This is my thing, but aspects of it might work for you, too.
This is the routine I’ve developed over the course of 30 years writing as an adult. I’d say it suits me, but perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest it’s the inevitable result of who I am. Perhaps you’ll find something useful here too.
I’m a morning person. 6-10am is my favourite time of day. A fresh start, the rising sun and cool air. The quiet. My mind not yet polluted by the world. Hours ahead in which to do stuff. I’m a doer, see. Not good at standing still. Nor sitting still.
I wake at around 5:30. I lie there for a while. Not too long, because I know I need to take advantage of that first hour after waking. The period in which the mind is still in a state of flux.
After 15 to 30 minutes I get the ball rolling. I kiss Mrs S, then visit the bathroom. I drink a cup of water for hydration, brush my teeth and wash my face, then touch my toes twenty times to get the blood flowing and loosen the muscles. As I write this I wonder whether this is too much information – but I feel it is part of the routine, so it stays.
A vivid imagination can be a double-edged sword
Then the writing begins. First my morning pages: 750 to 800 words of stream-of-consciousness writing that clears my head. I’ve varied between three and five sides of A5, but found a sweet spot at four: just enough for me to take advantage of the creative potential in the soup of my subconscious that simmered overnight, not so much that it becomes a drag or just takes too long. When our daughter’s away at university I write these pages at the desk in her bedroom. I close the blind the evening before so I have no external inputs: no weather, no people, no cars, no nothing. That writing can change my mood, set me up for the day, motivate me. It can be a healthy exploration of ideas that have developed while I’ve slept.
They can also be a bit of a rant, a reminder of what I need to do, what’s important, who I am or who I want to be. At the moment I’ve got a trial project coming to the fore. There are certain elements I’ve got to work on that require some effort or which I’m uncertain about, so the easy option is to put them off. This is delaying the whole thing, so in my morning pages there are frequent prompts to just get on with it. Which I will, soon as. (NB: since drafting this I’ve written a script for this project, and reached a decision on one aspect of it; the needle moves forward.)
I don’t think, just write. I never know what’s going to appear on these pages. I rarely look back at them. There have been times when they’ve been very dark, but I guess that goes with the territory of plundering the subconscious. It’s like reaching into a black velvet bag and not knowing what you’re going to grab: a massive, hairy spider, or some kind of treat? You never know. A vivid imagination can be a double-edged sword. Combine a vivid imagination with navigating all the programming that occurred in childhood, and sometimes the waters can be choppy. But those pages can be the most important I write in a day. In fact I’d go so far as to say they are my most important writing. The 90% nobody ever sees. The bulk of the iceberg, submerged and invisible, but with great power nonetheless.
…identifying what elements to remove is as important, perhaps more so, than their inclusion in the first place
After writing my morning pages I go downstairs, let the dog out and give him his morning feed. I take my vitamins: slow-release vitamin C, and vitamin D. Then I draft or edit something on my laptop. Still no external inputs. And no coffee yet: when we’ve just woken up from seven and a half to eight hours of sleep, we don’t need coffee: it’s just a habit, feeding the addiction we don’t know we have, satisfying the craving that’s developed overnight.
No phone, either. I leave this in airline mode in the kitchen all night. I don’t want to see any news or email until after I’ve walked the dog. I don’t have social media on my phone so I don’t look at that either. In fact these days social media is barely a thing for me: I’m just getting on with my life. No coffee, no phone – identifying what elements to remove is as important, perhaps more so, than their inclusion in the first place.
I set up my laptop the evening before so this little writing session can get going easily. When I open the laptop in the morning the thing I want to work on is right there in front of me. I write for half an hour or so, allowing time for the dog’s food to digest a little. When that’s done I take a look at what I’ve got planned for the day and judge whether any changes need to be made, the order in which I’ll tackle the list. Then I take my wife a coffee in bed, and finally the dog gets to explore his manor.
I just let the voice in my head ramble on
I don’t listen to any podcasts or anything while out with the dog — I just let the voice in my head ramble on while trying to stop the dog eating rabbit droppings. (I think they’re some kind of delicacy in the Labrador universe.) This is a conscious decision, and all part of the creative process. Resting time. Thinking but not doing. I try to take in the sky, which can be beautiful. All the colours sometimes. This morning I looked through 360 degrees and briefly comprehended the size of the planet, the thinness of the atmosphere. We’re lucky: where we live now it’s possible to see hills and fields in any direction. (Okay, so there’s the motorway, too, but that’s less romantic.) A massive white airliner passed low overhead, slipping between the clouds on its way to Birmingham airport like a fish between reeds. It felt like something from science fiction.
My favourite mornings are in those winter days when the ground’s cold and hard and my breath’s all misty. Clear blue skies and grass crusted white. They’re followed closely by spring mornings, when it’s cool enough to walk briskly without getting a sweat on, or summer mornings when it’s T-shirt warm and the sun’s rising early in all its splendid glory. On those days I like to walk the dog early and water the garden pots when we get back. I know it’s best to do that in the evening, but the morning just seems like the natural time for me. A quiet and tranquil task that feeds growth.
I’ve also got a soft spot for the turbulence of autumn, when the the leaves are curling and swirling. I’m not so keen on the in-between times. The days it’s raining drops the size of tennis balls. Our dog’s not too keen either. Even though he has a water-resistant coat and webbed paws, I’ve just bought him a doggy mac. He is nine years old, after all. That’s getting on for a dog. Would you want to sit around all soggy when you’re a hundred and something? Me neither.
The sparrows are scrappy little buggers
After the walk it’s a breakfast of muesli. I’ve prepared this the evening before — just a handful with some milk added. Then I leave it in the fridge overnight so the milk gets absorbed. It’s the way they do it in Norway or Sweden or somewhere. Aldi’s Really Nutty muesli is the best. Big raisins and, as you might expect, lots of nuts. Who doesn’t like a good helping of nuts first thing in the morning? Second favourite is the fruit muesli. Add your own nuts if you want. I’ve been up about an hour and a half at this stage; only now is it time for coffee.
I’ll make this in my Aeropress, then sit at the table and read while I’m eating. It’s only a few minutes, but those minutes add up. Only when I’ve finished the muesli do I open the attention syphon that is the smartphone. If I had a pound for every time I’ve picked up my phone to do something, been distracted for 10 minutes by a number or notification or message, then forgotten why I picked up the bloody thing in the first place, I could probably afford really, really nutty muesli.
By 8.30-9am I’m in the office. I don’t turn on the computer yet unless I really have to: like the phone, the internet just sucks you in. If I’m working on something, I’ll write by hand in my A4 notebook. It’s quiet. Sometimes there are birds on the feeder. I love to see the birds on the feeder, especially the robins. The sparrows are scrappy little buggers, always pecking at each other and scattering seed. I used to think the sparrows were ordinary, preferring the colourful robins and blue tits, but I’ve come to appreciate the sparrows’ character. There’s four of them out there right now.
10am or so. I turn on the computer and try to do something worthwhile. (Interesting to me here is that, without thinking, I write that I try to do something worthwhile — as if all that’s gone before was not worthwhile. When in fact it’s probably the most important stuff of the day. Go figure…)
I detest this mongrel time, neither day nor night.Charles Dickens
Afternoons aren’t my favourite. Afternoons don’t work for anyone much. By this time we’re getting tired and bored, generally doing work we’re less engaged with. According to David Kadavy in his book Mind Management, Not Time Management: Productivity When Creativity Matters, this is because the afternoon — specifically the period around 2.30-3.00pm – is when the circadian and sleep debt systems overlap. It’s why a siesta is such a good idea, apparently. I used to have an espresso at this time of day. Not any more: any caffeine after that morning coffee messes with my sleep too much to be worthwhile.
I generally leave the office around 4:30pm. Sometimes I have to force myself because I want to keep doing – or at least feel like I’m doing. But I’m way past my peak. It’s time to walk the dog again, meditate for 10 minutes, then perhaps make the dinner. Or sometimes I’ll sit on the sofa and look at YouTube videos on productivity, creativity or positivity. Anything with tivity generally gets my attention.
Evenings are nice, sitting with Mrs S on the sofa. Especially if there’s a good drama on TV. Sometimes I’ll look at articles on my phone or read my Kindle, but I’m aware that by this time I’m overheating, that I need to take the needle off the record. Down time’s important to us creative folk. We need to relax. Any athletic coach will tell you that it’s during the resting periods that the muscles build and strengthen; if you don’t give your brain time to recover and build, you’re not going to develop to your full potential. So take that time out.
Besides, I generally have to be in bed by 10.30pm or I turn into a pumpkin. If I’m up much later than that, the next day I actually feel as though I am a pumpkin.
…more than ever I think it’s important to look forward
All of this is where I am now. Circumstances change. It’s been a journey. In my early-20s, when we were first married, I’d roll out of bed and go to work, then write in the evenings, leaving my ever-supportive wife to sit on her own. If I’d realised then the creative benefits of that time before the prefrontal cortex has kicked in, then I’d have written in the mornings and spent even more evenings on the sofa with her.
On one hand I could bemoan that fact that for decades I didn’t take advantage of what I now know is my most creative time. But these days more than ever I think it’s important to look forward — something I’ve never been very good at — and acknowledge the fact that I can benefit from this in future (I simply can’t bear to use the phrase “going forward” here).
In more recent years I’ve also developed the confidence to put the truth into my writing. Or at least my perception of the truth, because that’s as vague, subjective and selective as memory. So who knows? It’s just possible that, with the combination of creative awareness, routine and truth, the best is yet to come.
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I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Subscribe to updates, unique content, and a look behind the scenes.