While researching writers and other creative types for his book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey found that a third got up before 7am. He concluded: “If I were going to extrapolate one lesson from the book, it would be this: Get up early and go straight to work.”
I asked writers if they write at their best at a certain time of the day. A frighteningly similar number to Currey’s research – 33.3% said they write best first thing in the morning. One writer said they write best “when it’s darker in the early mornings.” Much like Hemingway answered in his Paris Review Interview “every morning as soon after first light as possible.” The next best times of day were mid to late morning chosen by 25.4%, and 23.7% expressing a preference for night time writing.
Bad and indifferent times to write
The worst time for writing was lunch time and early afternoon. This V shaped pattern for writing time preference matches studies of tiredness and also patterns of emotion which bottom out during the middle of the day. Not everyone is a morning lark or night owl – one writer responds to the muse rather than the alarm clock, saying: “whenever a thought springs into my head.” Many find their schedules dictated by children, saying “specifically within school hours when the children are not here!” much like the responses to my question about times of the year for writing.
Circadian rhythms – morningness and eveningness
Writers – in common with fungi, bacteria, other animals and plants – have a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour body clock which responds to external clues, the most important being daylight. However, just because we share a biological clock doesn’t mean we all have the same peak time of the day for creativity. By understanding our own rhythms, we can adjust our schedule to maximise the times we are most creative and productive.
“I write best in the mornings, but occasionally I will catch a second wind at night.”
In 1976 Horne and Osteberg devised a self-assessment questionnaire called the Morningess-Eveningness Questionnaire which maps against circadian rhythms. It measures a respondent’s alertness and sleepiness in the morning and evening. There are 19 multiple choice questions, including:
1. Approximately what time would you get up if you were entirely free to plan your day?
2. Approximately what time would you go to bed if you were entirely free to plan your evening?
7. During the first half-hour after you wake up in the morning, how tired do you feel?
12. If you got into bed at 11:00 PM, how tired would you be?
Though the full questionnaire is no longer available online, you can keep a diary for a few weeks where you rate your energy, alertness, or creativity at different times of the days.
The scientific counter-intuitive use of daily rhythms
An article published in Scientific American shows that when we operate at our optimal time of day, we filter out the distractions and get down to business. By understanding when we are most alert and awake we are able to override distractions and concentrate on the task in hand. But when we are at our most alert and awake isn’t necessarily the best time to be creative.
“I used to be able to write for two hours at the end of every day but as I got older, my body clock changed.”
Researchers got people to solve two different types of problems: analytic and insight. An analytic problem would be a mathematics one – in order to find a solution you just have to work it out. These problems were best solved at the optimal time of the day, when people would concentrate and switch off from distraction.
Insight problems, on the other hand, require creativity and thinking outside the box. The solution comes at once – a light bulb moment – and can’t be solved logically. The author Cindi May says: “This is where susceptibility to ‘distraction’ can be of benefit. At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information. This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.”
May summarises this by saying “Morning people have more insights in the evening. Night owls have their breakthroughs in the morning.
Why is morning the best time to write?
When I asked writers if there was a best time to write, I didn’t ask if it was their most productive or their most creative. The writers who had a preference for morning could be natural early risers who are using the time when they are most productive, or are groggy night owls making the most of their off-peak time for creative breakthroughs. Either way, morning writing has many famous advocates and a rich practice.
Julia Cameron’s ‘Morning Pages’
An essential part of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is the daily completion of ‘Morning Pages’. These three pages of writing are done first thing in the morning throughout the 12 weeks of the course and ideally throughout a writer, or artist’s, creative life.
So why morning? Julia Cameron believes that morning is the best time to: “teach our logic brain to stand aside and let artist brain play.” She sees the morning pages as a form of meditation that provides insight and connection with “an unexpected inner power.” Ultimately, she says “they are a trail that we follow into our own interior, where we meet both our own creativity and our creator.”
This creative-spiritual theory might not work for everyone, but it explains the science of optimal and sub-optimal times to make the most of our creativity by writing in the morning.