It’s 5:50am and I’m sitting at my home office (a desk jammed between the bed and wall in our spare room, complete with tenacious, lap-seeking cat) ready to start the writing day. How did I get into this horrendous situation? I am four months into my PhD. Despite having quit my job – in the hope that it would bring laser focus, and more than a bit of economic motivation – and having no other commitments, for the last few weeks I have been seriously struggling to write my coursework assessment.
Am I lazy? The thought is an easy one, appealingly self-flagellating. But it doesn’t seem to hit upon the issue – my days feature unbroken stretches of hours reading, note taking, organising… but somehow I can’t convert this effort and focus into written words.
Rather, I didn’t know myself. A strange thought, for someone who has been compulsively introspecting for almost three decades. But, freed from the inflexible time-demands of the conventional workplace, I found that I in fact did not know my own natural rhythms and productivity periods. And worse, trying to force myself to write at inopportune times was beginning to yield both unusable words and the first twinges of anxious avoidance.
So began a whirlwind (and often demoralising) journey of scheduling writing time, trying to Write My Way Out with Lin-Manuel Miranda, signing up for writing-in-company webinars. Some of it worked, some did not. For every thing that didn’t work, I felt like I was failing. The laziness diagnosis hung over me like a spectre. Until one day, when watching Tara Brabazon’s popular and fabulous vlog series, I ran into the idea of writing very, very early in the day.
Not ‘writing first thing’ when you get into the office. Not ‘writing in short bursts’. Writing very, extremely early. Professor Brabazon’s authoritative voice explained that to get her work done, she rises at 2am to write before working out, and then going to her 9-5 gig at Flinders University as Dean of Graduate Research. 2am! Perish the thought. Tara was also at pains to make clear that she was not necessarily recommending this approach. But the simple, underlying idea stuck – that your natural productivity periods may not fall within the conventional working day, but may happen to reside somewhere more crepuscular, or even nocturnal.
In my youth I had inherited the conventional wisdom that such rhythms were the hallmark of dysfunctional and wayward students, conjuring up the ‘all-nighter’ as the caffeine-fueled archetype of this kind of behaviour. Working at all hours willy-nilly is certainly not the path to sanity (nor the prescription here). But something deeper in me was drawn to the idea of designing my own workday, boldly, and in a way that suited me. I realised I always had preferred to ‘eat the frog’ first thing if possible – gym, inevitably unpleasant meeting, job interview – could I do the same here? 2am was out of the question, but what about 7am? 6? That was something I could try.
And so the experiment began – I would roll out of bed (often waking moments before the alarm), shift the cat and get writing. Words reliably flowed, as long as I didn’t stop to edit them or do supplementary research. It was squarely freewriting for the first few days, but as I worked through the conceptual blockers by writing them out the words became more and more usable. Regardless, the rhythm of writing felt good, and it became easier to get into a flow state at other times of day as well. A final bonus was that – with 500-1000 words under my belt by 10am, and yesterday’s editing/tomorrow’s research done by 1pm – it didn’t matter if I couldn’t get into the zone again after lunch. I could give in to the mid-afternoon slump guilt-free (hello naps).
Having other responsibilities is, of course, an inherent limitation on this approach. I have the privilege of few demands on my time and minimal caring responsibilities, and am not about to say that ‘anyone can find thirty minutes to write’ at a suitable time of day. Those with a fuller plate than mine have always had to be more creative about scheduling and prioritising, and chances are may not have much of a choice about when they can write. Moreover, people of all circumstances have no doubt already realised that they have more and less productive times of day – it’s hardly a new thought. After all, to everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season. But it has been a strong paradigm shift for me, particularly coming back to study from a 9-5 environment, and I am relieved to have come across this revelation early in my candidature.
So if you are finding the words won’t come, try reimagining your schedule. Your productivity period might start at 11pm, or 4am, or 2:47pm – think about when you tend to feel motivated or instinctively schedule things, and try a few times out. You might just be surprised.