Writers love to think and talk and write about writing — look at me right now, for example. The main reason we love to do this is in order to avoid the actual writing part. But the other reason we do it is to trade secrets, because there are some strategies that seem to make writing easier or even modestly more enjoyable for people, like setting a reasonable daily word-count goal.
Thanks to a handful of famous dead writers who were almost certainly exaggerating and/or drunk when they made these claims, many of us are under the (false) impression that true writers devote hours and hours a day to their craft, and that the best work is done by moonlight in a drafty seaside cabin, or some bullshit like that. But for most people, the truth is much closer to the ordinary opposite: the best (and easiest!) writing is done in the early part of the day.
Daniel Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, tells me there are three stages to every person’s attention cycle: the peak, the trough, and the recovery. “For most of us, we peak early in the day, trough in the middle of the day, recovery later in the day,” says Pink. When exactly these stages begin and end vary from person to person, but Pink says most individuals peak before noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, most troughs from approximately 1–4 p.m., and most recoveries around 4 or 5 p.m. (And if you want to get really granular about it, you can calculate your exact peak using the midpoint of your nightly sleep schedule.) Unsurprisingly, one’s peak is the ideal time to get genuine work done — mainly because that’s when you’re most free from distraction.
“The peak period is when we are highest in vigilance,” says Pink. “Vigilance means our ability to bat away distraction. The enemy of writing is distraction, so people should be doing their writing during their peak when they’re less susceptible to it.”
Personally, I have never been distracted in my life, but I, too, can recognize the utter dead zone of productivity that is 1–4 p.m. in the afternoon. (Or 1–5. Or 12–6.) That’s because I’m in what Pink says is the 80 percent majority of people who peak in the morning. The remaining 20 percent are night owls, and they tend to peak much later in the day, says Pink — closer to 4 or even 5 in the afternoon. If that sounds reasonable and not completely outrageous to you, you’re probably a night owl.
As for finding what time works best for you within your peak period, Pink says it’s a matter of individual experimentation. “For some people, 6 a.m. might work. For me, I would beat my head against the wall,” he says. For me, 7 a.m. is the ideal: by then I’ve been up long enough to wash my face, brush my teeth, and make coffee, but not so long that I’ve started worrying about everything else that must be accomplished that day. If I could write for an hour every day at 7 a.m., I’d be serene forever, I’m pretty sure. If your personal peak window is available to you on a regular basis, take advantage of it. By dedicating a specific time to writing every day, you form a habit, which makes writing something you think about less (believe it or not, a good thing). In the same way most of us don’t think about whether or not to brush our teeth every morning, and instead just do it, the goal is to make writing into less of a volitional choice, says Pink.
Making writing a habit also means you’ll make progress, which is the No. 1 way to motivate oneself for work, according to research by Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile. Her “progress principle” holds that making progress every day — even if it’s only marginal — is the single biggest motivator to keep working. It’s that forward momentum, says Pink, that helps you form and maintain a writing habit.
Of course, blocking off the same hour every day is difficult for many people, myself included. Rudely, other obligations sometimes get in the way. If it’s a matter of choosing between not writing at all one day, or writing outside your peak, go for the latter — it’s not that you can’t write outside your peak, it’s just that it sucks more.
Pink compares it to riding a bike. “You can ride a bike into the wind, or you can ride a bike with the wind at your back,” he says. “I’d rather ride it with the wind at my back, but if you have to go somewhere, and you don’t have any other choice, you have to bike into the wind, and you’ll have to pedal a lot harder.” But it is possible. How do I know? I am writing this at 1:30 in the afternoon.