It’s late and everyone in your house has gone to sleep.
If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance this might be your favorite time of day. No one is around to interrupt you. You’ve had time to have dinner, watch TV, maybe spend some time with friends; plenty of time to decompress from your stressful day job. There’s nothing in the way now between you and your computer.
You make your favorite beverage, fix up a snack, and then in you go to your office and close the door. Even the cat won’t interrupt you now.
You turn your computer on and after a familiar series of clicks your cherished Word document is loading. On the screen, your story flashes to life in lines of text you’ve been toiling over for weeks now — or has it been months? You’ve lost track. All that matters is this time of day when it’s just you and the story.
You might spend two hours or more with it. You really don’t keep track of time. Around 1am you get hungry and tired, but if the story is really pulling you in you might make a small meal and even have some coffee and write until 3 or 4. Never mind that you have to work tomorrow morning. Sleep’s overrated. Story comes first.
Have you found as a writer that often the night time is your best time to write? In fact, it’s somewhat of a trope for writers in general, the image of the writer nourishing their very lifeblood late at night with their story, then wandering soulless through their waking hours and menial day job, eager for night to come when it’s time to feed again and revive.
I certainly can relate. My greatest writing experience of all time happened quite similar to the above scenario.
The only problem is, romanticism aside, it’s not sustainable. If you as a writer want to embrace the reality of being a writer, in the context of living a wholesome life, then unless you work night shift at a hotel where you’re allowed to work on your story, this routine can only go on so long.
Is it true, though, that there is a magic to that late night creative zone?
First of all let’s look at the psychology behind why this “magic” exists.
First things first, a principle that will give you true power as a writer
Stephen R. Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes a principle by which one can take action to shape one’s destiny proactively. It is the third of his seven habits, which he calls “putting first things first”.
You might be familiar with President Eisenhower’s “priority matrix” (here’s a good article on that if you aren’t). The topic of how to prioritize decision-making based on this matrix is worth an article unto itself, but what I’d like to draw on is what Eisenhower himself said regarding why he created this matrix to prioritize his decisions: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
We often spend our time reacting. We get up and check phone messages that are waiting for us. We go into our email and answer email. We catch up on the games on our phone. We deal with interruptions. We get pinged in Facebook messages or see on our Facebook feed something interesting and vanish in a conversation that steals away our day — then dammit, what the heck happened to that wonderful afternoon of writing you had planned out?
The most important step to take to claim your creative time is to recognize, like Eisenhower did, that what’s urgent is not truly important, and to instead make the decision to make what’s truly important urgent. And if you’re a writer who wants to write a novel, probably many novels, then how you use your time and how you choose to put your writing first, before anything else, is critical.
First things must come first, as Stephen R. Covey outlines in his third habit. You must make the decision, though, that you are going to put your writing time first and that means embracing your writing time as sacred.
So now we’re ready to unpack the psychology of night owl magic.
If you’re writing late at night when your “creative spark” is going strong, and if you feel that this time is your sacred time, the only thing that matters, then what’s happening here is you’re putting first things last.
There’s a magic that exists because, psychologically, you can go to bed knowing you’ve ended the day doing what’s most important. Your creative mind is fully awake because all the distractions and madness of your reactive day, from the time you woke up to a blaring alarm all the way to perhaps putting the kids to bed and cleaning the kitchen, has finally come to an end and your mind is able to exist solely for your story.
But does it have to be this way?
I personally affirm the value of healthy living. This means work does not crush the other three quadrants of life (personal, social, spiritual). It also means getting sleep, 8 hours minimum if that’s possible.
While I have been mystified by the magic of late night writing, I’ve proactively made changes to how I write and when, which brings us to the other popular myth about writers.
You must write first thing before you do anything with your day: myth or half-truth?
Many writers squeeze in their writing time before work. This might mean getting up at 4am and writing until 7am before the rest of the family gets up. It might mean writing on the train ride to work if you have a long commute.
The point, though, is that it doesn’t matter exactly what time you write (that’s going to vary according to your schedule). What matters is that you write before you turn your mind to any kind of work that’s going to get you into reactive mode.
I personally prefer this method over all the other methods I’ve tried, and I don’t write before I do anything else. My schedule is fairly set (I have developed a distinct morning ritual which I follow every day): I wake up to an alarm, shower, have a cup of coffee and pray and reflect, then I read for an hour. During this time I do not touch my phone so that I can’t react to the world at all (I use an app called Forest which blocks my phone and plays a calming background thunderstorm recording). After this I eat breakfast then I usually will get in the car and find one of my favorite coffee shops to write at. When I arrive I order a drink then, using Forest again to block my phone, I write for 2 hours. I do not stop writing or do anything else until that timer is finished. As soon as this is finished, I usually go to the gym for my run and/or strength training, then I go home for lunch and begin my work day.
The result is that I carry into my work day a fresher energy because I know I’ve done what’s truly important.
Now, I am at an advantage with my time in that, being self-employed, I can decide when and how I work. I apply similar methods to my work as an entrepreneur and editor as I do writing. At the end of every day I make a to-do list and from it I select the six most important things I need to get done the following day. I then put them in order. When I start work, usually around 1-1:30PM, I set a timer for 2 hours and I focus. For example, it’s Thursday and I’m writing this article, which is an important task that I do as one of the roles for my company. My timer is on and I’m listening to the sound of a thunderstorm. I’m focused and I haven’t reacted to anything yet today.
Doing things this way leaves me a space of time every afternoon to deal with things I need to react to. My team and everyone who works with me knows that I work this way, so I can be rest assured that unless there is an emergency that comes up (rare), I can remain focused on important work first, then give urgent matters the attention they require in the time that remains until 6PM. Just like entering my work day fully charged from having done my most important work (writing) first, I likewise enter that small period of time fully charged knowing I have doubled down on the most important work tasks that require my time.
And the effect ripples further. I stop work at 6PM and eat dinner and spend time with my husband. Right now we’re watching Better Call Saul (such a good show). The whole evening is mine and I can relax knowing I stacked my day correctly. When 9 o’clock rolls around I usually begin a wind down period that involves playing piano, more reading, cleaning the house, and relaxing. I like to think that my day actually begins when I go to bed tired and properly wound down, because really, it’s putting a good night’s sleep first that allows me to enter the next day ready to dive into story.
There are many hybrid ways to get your writing done first without losing sleep
This method works great if you are completely free to schedule your own time, but what if you work a job that fills your day where you don’t have the flexibility to plan it around your writing?
Regardless of what you do for work and how your day is structured, there are other ways to put your writing first. It will mean sacrifice (I’m sure some of you already do this).
For example, maybe you bring a small laptop with you to work and work on your story on all your breaks. That’s time you could be checking email or playing games or chatting on Messenger. Instead, if you wake up and decide your story comes first, then as the day passes on, every time you get a spare chance, out comes your story. You might set a goal for yourself (usually a word count) and when you hit it you can move onto other things.
Or maybe you get up really early like in the above example. The sacrifice here means going to bed earlier. Your friends might call you a hermit for retreating back home at 8:30, but you can affirm, “I’m sorry, I get up at 4am to work on my book because that’s the most important time to me.”
There are many ways to claim your writing time and put it first, within the context of a healthy lifestyle, so long as you can orient yourself to devote the time you get to yourself first and foremost to your writing.
And once in a while, allow yourself to discover the late night magic. After all, as much as rules are great, there’s something to be said about being spontaneous.
How do you fit in your writing time? Do you have a unique method you’ve had to develop that works well for you? Please share!