The Value of a Retreat and Why You Should Do One

why go on retreat?
Photo by Noelle Otto

Want to be happier, healthier and more productive? Make sure you take time out. 

I have just been away on what I would call a retreat in the Dolomites, the beautiful Italian mountains. There I was surrounded by the glory of nature and removed from the constant demands of work. Sounds a bit like a vacation, doesn’t it? 

What is a retreat?

What does it mean to go on a retreat? It is not quite like a holiday, but it is a break from usual work. The difference is in the purpose. The idea of going on a retreat has spiritual origins. It is the physical removal of self from normal life to allow time for contemplation. The idea might be to reflect on character, purpose, values, motivation, or a combination of similar things. A lot of people go on organised retreats at special centres and with groups but it can also be done individually, as I have done.

A retreat is not fleeing in the face of adversity or running away from trouble. The military concept of a retreat (not a rout and fleeing in the face of the enemy) is a good analogy. A retreat, or withdrawal, is a considered action. It is a purposeful stepping back from the front line to allow time to regroup, recuperate and reconsider plans. 

So, what is the purpose of my retreat? I was away to recharge my batteries, find space to think creatively and to reflect. I find that when I get some distance I can examine my plans and decisions from a different perspective. 


Rest is important. It is critical to performance and yet we often neglect our own rest, particularly our sleep. If you are not convinced that you need at least seven hours of sleep per night to be at your best then you need to read Why We Sleep by Dr Matthew Walker.

Therefore, it is important to protect our downtime if we want to maintain our ability to perform well. I have learned that I need to put breaks into my diary – be that daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly – so that they become protected space and don’t get forced out by other needs. For example, this week of retreat has been blocked out in my calendar for months. If it hadn’t been then it would have been swallowed up in work. 

Taking time out can feel like a dip in productivity, but actually, the re-energising and other benefits of resting increase our output in the long run. It also helps us avoid burnout.

For me an important part of the re-energising process is exercise. I have never been one for just lying on the beach, even when on vacation, and so on retreat I also like to keep active. This is not just a preference though. As scientists, such as Professor Jeff Edwards have shown, that physical exercise not only increases our energy levels, and improves our stamina, it also invigorates the brain, improves memory and reduces stress. And the exercise does not need to be overly strenuous (not all the time at least); walking is a prime example of an easy exercise that has a host of benefits. 

I find it very hard to exercise in the gym for more than an hour. Generally, my workouts average 30-40 minutes. But in the mountains, the hours can slip by. Just walking up a hill can keep me in a constant aerobic state, pushing the body, but at a sustainable pace. It’s a great way to keep in shape. If you want to shed some pounds, then go and pound the trails in the hills! 

Creative space

A retreat also gives time to think. The busyness and stresses of everyday life can stifle thought, particularly creativity and effective decision-making. Therefore, we need to make space to think, even to allow our minds to wander. When we give ourselves occasion for our thoughts to drift it allows the subconscious to work and new ideas will surface. 

To help this creative process I love to be out in the natural world. And I am not alone here. From Hippocrates to Wordsworth, Newton to Steve Jobs, great thinkers, poets, and leaders down through the years have used walking and the inspiration of nature for this purpose. 

I find being out in creation feeds the senses as well as being a balm for the soul. When I walk and I let my thoughts drift my senses then become alive to the external world. The smell of wet grass or meadow flowers. The sound of wind through the trees, of rain drumming on the tent. Feeling the crunch of leaves underfoot or the rock beneath the fingers when climbing. And taste? No food tastes better or a drink sweeter than after an adventure! 

So, if you want to think more creatively then take a walk on the wild side; get out of the home or the office and lose yourself for a bit in the great outdoors.


With the right environment and activity, that creative thought can be coupled with purposeful reflection. Creativity is not just about artistic endeavour, it is about finding new way ways of thinking about and doing things. We may even find new purpose and direction when we reflect in this way. And here lies some of the deeper power of going on a retreat.

Self-improvement starts with self-awareness, and time away to reflect allows us to consider where we are, what we are doing and why. These wherewhat, and why questions relate to the concepts of vision, mission, and values. 

When I am away on a retreat, I think about my personal values and how they align with my decisions. I recall my dreams and reflect on my progress towards that vision. Also, I consider my life’s mission and then reflect upon how I am doing in the pursuit of that purpose. I then think about my goals and assess whether those goals are supporting my vision, values, and mission. 

Having gone through this process of reflection you can then be confident that any new goals that you set, or existing goals that you refine, will be in-line with your greater direction.

If you have never considered what your values, vision or mission might be then going on a retreat is the perfect time to do just that. If you are feeling angry, unhappy, or frustrated, there is a good chance that you are out of alignment with one or all of these things. It can be very hard to create the space to even grapple with these ideas, but unless you do you run the risk of remaining trapped in a negative situation. It is very easy to do; I know this as I have personal experience with this sort of challenge or mid-life crisis.

Why not go on a retreat yourself?

So why should you go on a retreat? Going on a retreat will help to re-energise you, and give you space to think creatively, and time to reflect. If you truly want to be productive and effective in what you do (and enjoy doing it) then setting aside time to consider your life’s purpose and your personal values, vision and mission is vital. It might be you want to go on an organised retreat or, like me, to head to the mountains for a while, but have a think about what might work for you. 

Worried about getting the time to go on retreat? In time gone by people have gone on retreats for long periods but even a week might seem like a lot. If that is the case, then how about a long weekend or just a weekend? If you are really struggling, then even a day can be helpful. And I can guarantee, if you take that space – however long you can manage – and use the time well, then you will feel the benefit and want to do it again. Chances are that then, the next time, you will find some more time!

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