Use the pandemic to figure out your best time for writing

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Have you ever struggled to figure out your best time for writing? Here’s how to calculate that total, scientifically…

In an effort to make lemonade out of the big fat lemon that’s the COVID pandemic, let me suggest you try a small experiment related to writing.

(BTW, I’m assuming you’re home and that your sleep schedule may be more in your control than usual — as a result of not having to commute.) 

Use this unexpected — if not entirely welcome — situation to chart your peak energy times. Research has shown that our energy is determined by our circadian rhythm, the 24-hour clock that runs in the back of all of our brains.

For most adults, this clock gives us our biggest dip in energy in the middle of the night (between 2 and 4 am, when we’re fast asleep) and just after lunchtime (between 1 and 3 pm). But every person is different. And whether you’re a night owl, morning lark or third bird will have a profound influence on when you’re super sleepy or extra alert.

You want to do your most important work (writing?!) when you’re at or near your peak in alertness. And you should schedule your least important tasks (email?!) when your energy is lowest.

I usually recommend writing in the morning for most (not all!) people, for a few good reasons:

  • If you write before meetings and phone calls start, you’ll have some good, clear, uninterrupted time.
  • If you write before engaging in harmful self-negotiation (e.g.: “I need to write at 10 am,” followed by “I need to write at 11 am,” followed by “I need to write at noon” etc.), you’re less likely to procrastinate.
  • If you write before doing anything else, you’re going to feel accomplished and rewarded and that will help you do well in everything else you need to do that day.
  • If you write before things start to go wrong in your day — as they inevitably will — you’re going to be in a better mood and more successful with your writing.
  • If you write before doing anything else (especially email or mindless scrolling of news feeds), you’re going to preserve your energy for your more important and rewarding tasks.

That said, I never encourage people to train themselves to wake up early so they can write. To me this is a terrible suggestion imposed by a coven of productivity zealots who are likely morning larks themselves and who expect the rest of the world to be exactly like them.

I was born a night owl and lived that way, happily, for about 45 years, going to bed somewhere between 1 am and 2:30 am and getting up at 8 am on weekdays and 10 am on weekends. Then, against all odds, I turned into a morning lark overnight. I wasn’t deliberately trying to change my sleep habits; the change happened without any conscious effort on my part. To be honest, the change pissed me off a bit.

Still, I could suddenly see how the world has been created to suit morning larks. If you wake up early you’re seen as more disciplined and harder working, even though this is merely an accident of biology. Work and school start early in the day, catering to the habits of larks and punishing all other types of birds.

This makes me passionate about arguing we should not be trying to fight human biology. Productivity experts or writing coaches who tell you that the ONLY time to write is ‘X am/pm’ are refusing to acknowledge the great variety of human existence.

So, figure out what time is best for YOU to write and block off that time in your calendar to reserve it for writing. Here is how to do that:

  1. Allow yourself to wake up and fall asleep without setting an alarm.
  2. Set your watch (or cellphone) so that it rings every hour during the time of day you want to measure. Give yourself a score between 1 and 10 for each hour, with 1 representing the lowest energy you can imagine and 10 being the highest. You can keep this log in a notebook or digitally, whichever you prefer.
  3.  When you have two weeks of records, log your data as a bar graph on a piece of graphing paper. The dips and valleys should reveal the daily alert points and natural energy dips that are most typical for you.

And here are a few finer points:

  • Understand that getting started with writing (or any other work) is always the hardest part. When you’ve ID’d your high energy times, figure out some way you can entice yourself to your desk. A speciality tea or coffee may do the trick or perhaps you can spend the first three minutes listening to a piece of music you really like.
  • Even though you may have lots of energy for as much as 90 minutes, don’t ever begin that big. Start with five to 15 minutes so the task before you isn’t overly daunting.
  • Get some exercise when your energy dips. Paradoxically, the hard work of exercise will increase your energy and you will then be able to spend more time either doing work that requires energy or relaxing and having fun.
  • Pay attention to the peak times of the people around you, whether they are family or co-workers. If your natural rhythm differs from theirs, understand that this is not a failing on anyone’s part. Schedule your day so you can do the most when you have the most energy.
  • On the other hand, acknowledge reality. If you have lots of energy in the early morning but need to make breakfast for your kids at that point, find another time of day when you feel almost as productive that you can schedule your writing.

Yes it will take a bit of effort to figure out your most energetic and alert times. But think of the benefits you’ll gain! You won’t be fighting against yourself when you sit down to write. 

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I’ll be holding a free training session about how to improve your time management for writing on May 15 and the session will include helpful info about my Get It Done program. To register for the free workshop, go here to secure a spot. If you already know you want to apply to Get It Done, please go here.

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My video podcast last week addressed how to structure a bookOr, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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What’s your best time for writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!