Most productivity gurus seems to spout the same advice:
- Get up early every day.
- Do your most important creative work first thing. (Okay, except for maybe having a caffeine fix before that.)
- Use willpower to avoid social media.
- Same with the internet in general; avoid it in the morning because it’ll suck all of the time and energy you could have spent on being productive. (Read: Time and energy you could have spent creating your life’s work! No pressure or anything.)
I’ve heard the same advice over and over, from every source imaginable. Frankly, that advice is downright depressing to me because it doesn’t work.
Not for me.
I am and have always been a night owl. I can get a second wind at ten or eleven in the evening and be incredibly creative and productive for a couple of hours.
But I’ve never, in my entire life, been able to function in the morning beyond the bare minimum required for survival (and the survival and well-being of my children, of course).
We’d been married about six months when my husband asked in exasperation why I was always so mad at him every morning. I could not fathom what he was talking about. I wasn’t mad at him or anyone (or anything!) else.
I finally answered, “I’m not mad; I’m not awake.”
Apparently, moving about in a zombie-like stupor makes me look mad. (Who would have thought?)
Apparently when other people get out of bed, they’re fully awake. I have no idea what that’s like.
Regardless, turns out that not everyone stumbles out of bed and stumbles around the house for at least two hours. Apparently when I do, I look mad. I’ve also been told I have RBF (Resting B**** Face), so not wearing a pleasant smile, as I try to do in public when I’m, oh, awake, isn’t happening at home when I’m barely conscious.
The basic fact is that in the morning, I do not have the mental bandwidth for anything of substance.
Even so, before I had children, and then through all four pregnancies, years of sleepless nights, potty training, teenage hormones, and more, I never stopped writing. I just had to get really creative about how I got it done.
The story goes that as a single mother, before she made it big, Mary Higgins Clark woke up an hour (or was it two?) before her children each morning to get in her writing for the day.
Which sounds lovely, and I have fellow mother-writer friends who have followed the same advice with great success.
But I can’t.
I know myself — both my brain and my body — and I know full well that if I try to write too early in the day, the result will be either meaningless drivel or a ruined keyboard from all the zombie drool.
I’ve been writing seriously for 24 years (and less faithfully for longer than that). I’m a night owl. I also have ADHD-I, which wasn’t diagnosed until after I turned 40.
So what do I do when the prevailing wisdom goes counter to my personal experience?
As tempting as it may be, I don’t abandon the advice wholesale. The people giving it are experts, after all. But I do adapt the crap out their advice.
They say, “Work in the morning, first thing, when your mind is most active and creative”?
Okay, I ask myself, When is my mind most active and creative?
Sometimes I’ll track my activity, including writing at different times of day, to look for patterns. As life and years go on, what worked ten years ago might not be as efficient today.
I still know that mornings are not my best time. Full stop.
I mindfully fill my mornings with things that will increase my chances of success throughout the day: Morning is when I exercise. It’s also when I sort yesterday’s laundry and do dishes. Sometimes I go through email. (A big morning no-no, if you listen to the experts.) (Also note that I let myself go on social media as a reward, so take that, experts.)
Basically, for the first two or three hours after waking, I don’t ask my zombie brain for anything creative. Doing so would be a recipe for frustration and failure.
Instead, I do things to help the zombie brain leave a little more quickly (hello, exercise!) but that don’t require a lot of brain power (hello, matching socks from the laundry basket!).
(Another help: Teaching the family — even if it takes years — to NOT talk to me in the morning unless it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t start out mad, but zombie brain can get mad when it’s expected to use energy on thinking.)
My strategies for productivity may or may not work you, because you are a unique individual, with a different brain, different energy patterns, and different needs from anyone else.
I still try new things I see suggested by “experts.” But when I come across a tip that doesn’t fit me, I try to adapt it into something more likely to click with how I think and work. Sometimes I find a new item for my toolbox.
Inevitably, though, I return, again and again, to the tried and true techniques I’ve found, through trial and error, that work for me.
- Ear buds with white noise (I prefer the oscillating “brown” noise from Simply Noise. They have three varieties: white, brown, and pink.)
- Timers for sprints, and for reminders about when a break or other activity should end. (And when I need to run carpool, or I’ll forget. Ahem.)
- A highly adapted and personalized bullet journal
- My accountability partner, without whom I’d be a mess
- Writing sprints and writing days with friends
- A change of location to work, sometimes within the house, other times at a library or coffee shop.
- Making sure my vitamin D levels are up
- Taking my ADHD meds
If something in my list strikes you as a potential help, great. If not, no sweat.
Find what works for you. Whether you’re a writer or not, I recommend reading Rachel Aaron’s short book 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. Take to heart her advice about tracking your productivity across several days. You may be surprised with what you discover about yourself.
In my case, I wouldn’t have known for sure that mornings are an absolute no-go if I hadn’t at least tried writing then. And because people change, I try writing in the morning every few years, just to test the waters.
And get this: I recently had a burst of creativity at 8:30 in the morning.
Granted, that’s a far cry from the 5:00 AM or 6:00 AM many colleagues swear by, but it is a change worth noting.
(Coincidentally, it’s also about the time my ADHD meds kick in.)
The point is this: Don’t flog yourself for not being able to be productive like other people in the way they are.
In a post-Instagram world, comparison is death to productivity. (Do you think the people you follow always look perfect/do those exciting things/have a house so clean and put together? Not even almost.)
Supermodel Cindy Crawford has been quoted as saying something along the lines of, “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.”
What we see on a magazine cover is the result of an entire team of people working to make her look gorgeous.
Give yourself a break. If your current system isn’t working for you, look around for other ideas. Case in point: My bullet journal is a relatively new addition to my arsenal; it’s existed for maybe two years is all, and I keep changing my approach to it. Now I can’t live without the thing.
So take what the experts say with a grain of salt. Adapt what you can from them to suit your needs, and then throw the rest away, guilt free.
In other words, if getting up at the butt-crack of dawn doesn’t work for you, roll over, pull up the covers, and then tackle your to-do list after you get up, even if it means working until past midnight.