I took a week off work to do a digital detox retreat. This is how (and why) I did it.
We are inundated by digital media — I would know: it’s my job to produce social media content. But that doesn’t mean I don’t fall into the traps of social media consumption just like everyone else. In fact, I may be more susceptible to them, since it’s my job to stay abreast of all the current memes and TikTok dances. But social media overload wasn’t the sole reason I went on a retreat.
The truth is, I was also seeing signs of burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, I was having all the classic symptoms: irritability, difficulty concentrating, a hard time getting started with things, and flagging interest in projects. (Don’t tell my boss! Just kidding — I was very upfront about it.) Those signs of burnout are just baby meltdowns waiting to grow up, so I took action.
I used some PTO and took a full week off. (I know this isn’t possible for everyone, so I also have some suggestions about how you can do a mini-retreat over a weekend.) I knew I didn’t want to use the week to indulge my desire for escapism — that is, to binge-watch shows and work on my couch indentation. I was concerned that if I did that, I would find the same issues waiting for me when I returned to work. Even if you ignore them, you can always count on burnout symptoms to stick around!
I did my first retreat when I was 13 years old. Yeah, it was weird, but I was that kind of kid. In my late 20s, I spent two years at a Buddhist retreat center on a work-study agreement. I provided free labor, and in return I got to meditate as much as I wanted! For me, it was a great deal. This is all to say, I know my way around a retreat. There are a lot of ways to do a contemplative retreat, but essentially they require two things: a focus and some sort of structure you are required to adhere to for the entirety of the retreat. The focus should be an activity that allows for you to slow down, listen more, and open up — for instance, meditation, yoga, writing, or painting. (A retreat with a focus on shopping will not likely have the result you want, since shopping is a mental stimulant.)
My focus for this retreat was a digital detox. It was the antithesis of my work, essentially. It was like I was sitting a certain way (my job), and I needed to stretch in the opposite way (the retreat).
So, I had my focus, but I needed to design the structure part. I developed the main guidelines:
No phone, no internet, no computer, no screens, no TV, no music, and no entertainment until 7:00 p.m. each day. At that time, I was allowed to check messages and email for anything imperative and practical.
I laid out my parameters for “no entertainment” to include novel, story, and magazine reading. The reason for this was I wanted to eliminate anything that took me out of the present moment. Dancing, singing, gardening and some home projects were still allowed as long as I brought awareness to the activities.
I was also allowed to drive anywhere I wanted but couldn’t use a GPS, so I relied on the old-fashioned noggin for directions. If I didn’t know how to get there, I didn’t go.
7:00 a.m. Wake up and get my kid ready for school
8:30 a.m. Morning drinks outdoors — contemplate Big Questions and take notes
9:00 a.m. Movement time: stretch, run, workout, yoga
10:00 a.m. Create plan for the day — more contemplation
10:30 a.m. Prepare breakfast — eating meditation
11:00 a.m. Activity of my choice
1:00 p.m. Prepare lunch — eating meditation
bWalking meditation outside
2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Free time
5:00 p.m. Pick up my kid from school
+ A quiet comfortable place to be without other people (unless they are also doing the same retreat). If you have roommates, it will work better if you get a place to stay alone. Even crossing paths on the way to the bathroom with a non-retreatant can be an unwanted puncture in what is called the “retreat container.” Pets don’t count as non-retreatants! Kids do! I intentionally did mine at home and used the empty house while my wife and kid were away to retreat.
+ A notebook or journal.
+ Your favorite healthy foods and drinks.
+ Exercise equipment.
+ Big questions — for a contemplative retreat, I recommend preparing by jotting down some big questions to contemplate during your time. In a Buddhist retreat, these are often prescribed by whatever teachings you are focusing on. But they can be about any big-picture thing. I had five days, so I wrote down five questions.
• What do I really want from work?
• How can I work more functionally?
• How can I improve my workspace?
• How can I improve my WFH routine?
• What do I want more of in my life?
+ Tell the people you are close to that you are doing a retreat and won’t be responding to messages. If there is an important obligation that will positively contribute to your slowing down, like a therapy appointment or chiropractor adjustment, you can choose to break retreat for that.
+ Stay on the schedule. When you allow yourself to slow down, sometimes you can slow right down into a long nap on the couch. You will need the discipline of the structure to create balance.
+ Forgive yourself as long as you are truly listening. There was a day where I did exactly what I thought I might. After tea and contemplation in my garden, I got so utterly tired that I made an intentional choice to allow myself to nap. When I woke up I was careful not to shame myself for changing the schedule. If my body was that tired, it was OK to sleep. There is a difference between real exhaustion and boredom. Try to create enough stillness that you can sense that.
At the beginning of a retreat, most people have an expectation of what they want to experience when they come out of it. In my experience, having welcomed and said goodbye to hundreds of retreatants in my life, this is true across the board, and most people have unrealistically high expectations for themselves: “After this week I will have attained enlightenment!” I think it relates to the old (and frankly tired) adage “Time is money.” They think, “If I am going to spend a week on myself, by golly, I better be the best dang version of myself by the end!” And then they are grief-stricken to realize at the end that they are still themselves.
This has happened to me, and it once again happened to me. I admit, I was disappointed that I didn’t transform overnight. I was reminded by a friend, who is a veteran retreatant, that the magic of the retreat will likely be a slow burn. You start making little changes because you’re listening better to your own wisdom and intuition.
Sometimes you don’t have a week to devote to this kind of work, but honestly, two nights away can do you some real good. You can use similar guidelines but make them a little more potent with these suggestions:
Go away from your living situation. This diminishes your distractions like laundry and house projects. Just keep in mind, you will need a kitchen to prepare your meals.
I strongly recommend you take a vow of silence or at least speak and interact with others only at a minimum.
Cut yourself completely off from digital sources and entertainment for the entirety of the retreat. No reading even! This is where your journal will come in handy. Drawing or simple art-making is OK here.
If you decide to do a retreat, congratulate yourself! You are very brave. Our world is designed for constant stimulation. When you move against that grain, it can bring up all sorts of feelings: doubt, sadness, elation, confusion, and even frustration. My suggestion is to be kind to yourself and stay open to whatever happens, especially if it’s your first time. It’s OK to have a wild ride. The truth is, everyone does.