Free Advice: Use the Very First Hour of Your Day for Creative Work

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts

So you are trying to write a book. Or a screenplay, or a personal essay, or, I don’t know, a sonnet. The point is: If you are trying to do some kind of creative work in addition to your regular work, you know how hard it is to find time.

And so you may, as I did, find encouragement in an essay recently published in Science magazine, of all places. “I simply could not find time in my day for undistracted writing,” writes Jeffrey J. McDonnell — a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. (He’s talking about writing academic papers, but the spirit of his complaint resonates beyond academia.) “And when I did find the time after an extended stretch away from writing, the warm-up period to get back into the paper was often long, further slowing my progress.”

In reaction to that frustration, McDonnell began a new routine. “I wake up early, make an espresso, and write until I’m spent — or until distractions like email or the day’s deadlines and meetings start to intrude,” he writes. “This is usually about an hour, some days a little less and some days more.” If you are not a morning person, you could schedule your own little power-hour for the evening, or late at night — the time of day may matter less than this point: It’s when he feels like he has control over his own time.

Then again, there may be something to this first-thing-in-the-morning business. In a recent interview, comedian Mike Birbiglia said that’s how he wrote his film Don’t Think Twice: in a coffee shop beginning at 7 a.m. His morning fog-brain felt more like freedom from inhibition, allowing him to write before his inner critic woke up. Also: Those mysterious people who exercise first thing in the morning, every morning, often say they do it because it’s how they turn their good intentions into action — it protects their workout from other unexpected demands on their time that inevitably pop up later in the day.

The afterglow of accomplishment doesn’t hurt, either. “Instead of the frustration that frequently plagued me early in my career,” McDonnell writes, “now — no matter how work proceeds after I’ve completed my writing time — I go home at the end of the day with the satisfaction of having accomplished something.” If nothing else, do it for the smugness.