects and further creative retreats.

My creative retreats are structured similarly, so I can realign, generate new ideas, focus on creative projects such as writing my graphic novel, or work on a new animation or film. It is an important way for me to honour my creativity, to take my art making and play seriously. Thanks to these breaks I was able to create new works such as HEADSHOTSand BODY LANGUAGE. Without time away from my business, neither of these creative explorations would have been born.

A build on my creative retreat process was the sabbatical I took. I saved up to take 6 months off from my business in 2014, partly as a gift to myself for my 30th birthday, and partly because I really needed to slow down and look at what I was creating, check my priorities and think about where I was heading. This talk on the power of time off by Stefan Sagmeister was a key inspiration, as a way to rejuvenate and refresh my creative outlook.

My sabbatical gave me time to draw, write and animate in ways that I find hard to do when I’m busy with business. These creative activities then opened up new possibilities that I hadn’t even imagined, such being commissioned to make new comics, films and later animations for TripTank at Comedy Central in the US.

There is much more to say about how I approach and structure retreats, and the value of what emerges from them. As I’ve mentioned in a few previous newsletters I’m making a practical book that shares all the tools and processes I’ve collected over the years to assist with creative and business development, so I’ll leave the details for the book or another newsletter.

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Sarah Firth

I’m an award-winning comic artist, writer and graphic recorder. All words + images © Sarah Firth. Contact me www.sarahthefirth if you want to use them.