In the book called The Power of When, author Michael Breus sheds new light on when to schedule our writing projects. We know that prime time is the time that we are at our peak energy level and alertness. Most of us believe that we should schedule our priority activities during this time interval of 90 minutes or so. But prime time varies with the individual. We are not all on the same circadian rhythm. Some of us are larks or early birds, some are night owls, and others are somewhere in between – frequently referred to as hummingbirds.
So far, all this makes sense. But Breus points out that different activities require different traits or disciplines. For example, writing novels requires creativity while others, like writing nonfiction books, such as those I write, require focus. Those requiring creativity or insight should not be scheduled in our prime time, when we are most mentally alert, but rather during periods of low energy when we are the most creative.
Breus backs up his information by describing a study conducted by researchers at Albion University where 428 college students were measured for their circadian preference, and then split into morning, evening, and in-between groups. They were then asked to solve three problems in each of the two categories (insight and analytical thinking) in both the morning and afternoon. Based on their chronotype, students got more answers correct in the analytical category during their optimal prime time. But they solved more of the insight questions during their non-prime time.
I have been making the mistake of assuming I am always speaking to individuals, such as managers in business and industry, who require what Cal Newport refers to as “deep work.” For example, when I am writing a nonfiction article or book, I require focus and the absence of interruptions or distractions. My best time of the day is early morning, when I am at my peak – with potential interruptions being intercepted by silencing my smartphone, ignoring email, and choosing a quiet, secluded environment, such as alone in my home office. Breus would probably agree with this, because I need to be focused, factual, and analytical as I attempt to provide instruction in a clear, concise, and coherent way.
But in his book, Breus uses the example of authors of fiction, who require creativity and insight as they develop the plot and characters in a novel they are writing. He says they should not work in their prime time, whether that is in the morning, evening, or whenever, but rather when they are in the low energy part of the circadian rhythm. So, if they are early birds, they might choose a coffee shop in the late afternoon or early evening. He agrees that the worst possible time for anyone to either focus or create is between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and from 12 midnight to 7:30 a.m. The latter time should be reserved for sleep, when your brain is consolidating memories and making remote associations that will aid creativity the next day. The ideal nap time would be sometime between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Whether you are creative or analytical, however, you should establish a routine of writing at the same time in the same place each day. Many famous writers speak of the benefit of sticking to a regular schedule. It seems to work well regardless of your chronotype.
For example, Stephen King writes at the same time in the same place every day. He blocks out interruptions and distractions, closes the window blinds, and silences the telephone. He uses background music to create his own writing world. He aims for 10 pages a day, approximately 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a six-month period. He says that sometimes it’s difficult and slow and sometimes it’s faster and easier. But he writes every day.
Dean Koontz also writes in the same office from 6:30 in the morning until dinnertime six days a week.
Alice Munro, a Canadian short story writer, sits down seven days a week and gives herself a quota of pages as well.
John Grisham only works five mornings a week, and his goal is about 1000 words per day. He starts a new book on January 1st each year and sets a goal of finishing it by July 1st. He usually starts at 7:30 a.m. or a little later, which is probably ideal since he consistently writes “legal thrillers,” based on information he has already collected and planned out. His work is probably a lot more analytical than creative at this point.
I write almost exclusively in the business genre – facts, figures, techniques and so on. So, my best time is in my prime time, mornings, when I am most energetic and mentally alert. Writing has never been my only interest, and I probably average only three hours a day, and it includes blog articles, newsletters, devotionals, and a little “fun” poetry in addition to eBooks and self-published paperback books.
Since I have spent nearly forty years as a speaker and trainer on one topic only – time management – I stick to what I recommend for most entrepreneurs and business managers. That is, working in 90-minute segments of uninterrupted time, separated by breaks. At this stage in my life, I do a lot of volunteering as well.
There doesn’t seem to be any best time that fits all writers. The habit that they develop as they consistently stick to the same regime day after day seems to override any scientific “best time” or duration. Although, if the routine they develop causes sleep deprivation, or problems in their personal lives, it may impact the writer’s productivity, health, and longevity. In that case, I would recommend breaking the habit and developing one that works.
Note: The above article is based on information in my latest eBook, Time Management for Authors & Writers, published by Bookboon Learning. To view or purchase this book, please click here.