Why you should spend your first 30 minutes writing

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Here is my best advice on how to prioritize writing….

I learned some hard lessons when I wrote my first book. It took me more than a year of angst-ridden, slogging work, and while I had very brief patches of playfulness, and was proud of the finished product, I didn’t enjoy the whole process nearly enough.

Writing my second volume, a food-related memoir, was easier although it’s now sitting in a drawer while I ponder what to do with it next. I’d never really intended it as something to sell. It’s more of a project (complete with recipes) that I wanted to finish for my kids.

Now, I’m working on my third book — working title The Crappy First Draft — and it’s so much easier and so much more fun. Why? Because, I’ve seen this movie before and I know how to get a happy ending… The biggest lesson is this:

I write first thing every morning, five days each week. I write even before I touch my “first morning tasks,” which otherwise give my day shape and structure, and help ensure I don’t forget to do anything important.

If you want to write a book, or if you have a piece of writing that’s shorter but important, or something that you dread writing, you might want to consider working on it first thing in the morning, too. Even if you’re a night person. Even if you don’t start work until later in the day. Here are seven reasons why:

  1. Your willpower will be higher. The suggestion comes from psychologist Roy Baumeister, who was inspired by Raymond Chandler’s routine called ‘the Nothing Alternative’. Chandler’s advice was simplicity itself, based on two small rules: (1) you can write, or, (2) you can sit there doing nothing. While Baumeister suggests spending 90 full minutes devoted to your most important task (no e-mail, phone calls, web-surfing or meetings) I think the bare minimum is 30 minutes. Baumeister suggests this strategy because we all have more willpower first thing in the morning and it gradually erodes as the day wears on. If you need willpower for writing — and many of us do — it makes sense to write when you have the greatest volume of that precious resource.
  2. You can make writing a habit. If you turn your first 30-90 minutes into a daily writing ritual, you’ll be caught in a delightful self-sustaining loop. Habits or rituals are easier to maintain than willpower because they take no effort. Think about brushing your teeth: do you really have to have an argument with yourself about that every day? Probably not. You just do it because that’s what you do. Isn’t it great not to have to have an argument with yourself?
  3. You get your writing out of the way. Writing first thing in the morning (or making progress towards some other important goal) allows you to get it out of the way. The task doesn’t hang over your head like a sword of Damocles. Instead, you just do it, without procrastinating. People who exercise reliably also understand this reasoning.
  4. You’ll have more creative ideas. I get up very early — I’m usually at my desk by 6 am — because I’m now a morning person. Note, I’m not suggesting you need to do the same thing. But whatever time you arise, it’s a smart idea to write when you’re still a little bit sleepy and closer to the dreaming state. This means you will have better, more creative ideas and you’ll accomplish your writing more easily.
  5. You’ll be following your own agenda, rather than the agenda of others. If you’re able to write before checking your email and before phone calls and meetings start, you’re going to be in a self-directed frame of mind. Rather than responding to the requests of others, you’ll be driving your own train. This makes it far more likely that you’ll be able to get where you want to go.
  6. You won’t be interrupted by yourself. We all seem to love self-sabotage, whether it comes in the form of 20 minutes here on Facebook or 20 minutes there on email. If you can insulate yourself from these interruptions you’re going to be a whole bunch more productive. Our brains crave dopamine and answering emails gives us delicious little hit of that chemical every time we receive or answer an email — no matter how unimportant it is. Do enough busy work and you’ll never get the important work done.
  7. It will make you feel fantastic for the rest of the day. If you’re able to do something really important (especially if it’s something that you dread) first thing in the morning, you’re going to feel terrific, which will set you up for even greater success. Organizational guru Brian Tracy calls this “eating your frogs” and I’ve long found that nibbling on a few frog’s legs before breakfast is a great strategy for setting myself up for a productive day.

I know not all of us are morning people. I spent the first 40 years of my life as a dedicated night owl and I’m not going to get all braggy and tell you that you should transform yourself, too. In my case, it just happened — likely hormones, according to my doctor. But, even when I was a night owl, I found writing at night a lot harder. My “prime time” was 10 pm to 1 am. But, frequently, I spent much of the day dreading it. Sometimes, I just plain couldn’t do it (who wants to leave a dinner party or a movie to go write?) And, when the writing went well, I was keyed up and had a really hard time getting to sleep afterwards. This made the next day even more difficult.

My advice? If you already have a dedicated writing time that works for you, then stick with it. But if you don’t, then try devoting your first 30 to 90 minutes to the task, no matter what time you start. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

How do you spend the first 30 minutes of your day? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Cecilia Torres, the winner of this month’s book prize, What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas for a Feb. 2/16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.