(MoneyWatch) I'm making my annual escape in a few weeks and I can't wait. For years, I ignored the advice and urging of friends and other business owners to take a personal retreat (or as I've heard it called, a "me-treat"). My conservative upbringing told me it was indulgent, irresponsible and unnecessary. But there came a point that I felt so far behind, so muddled, and so fried, that I said "what the heck."
I got more done -- and more recharged -- in four days of sequestration than I could have in a month of business-as-usual life, and I am now a believer.
Some people take the escape idea to great lengths -- a cabin deep in the woods with no electricity, top of a mountain, yurt in the desert, monastery. But I think for most small business owners, something less extreme is more practical, productive and cost-effective. Here are the six elements that have worked for me in my escape planning:
1. Know exactly why you're going and commit to it. It's not just about getting away. Decide exactly what you plan to get done, make sure it's realistic in the time you've allotted, prepare and organize well in advance. Whether it's writing, big-picture planning, product development, evaluating people and organizational issues, or multiple, smaller projects, set specific and finite goals. You must come home having truly accomplished things.
2. Don't go too far. My own rule is to find a place within roughly 2-3 hours' flying time. Almost everyone can find a suitable destination within that radius, and it's far enough that you are genuinely separating yourself. Why does it matter? Most importantly, it ensures you can spend more time being productive and less time traveling. Second, it allows you to get back quickly if absolutely necessary (this can be an unavoidable consideration, especially for owners of very small businesses). And third, it may help keep the cost of the trip under control.
3. Choose your weather. I live in the grey snow belt, so I crave bright, sunny days and mild temperatures (even if I'll be locked in a hotel room much of the time). On the other hand, if you live in a constantly sunny, scorching locale, perhaps a change-of-seasons destination will put you in the right frame of mind. Go where you'll be happy and relaxed.
4. Control your excitement. Go someplace interesting, someplace you haven't been, but not with so many diversions that you'll be tempted to stray from your mission. Big, vibrant cities like New York, Miami and San Francisco are brimming with opportunities for distraction. And Las Vegas? Don't even think about it. Think small, quaint, quiet, historical, cheerful, walkable.
5. Disconnect. The big one. If you don't change your electronic habits, you are not escaping. The degree to which you go off the grid depends on your personality and discipline, and how well your business can operate without you. If your company can do just fine without you and/or you're a true Zen master, try to unplug completely. If you can't change your habits at all, you're just moving your office to a hotel and wasting time and money. But if you're in the middle, like me, you should be able to reduce your electro-dependence to a functional minimum (in my case I shoot for 90 percent offline time).
Tell key staff where you'll be, but that you're unreachable except in urgent situations. Set your e-mail auto responder and voice mail message accordingly. While you're gone, either don't read e-mails, or ignore any that aren't marked urgent, or worst case, choose one short period a day that you'll deal with the calls and messages you feel you must. But the more you disconnect, the better. You'll get more done with less stress. And you'll be surprised to see how well the world keeps revolving without you.
6. Reward yourself. All work and no play is not the idea. Mostly work and some play is better. My own "thing" is to give myself small rewards for putting in a good day's work and reaching goals. Spend a couple of hours each day walking around, visiting a must-see local sight, maybe even splurge on a massage or special purchase for yourself.
Similarly, make time for your health. If you're a runner, run (if not, at least walk around for an hour every day or use the hotel gym). For me, it's-- I always check the local studio scene before choosing a destination. Whatever it is, some form of fitness activity is critical, for so many reasons.
A last, important thought: Spend enough money, but not too much. The goal is to have a productive, recharging experience, so treat yourself to a better hotel than you might normally book for a business trip. You'll be spending a lot more time there, and it should be a place you enjoy hanging around. Most importantly, stay where you have all the tools and resources you need. Eat well, enjoy yourself. But don't spend so much that you'll feel irresponsible or guilty; stress defeats the purpose.
Again, it's all relative to your proclivities and your resources, but almost any small business owner can come up with a quality retreat that he or she can afford without remorse. If you do it right and make the getaway work, it will be worth every penny.
Image by Flickr user centermez