Clarity of mind means clarity of passion, too; this is why a great and clear mind loves ardently and sees distinctly what it loves. - Blaise Pascal
The first time I went on a clarity retreat was to ask the question "What Should I Do With My Life?" It was about purpose and it was about knowing that insanity is doing what you've always done and expecting different results. Everything was pretty muddled and a clear direction didn't present itself.
Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself. --Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Since then, I've used the clarity retreat for other not-as-major inflection points and decision-making. I've found it invaluable whenever I feel stuck or the solution I've come up with thus far is blah, so-so and not feeling like the obvious choice. And yes, I've used it quite effectively for business problems - particularly thorny strategy impasses or major business model overhauls. I use my creative process for clarity, purpose, focus and direction. Creativity by definition is limitless - so it naturally encompasses business problems.
Because of an ongoing discussion at Worthwhile Magazine's blog on Fast Company's Balance is Bunk! article and as a follow-up to my own post, 80-Hour Work Weeks are Bunk, I'm sharing my creative process - especially one aspect that is often ignored in the mad race to get to the Aha! (And it fits into Awareness Mondays.) I use this process for clarity, purpose, focus and direction.
You've no doubt noticed that some of your greatest insights and ideas have come when you're not thinking about them - just "out of the blue" - perhaps walking the dog, taking a shower, mountain biking in the foothills, or driving to work in silence.
Remember that creativity is what happens between your thoughts." - Michael Ray, Stanford Business School professor and author of The Highest Goal
How could you accelerate this process instead of having it be so elusive and mysterious? And what do you do if you are looking for breakthrough ideas and insights on major decisions, things like: What is my life purpose and what should I do next? or What's the next product strategy and is this business model going to work in the global marketplace? (Those are real questions I've asked.) When I need clarity there is one sure-fire way that I've found works for me.
I left a teaser in my previous post, 80-Hour Weeks are Bunk:
It's not simply time. Why can one person go away for three days and come back renewed and fill up a notebook on their return to overflowing with new ideas to start tackling and another person takes off for two weeks and returns nicely tanned but certainly not brimming with any new ideas and as stressed-out as ever on that first Monday back. Hmmm....What's the difference? Ponder that for a bit.
The stages of the creative process (at least they align with mine) are nicely summed up in an article, The Art of Creativity, that Laurel Delaney shares over at Worthwhile. It's an excerpt from the book, The Creative Spirit, by Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame), Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray. The stages as they've outlined are:
1. Preparation. (I call this stage, Saturation, because I am immersing myself in as much information as I can.)
2. Incubation. (Letting the problem "simmer".)
3. Illumination. (The aha! insight.)
4. Translation. (Translating your insight into action.)
This post is solely focused on the Incubation stage as it's the most misunderstood and least respected. It literally looks like you are "doing nothing."
In the philosophy of the Tao we soon discover that striving to succeed - in the theory that "you can't get something for nothing" - must be balanced by the realization that "you can't have something without nothing", because something always requires its opposite, a place to be, whether it is a receptive vessel, a clear mind, or an open heart. - What is the Tao? by Alan Watts
The more I can balance this preparation/immersion/saturation stage with the incubation/emptying/clearing stage even in the tumultous day-to-day, the more illuminating experiences I have.
Our lives are not so much a teeter-totter as a river of work, family, friends, community, faith... - Kevin Salwen, Worthwhile Magazine
As you get the hang of it, you'll notice the preparation and incubation phases flow into each other. It's not nearly as much of on-off switch - it's not a 'Now I'm Preparing' and 'Now I'm Incubating' - over time. But we rarely spend any time in Incubation that sometimes a delineating-demarcation-commiting "THIS IS INCUBATION" may be just the ticket.
For Really Big Breakthroughs, I like to go on clarity retreats for the incubation stage. While this could be a full-length article including anecdotes, I've included the top tips for planning your own clarity retreat. (BTW, the reason that two-week vacations don't usually yield any creative ahas! is that they're jammed packed with over-stimulation which is useful in some contexts, but is more "preparation" stage fodder.)
Breaking the compulsion to think simply means that the thinking process is no longer scattered by distracting forces. So when you turn your mind to some topic, you can penetrate that topic with great clarity and vigor. To draw a metaphor from the physical world, when thinking is no longer at the mercy of scattering forces, it becomes like a penetrating beam of coherent laser light. - Shinzen Young (via CharityFocus.org)
I've done these on a little as two nights, three days within 30 miles of home. But if you haven't already built in a lot of "incubation" time into your daily routine and depending on the BIGness of your questions, you might need to go as much as a full week. For questions around life purpose and making life/career transitions, you might look at the book I took along with me into Canyonlands National Park back in March 2002: The Clarity Quest: How to Take a Sabbatical Without Taking More Than a Week Off, by Pamela Ammondson (allow a few hours a day to do the journaling required). On your return home especially within the first two weeks, be prepared to capture the fleeting and powerful insights by carrying a small notebook/journal with you.
1. Stay Open. Ask the questions, but let go of the answers. You might think you have a solution in mind, but don't cling to it. You'll be surprised at how much more brilliant your breakthrough will be if you just let go of your fixation that you won't come up with anything better than your so-so, blah(yawn) solution that's your back-up plan. Kill the back-up plan.
2. No-Hassle Beauty. Go somewhere simple that doesn't require a lot of pre-planning. No hassle = low-stress. This is not the time to go on a worldwind tour of Europe. Guy Kawasaki gave away a great retreat location if you live in the Bay Area in his new book, The Art of the Start. (I'm not telling in a public forum, though you can email me.) Ideally stay close to home to avoid air travel; somewhere quiet, typically in nature; and somewhere you'd enjoy being. Ideas can range from day hiking from a base camp/lodge; kayaking along a gentle river or sheltered bay; cross-country skiing hut-to-hut; soaking the gentle sunbeams on the beach as you watch the tide come in; or chilling out on the veranda sipping wine in Napa Valley. Twice I've gone on backpacking trips - but this may require too much preparation if you don't regularly backpack.
3. Treat yourself. Re-treat yourself over and over. Make sure you are eating well (if you're packing and making your own food, make it as simple to prepare as possible so it doesn't feel like an ordeal...unless you adore cooking...) and sleeping well.
4. Bring a journal. Only journal if you don't have to force the words on paper - only when and if you're a conduit to your heart without filtering it through your head. Carry the journal wherever possible. You never know when you might want to sketch or write a poem or something seems important to jot down - leave the option open. Don't worry if you never even crack it open. That may just be what's needed especially if you do journal alot now. On one multi-day backpack trip to Grand Canyon, I didn't write a single word. I thought I had "wasted" the retreat time. Nope, it turned out I needed a break from journaling as well. I was overwhelmed with ideas when I returned back home including the entire outline for a book.
5. Avoid email, cellphone and even blogging. Really retreat. Don't listen to news, radio, or pick up the paper. If you are weak (as I am), you may need to go somewhere where it is impossible to stay in touch - you'd be surprised, even in Bay Area you can drive two miles outside of I-280 and be out of cellphone range and in the beauty of nature.
6. Go alone. With practice you can go with others that are also seeking time to be more contemplative, but the tendency is to be drawn to go sight-see, chat, and otherwise be distracted.
7. Focus on Being Present. I used to be pretty restless and extremely prone to boredom. If you don't want to "do nothing" that's fine. Fully engage with what you are doing. Anything that captures your attention fully - whether that's because you enjoy it intensely or to let your mind wander would be deadly (whitewater-kayaking comes to mind for me). Limit your time reading - and when you do, make it inspirational instead of intellectual. The entire idea is to rest your mind. So whatever you are doing, really do it and nothing else. Be nowhere else that moment. See the glint of the water splashing on the stone, feel the caress of the wind playing through the aspen trees, note the firmness and the give as the autumn leaves crunch under your footfall, gaze at the crystal moon lying on your back against the meadow grass, admire the depth of the sheer vertical vermillion canyon walls echoing your call.