Is There a ‘Best’ Time to Write?
Most of us have a specific time of the day — or at least an idealised time of day — that we think is the perfect time to write.
You might prefer the tranquility of the early morning, before the sun rises and before anyone else gets up.
Or maybe you like the quiet of the house late at night? You believe that the hours between midnight and 3am are when your creativity peaks.
Or maybe it’s rather like finding the perfect environment? The perfect time of day could be something that exists more in our imagination than in reality.
What Does The Research Say?
Scientists have explored the rhythms of the human body and our productivity cycles extensively, and have concluded that it isn’t random, and it isn’t a matter of personal preference. There actually are optimal times to do certain kinds of activities (again, an analogy with where we write!)
(for example, the best time to check your Twitter is from 8-9am in the time zone where most of your followers reside, because the twittersphere posts more tweets and more positive tweets between the hours of breakfast and starting work than at any other time.)
So if science has the answer to positive tweeting, surely it can give us answers to ‘when is the best time to write?’
Well, yes, but also no.
The Morning Writer’s Advantage
According to science, the best time of the day to write is the very first thing in the morning. That’s right – before you’ve had breakfast, before you’ve even brushed your teeth or showered, you should be at your desk and putting words on paper (or in a computer file).
While it might sound unenticing to start as soon as you roll out of bed, the arguments behind this approach are very compelling.
Strike Before Your Willpower Wavers
First of all, your willpower is at its strongest before you’ve had to use it for anything else in the day.
In psychological tests, two groups are selected and asked to complete a task — it could be a mental activity or a simple physical test like holding a handgrip. One group is asked to tackle a small puzzle before they start and this group invariably performs less well, and also takes longer to finish the task, than the second (control) group.
Why is this?
The theory goes like this: we have a finite amount of willpower or persistence and, if we use it up (like that first group solving a puzzle) then we are less motivated — or we run out of motivation — to stick at and solve any subsequent tasks. In these experiments, the first group uses up some of their willpower while the second group has a full tank ready to go for the main activity.
In real life, before we get to our writing, we might head out for a run, perhaps wake up grumpy teenagers and get them off to school, or maybe even slog away for a full 8-hour day of work. After which, willpower is basically beaten to a pulp.
Even choosing whether to hold back or give in to that morning coffee could damage your writing resolve.
If you write first thing in the morning — and we really do mean first thing — before you make any decisions — you haven’t challenged your willpower, and it’s easier for you to get through to that very… last… word…
Stay in Your Creative State
The second argument put forward by the early morning writing camp is that we have the most energy and the most clarity first thing in the morning, because we aren’t carrying all the worries and doubts that weigh us down during the day.
We are bright, fresh, and empty of any and all distractions.
And here again, science supports the conclusion.
The area of the brain that is linked to creativity is most active during and immediately after sleep. As you wake up and get on with your day, then this creative condition leaves you and the analytical side of your brain kicks in.
Maybe that’s why we refer to creatives as ‘dreamers’? Quite literally, they are still in a partial sleep-like state.
Ernest Hemingway was a morning writer, and, apart from his strange tendency to write barefoot standing up that came out in his interview with the Paris Review, a lot of what he said makes sense:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible…You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.
Coming to a story that you have complete control over, with a completely fresh mind was essential for Hemingway.
Advantages of an early start: clear head, fresh mind, high energy and a full tank of willpower.
The Evening Writer’s Rebuttal
Despite the compelling argument for being a morning writer, many writers truly believe that the wee small hours are the best, indeed the only, time to write.
Devoid of Distractions
These night owls believe that writing late at night is the ideal time because it’s completely devoid of distractions. There is nothing left to do in your day, and you can let go of to-do lists or distractions. Plus, you have a stock of ideas and inspiration from the day that is coming to an end.
And some research does back up this idea of writing at night.
Letting Go of Critical Consciousness
According to Ron Friedman PhD, author of The Best Place to Work, being slightly fatigued can actually boost your creativity.
Friedman’s argument in The Harvard Review makes sense: being creative often means allowing your mind to go off at tangents — that so-called ‘thinking outside the box’ — when you come up with ideas that are so crazy that you might dismiss during your clear-headed morning writing session.
It’s in these late night sessions, when you’re slightly tired, that the critical part of your brain shuts down — and not having the willpower to challenge them works to your advantage.
Therefore, scheduling creative writing time for insanely late at night when your brain is fatigued after a hard day of work can actually inspire huge amounts of creative juices, explaining why plenty of writers pick this time of the day (or night) to write.
Robert Frost, the American poet, was one such writer. His philosophy was that writing only at night – from 10pm to the early morning was when his best work is done.
Advantages of the late night session: out of the box thinking, ideas and inspiration from the day, quietening your inner critic, and a relaxed attitude to working.
Morning or Night: Make It Work
Of course, neither of these times – early morning or late at night – are going to work for everyone. Our schedules vary us much as our writing styles, and we need to keep that in mind when determining the ‘best’ time of day to write.
But waiting for the perfect time means we could be waiting a long time. In the words of E.B. White,
A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
If you’re a writer who doesn’t have 24 hours a day to pick and choose your writing time, here’s how to make what time you do have work for you.
If You Picked Morning…
If you only have free time in the morning then do one, or all, of these:
- Make the first thing you do a creative task. Brainstorm, plot your connections, free-write, or spend time puzzling over that extremely rigid paragraph that just needs some loosening up.
- Try just getting out as many pages as possible while you’re in the ‘zone’, even if only a few of them can be used, it’s worth it.
- Once your brain hits analytical mode, take advantage of your heightened levels of willpower. Attack your ugliest task while you’re fresh, and try to demolish it in one go. If you spend only ten minutes on this, then the rest of your day is going to look so much more positive, you’ll have a sense of achievement and pride that you did something hard. You won. And you can sit back and coast for the rest of the day. Well, at least until tomorrow morning.
- Fake fatigue to get another hit of creativity. Fatigue doesn’t just come from lack of sleep, it also comes from working your body so that you can free your mind. Running is a great way to get your creativity flowing again.
If You Picked Night…
Maybe mornings don’t work so well for you? Maybe you have to get the children out to school, or you like to go to the gym first thing? If you only have time to write at night, then do one, or more, of these:
- Use the start of your evening of writing to go over your late night writing from the day before. That tiredness that can benefit your creativity can also lead to mistakes. When your mind is fresh(er), you’ll be more likely to see and be able to correct the ones you made in yesterday’s 3am creative frenzy than if you leave it until you’ve finished tonight’s session.
- Take breaks. Even creativity starts to fizzle if you push it for too long. Try to mimic the morning freshness and clarity by having a 10 minute power nap or a short meditation, and then get up and straight back into it until you fatigue again.
- Switch tasks from time to time and put in a session of editing, planning, or other analytical aspects of writing, before heading into creative mode again.
- Make time for food and drinks, and ALWAYS make sure you stop in time to have a good 7-9 hour sleep. Lack of sleep will not make you a better writer!
If you have time for both…
If you don’t have a single best time to write, and you want to slot your writing in at both ends of the day, then pick strategies that will work with your creativity and energy.
That morning time might be for the new work, the thinking and the sprints. While the evening might be more playful, going out on a limb exploring alternative ways to structure or present your content.
At the End of the Day, It’s Personal
As you get to know your own writing rhythms, you’ll be able to take advantage of times when you know you’re at your best creatively, and times when you’re most likely to be able to push through stacks of writing, editing or pitching publishers or blogs.
The most important thing to remember is that whatever time of the day or night you are writing, make it a habit.
Good habits are the most essential key to being a more productive writer.
And, if you need a recap, we liked this infograpic, courtesy of Quick Sprout.
What’s your favourite time to write? I’m a morning person for sure, but come and let me know your preference over on Facebook.