Three times a year, I get to spend time with great people in amazing destinations, teaching what I love to see learned. Two more times, I lead virtual retreats, with everyone in their own space, yet somehow deeply connected to each other and their work. Every time, I go home well-paid, my own expenses covered and a healthy profit margin. But the magic of great retreats isn’t that they help the leader’s bottom line—it’s in transcendence, where guests are able to commit to a specific part of their personal development, with guidance and support, experience transformation, and go home feeling as though their work, too, has profited.
What makes that transcendence happen? Three weeks ago, I’d have told you “careful budgeting, flexible scheduling and knowing who’s gluten-free,” but learning to pee again has taught me something more.
Yes, pee. Stick with me, OK?
In Bali, right before New Year’s Eve, I was walking home when a drunk tourist on a motor scooter on the wrong side of the road ran me over. I ended up in the hospital for a week, had surgery, and left with a brand-new plate in my skull that I’ll use to make new friends at TSA checkpoints forever.
In the hospital, my overall project was pretty big—to heal—but my daily focus was very narrow. For the first two days, my only goal was to achieve a 30% recline. Then to start eating. My stretch goal for this “retreat” week was to visit the toilet unaided, because they weren’t going to discharge me if I couldn’t. (I was even more committed because bedpans are not well-made for women.) For three days, I sat up farther and practiced putting my feet on the floor. Finally, I was able to be carefully led to the toilet, where I peed like a champion. It was almost as good a victory as finishing a manuscript—yet still a very small step.
Start with specific, limited daily accomplishments.
Achieving life-changing transformation at a retreat—for yourself or for your guests—starts with specific, limited daily accomplishments.
Narrowing focus also means removing outside distractions. In the hospital, I didn’t have to track my medication, because the staff were responsible for what I got, how much and when. When I host a retreat with a single chef, there’s a poster in the kitchen with everyone’s photo on it: Who gets still or sparkling water? Who’s the gluten-free vegan? Who shouldn’t be offered wine at dinner without making a big deal out of it? Details like not having to be (as) responsible for their recovery choices, or trusting the food on their plate, allow your guests to focus on the work. Your guests may not love every meal, but they’ll love not having to choose most of them.
Scale back your own expectations.
As a retreat leader, it’s tempting to shoot for the stars for our guests. For solo or friend-group retreats, we make long lists of what we hope to accomplish in our week or weekend away. But too ambitious a goal makes failure inevitable. If I’d been working on “jog around the block,” I’d have spent my days discouraged. Small, daily achievements kept me motivated toward the bigger project.
Figure out where everyone is BEFORE arrival.
Finding out on the first day of your retreat that person A is ready for handstands/querying/seven figures and person B needs mindfulness/finished draft/product focus, really screws up your lesson plan. One won’t be challenged; the other might get left behind. Knowing in advance—and checking your notes before daily meetings—lets you confidently usher each person along their retreat path. If you’re actively teaching, include references to specific participants’ goals. Comments like “For Priya, who’s growing her audience, this activity will do X. Sonia, you’re working on individual connections, so focus on Y,” go a long way towards reassuring each guest they’re on the right path—nobody needs to compare themselves to anyone else.
As the leader, narrow your own focus.
At my first travel retreat in Tuscany, I made a list of my own writing and work I’d try to get done in my “free time.” Later, I changed the title of the list to “Tasks during retreat HA HA HA.” Release yourself from outside obligations to allow yourself to be fully present for spontaneous discussions or unplanned activities. Often, it’s these unplanned interactions that allow guests to work through their own obstacles. Let any free time be free. (Trust me, you’re going to need a nap.)
Badly led or poorly planned retreats can be physically uncomfortable, emotionally embarrassing, even harmful to the guest’s personal development, and the worst retreat speed bumps usually come from too broad a focus. But small, daily success brings them closer to transformation that they couldn’t have achieved alone.
When planning your own retreat—a group of writing friends, a paid event, or one writer in an AirBnB—narrow the focus and lower your expectations. Last week, it wasn’t my job to make lunch or measure out medication or even wash my own body. Those boundaries let me focus on peeing like a champion. Whether you’re creating business growth plans, raising yoga levels, deepening spirituality or writing books, providing small, achievable steps lets your retreat participants feel that what they’ve done matters. Who they are has changed on a fundamental level. With your retreat, they’ve achieved transcendence.
Allison K Williams has edited and coached writers to publication with many of the best-known outlets in media. As a memoirist, essayist, and travel journalist, Allison has written craft, culture and comedy for National Public Radio, CBC-Canada, the New York Times, and many more. She leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats series and, as Social Media Editor for Brevity, she inspires thousands of writers with weekly blogs on craft and the writing life. Allison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and spent 20 years as a circus aerialist and acrobat before writing and editing full-time. Her latest book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book (Woodhall Press, 2021). Learn more at her website.