How writers can manage their sleep (video)

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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #101,  which addresses how writers can manage their sleep. The post first ran on July 26/19.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and today I address the topic: does the early bird really get the worm?

I have a question from Mike Romano — a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Here’s what he’s asked via email: 

“I’m a novelist who’s been working to become more productive. Many writing productivity experts suggest I should get up early and writing before I go to my day job. I’ve tried to do that for several months now, but it just exhausts me. I’m not an early morning person, but I’m not thrilled with the small amount of writing I’m able to produce in the evening. Do you have any suggestions for me?” 

Thanks for your question, Mike. As you may have guessed from my blog, I don’t share the opinion of those so-called writing productivity experts. 

I’ve had my own difficulties with sleep over the years, and I believe it’s fundamentally important to protect this somewhat mysterious part of our lives. I recently finished an interesting book called Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker. Link below. If you have the time to read a nonfiction book, make it this one. It’s a New York Times bestseller, and it’s really good. 

As the book reveals, most of us aren’t getting nearly enough sleep these days. Just about every adult in the world needs somewhere between seven and eight hours a night, with the majority being closer to eight. 

That said, were all different, so it’s important to understand the amount of sleep that you, specifically, need. I know I need seven hours and if I can get that amount, I’m happy. If I get any less, however, I’m a zombie. 

Also, all of us are naturally hard-wired to be morning larks or night owls — or somewhere in between. I spent the vast majority of my life as a night owl, but then, about 15 years ago, with no effort on my part, I turned into a morning lark. A sleep doctor I consulted attributed this change to hormones. 

I now wake up at 5:30 or 6 AM, without an alarm, every day. I also now fall asleep — automatically and easily — between 10:30 and 11 pm something I never used to be able to do. My old bedtime was more like 2 am. 

My key point is that I’m not trying to do this. My body just does it automatically. Many productivity experts suggest the issue is about willpower. They have many complex formulae designed to help you change your natural waking time. I don’t believe these strategies will work for most people. 

If you’re fighting against what sleep experts call your natural chronotype — the time at which your body prefers to sleep — you’re going to feel tired and unhappy and not terribly creative. 

I experienced these negative feelings myself many years ago — back when I was still a night owl — and had a job that required me to start work at 6 AM. It was horrible! I was backing up my bedtime to earlier and earlier to try and get enough sleep but it never seemed to work. Even when I went to bed at 9 PM, I still felt exhausted the next day. This was because I was a night owl. I wasn’t the type of person who was meant to get up at 6 AM. 

I probably don’t need to tell you that feeling tired, and happy and not terribly creative is not a good state of being for a novelist. 

So, your question remains: what should you do? You probably know already whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark. But do you know how many hours of sleep you need per night? 

Keep a nightly record of how much sleep you get, and then make notes about how you feel the next day. Once you’ve done that for a couple of weeks, look at your responsibilities and figure out the best time to go to bed so you can get the number of hours you need. 

It’s often a good idea to set an alarm for yourself to go to bed. Changing habits can be challenging, and the alarm will remind you about your intent. Here’s one other point to mention: you should go to bed and get up at roughly the same time, seven days a week. No more sleeping in on weekends. 

In terms of your writing, consider dividing your work into smaller segments. For example, you might fit in 5 to 15 minutes of writing before you leave for work. If you get a conventional lunch hour, you might manage 15 to 30 minutes during that time. 

Generally speaking, I think it’s a good idea to try to get a little of writing done before 6 PM. Most of us get worn down by the events of the day. On the other hand, if you’re a died-in-the-wool night owl, you’ll want to take a slightly different strategy. Below, I provide a link to a blog post I’ve written to help night owls. 

My big quibble with the advice of productivity experts arises out of their suggestion that writing needs to be done very early in the morning. Sleep is essential for every human being and particularly for writers. It gives us energy, it makes us better problem-solvers, and it enhances our creativity. 

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the neuroscientist who wrote that book on sleep, Matthew Walker: “It is time for us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the damaging stigma of laziness.” 

Mike, North American society tends to focus too much on productivity at the expense of creativity. As a novelist, you’ll understand the value and importance of creativity. Be sure to do everything you can to protect that aspect of yourself. Be sure to get enough sleep! 


Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

 How to write if you’re a night owl

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