11 steps for running your own personal retreat

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions but setting some meaningful goals for the year seemed like an important thing to do. Here’s how I did it.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Promising to exercise more, drink less, read more, create world peace or eat less chocolate inevitably felt like too much pressure closely followed by soul crushing disappointment (usually around late January time). All the resolutions I came up with felt either unachievable or pointless. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong.

However, this year I’ve been inspired to do things “on purpose”. No more drifting in the wind and reacting to what life throws at me. This year is going to be a year of THE PLAN!

To give you some context, we’ve recently made the transition from being a startup studio (called Spook Studio) to building a community of purpose driven humans, The Happy Startup School. This has been a radical transition for me. I’ve gone from having a clear understanding of my role (builder of all things technical and general naysayer) to…?

I hate uncertainty (ironic given that I co-founded the Happy Startup School) and so when faced with doubt and unpredictability I go into ORGANISE mode.

I’ve tried just going with the flow and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Done it. Hated it. Wanted to change it.

So in an effort to regain control over the world around me I took some time to understand what I really wanted from this year. I went on a “personal retreat”.

I first heard about personal retreats listening to this Zen Founder podcast by Sherry and Rob Walling. At the time I wasn’t sure how relevant it was but now that we’re in startup mode things got a lot more clear. If this venture is going to work then I need to find out what I want from it. If I’m going to give it my all then I need to know which of my needs will be satisfied by pursuing it. This whole venture can’t just be about the money. For me to be happy it needs to tap into more intrinsic motivations too. For me that’s what work should be about. Waking up every morning wanting to go to work. Not dreading it. That’s how work works (thanks Charles Davies).

Listening to a recent podcast from Startups For the Rest of Us I got some ideas on how I could run my own personal retreat. I didn’t want it to degenerate into a self indulgent navel gazing exercise. I was determined to avoid spending too much time “just reflecting” (rightly or wrongly) and actually get something done. While I appreciate I can’t be too rigid with these kinds of things and try to force it, I also wanted to be systematic about it. I therefore did it in the only way I know how. In a way that felt most comfortable. I structured and timetabled it. It was all going to fit into one day (having done it I found I really needed two days!!!).


So here are my 11 steps to getting clear on my year!


I find it impossible to do any useful planning in between doing other things. Trying to set meaningful goals in snatched 10 minute intervals between day to day tasks does not work for me. In order to get some constructive goal setting work done I needed to take proper time out. So, I decided to spend a full day out of the office, as removed as possible from my day to day needs.

For me this IS work. It wasn’t time for laying around and dreaming wistfully. It was about coming up with some tangible output. So, if this is work it should happen during work time. Not personal or family time. It needs to be taken seriously. It has value, personally and to the business.


I was going to be doing a lot thinking. I was conscious that it was going to get totally unmanageable if I tried to do this all in my head. So I made sure I had everything I needed to turn my ideas into things. So the tool kit had to contain: flip chart paper, colouring pens, adult colouring book (not THAT kind of adult book), iPhone/iPod (or equivalent), sharpies and post it notes (lots of them). The flip chart paper was especially useful for organising and preserving the layout of my “post-it noted” thoughts.


In order to focus on the task at hand I needed to detach myself from all distractions, particularly the worries of work. I needed to get myself into the zone. I couldn’t do that at work or at home. I needed somewhere comfortable and relaxing where food was on tap and I had the space to spread out. I needed somewhere I could go for a relaxing walk.

I found lovely place outside Brighton called Stanmer House. There were lots of large tables, an open fire and a restaurant. Basic needs sorted. Time to do some self actualisation. But before that happened I also needed to have a calm mind as well as calm environment. So I experimented with doing a bit of “adult colouring in” whilst listening to music. I found it a really useful way to focus my mind. Nothing else existed but what was in front of me. The aim was to be present and mindful. Done.

I should have switched off all devices but I was using them to do some reading too. I did turn off all notifications (eventually, too many apps!).

I did this for two hours. On reflection I should have spent as long as I needed. Time boxing relaxation time is kind of oxymoronic, but needs must.


Those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it.

So my first exercise was to assess where I was now and how I got here. I split this job up into 3 parts. Each part followed the same format and was essentially “thought triage”. I took three sheets of flip chart paper and using a sharpie I drew a line that divided them in two. The area above the line was the “positive” area and the one below was the “negative area”.

The first part of the exercise is to think about any significant events from the last year, write them on a post-it and place on the paper (thanks to Jon Barnes for this). Energy giving events went in the top area and energy depleting ones went to the bottom area. I tried not to over think things and just followed the feeling. I found it difficult trying to remember everything that had happened so I started going through my inbox month by month (that’s why I didn’t turn off my devices). This isn’t the quickest way to tackle this exercise but it’s amazing how much of your life is recorded in your email.

Part two involved recording patterns and routines that I had found myself falling into or actively pursuing. These were then grouped into positive and negative routines (as above). Some of the ones I came up with were going to bed late and eating bad food (negative) OR exercising in the morning and writing regular blog posts, journalling (positive). Again, trying not to over think, I just tried to recall patterns of behaviour and how they made me feel.

Finally I thought about positive and negative triggers. These are events or situations that bring about negative or positive emotions. Some examples of positive triggers for me are completing tasks, receiving a nice message from a Home Schooler, talking to friends or seeing my wife smile. Negative triggers would be ridiculously long (and unstructured) “to do” lists, an overflowing inbox or the sight of an untidy desk.


I now had a whole set of triggers, patterns and events that defined my last year. It was time to make use of this data. This involved grouping similar post-its, trying to identify any underlying patterns and seeing if I could glean any insight from this mass of “mind vomit”. This is the kind of stuff I enjoy. Teasing order from chaos. One thing that stood out was I love doing things with well defined endings. Open ended tasks demotivate me.

With this insight I could then move to the next part of this step which was to decide on which triggers, patterns and events I wanted to eliminate, reduce, raise or create in this coming year. This was another frenzy of post-it creation activity. Order was created. I felt satisfied.


This was the last exercise of the morning and I was on a hunt to really understand what motivates me to DO stuff. What drivers spur me into action? I divide them into extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. For me external motivations included money, praise and status. Internal motivations were a hunger for learning, the need to feel healthy & fit, freedom and achieving balance. My goal was to understand what would inspire to achieve my goals for this coming year.


So, that was a pretty intense morning. It was time to take a break before I burned myself out. So, back to some colouring, listening to an audiobook and having a lovely lunch. I would have gone for a walk but it was raining (typical UK weather). Despite having to stay indoors I spent a good hour and a half zoning out and chilling out.

An example post card by Laurence, COFOUNDER OF THE HAPPY STARTUP SCHOOL

An example post card by Laurence, COFOUNDER OF THE HAPPY STARTUP SCHOOL



After lunch, and a lovely strong coffee, I was now into the home straight. However, I didn’t want to dive straight into goal setting. Instead I wanted to try and imagine the future. We like this exercise. We use it in our Home School. Inspired by Mark Manson’s post about how “goals are overrated” I thought this exercise would help me avoid getting too fixated on “on-time transactional goals” and to explore how I wanted to feel at the end of the year and what habits I wanted to create. Armed with all the insight from the morning I found it much easier to articulate how it would feel if I kept doing all the positive stuff and avoided the negative stuff.

Then, with a bit more work I was able to start fleshing out some broad areas that I wanted to tackle in my personal life and work life.

I started writing about things like adventure, freedom, and building stuff. I then focused this down more by writing about about travel, investment and growing the business. I now felt I had a better foundation for setting more meaningful goals…


Referring back to Mark Manson’s goals are overrated post I took onboard how achieving the goal (eg. losing 10kg) wasn’t half as important as creating the habit that helped you achieve it (eg. running every morning). Also, by using the “5 whys approach” you can uncover that the goal you set is actually a false one. Losing weight wasn’t really the aim. The aim was to feel positive and energised (a nice by-product of exercise).

So when trying to set my goals I had to really understand what I wanted to achieve. I now knew how I wanted to feel at the end of the year. I had a better understanding of what motivated me. I also knew what I wanted to avoid. I could now set goals that were ambitious, achievable and would also create some positive habits.

I set 4 personal goals and 3 work goals. One of the personal ones was actually an anti-goal. I decided that this year I would NOT write a book.


A couple of my goals are quite big. Given that I hate open ended (seemingly never ending) tasks I must start breaking down these goals into achievable milestones. In this way I can stay motivated by feeling a sense of progress. This is when being systematic and methodical comes in handy. I need to create a plan, a set of logical steps. I also need to incentivise myself so I’ll push through the hard times. Each milestone that is achieved should be celebrated.

So, I will be looking to treat myself every time I achieve a milestone. They don’t have to be big treats (but they should if it was big milestone). Things that spring to mind are nice meals out with my wife, going to a concert, a play, the cinema, new item of clothing, a trip out with the family or even a new gadget. I need to set these up in advance and they should be part of the planning process. While this may sound a bit self indulgent I’ve come round to believing that any bit of extra motivation helps! Eyes on the “big prize”.


I’ve now got a plan (nearly). But once I get back to the studio it could be very easy to file it away and forget about it. I now need to commit to it, which means sharing it with someone else so that they can make me accountable. Their job is not only to crack the whip but also to support and encourage me. It may be that rather than one person I should be accountable to a group…


Shit happens. Things change. Priorities shift. That’s life. So I’m going to have to make sure I regularly check that the goals I’ve set and the vision I’ve defined still makes sense. Ideally the vision shouldn’t change much but goals may become irrelevant or unachievable. In true startup fashion I’ll need to adapt to the changing environment without compromising what I believe. I just need to keep in mind it’s about the feeling not the funding.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about running a personal retreat. Do you have any useful hints and tips to help me get more focused this year?

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