Distilling Key Takeaways

A few weeks ago, I went on a four-day silent retreat at the country home of an order of Anglican monks. As an introvert who likes to eat delicious food that someone else prepared for me, appreciates the soothing repetition of monastic chanting, and feels comforted by the creaking floorboards and crackling fires of an old farmhouse, this experience was a highlight of my year.  

Aside from basking in the visceral goodness—the crusty bread and the smell of incense and the warmth radiating from a cup of tea—I spent the majority of my time on the retreat reading, journaling and meditating. Without other tasks demanding my attention, I covered a lot of literary, mental, spiritual and emotional ground in those four days, and so while I ended the retreat feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, I also had a sense of anxiety about returning to my ordinary life. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to integrate the insights that I gained in a calm, quiet place into the noisy and busy world of work and family.

With that concern in mind, I decided to spend the last several hours of my retreat revisiting the ground I had covered during my days of silence. I leafed through the pages of my journal, seeking patterns of ideas that had filled my past few days. I skimmed over the books I had read and took note of passages that I had highlighted, and I sat quietly, paying attention to the key words and ideas that sprang to the surface of my thoughts. And then, I labeled a page in my journal “Retreat Takeaways” and I made a bulleted list. I limited myself to one page, and I kept my points simple (we’re talking sentences like, “I can trust myself,” and “You don’t have to be perfect,” and “Soak up the love of family and friends.”).

I couldn’t bring home the creaking floor boards, the sunlit chapel, the gifted chef, or a mountain of information. But I could bring home a few key ideas, and so I wrote them down and packed them alongside my toothbrush and slippers; and when I got home and unpacked my toothbrush and slippers, I also unpacked my key ideas, sharing them with my husband and jotting them down on a post-it note to stick on my computer screen. These points have become my mantras for the past few months, and have allowed me to maintain the sense of rejuvenation and centeredness that I so cherished during my retreat.

What was true for my retreat is true in other areas of my life: information abounds, and it’s difficult to process all of it. In the technological age in which we live—a time and space of internet news, 24-hour-television, and social media—we receive a tremendous amount of information daily.  One study showed that people are bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of data each day.  

There is no possible way we can retain and make use of all of the words, ideas, insights and concepts contained in this data, and if we aren’t careful, every last ounce of that data will go in one ear and out the other. I can’t tell you how many times I have read an article or book, only to find that I can’t recall the point or the plot hours—let alone months or years!—later. But we can remember a few key points, and if we want to make sure that we do remember those key points, we need to be intentional about distilling them.  


Since my retreat success in extracting a few bite-sized points from a mountain of ideas, I’ve practiced this process in other areas of my life. If I attend a lecture, read a good book, or have a particularly enlightening conversation, I take a moment to reflect on the information covered and what I most want to remember about it. I write a sentence or two down, and then I’m more able to remember it, speak about it with clarity, integrate it into the fabric of my existence, and let it impact my life.

Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.