The Writer’s Golden Hour: Making the Most of Our Time

Ever been struck by ideas seemingly out of the blue? Or sat down to conjure up a brand new story only to draw a blank? Sure, you may hunker down and get words on the page—but dang, you wish you felt sharper. If so, you’re far from alone, according to recent research. Learning more about your brain’s “golden hour” might be just what you need to bolster your productivity.

In the film and fashion worlds, “golden hour” refers to the first and last hour or so of sunlight in the day. It brings softness, amber hues and warmth to natural light, making even the most ordinary of outdoor shots seem magical. It also makes having to wake at 4am to catch it worthwhile. 😉 In medicine, “golden hour” refers to a window of time following physical trauma during which the likelihood that prompt treatment will prevent death. Also pretty magical.

Though there’s no official “golden hour” for writers, I think there’s a lot of value in working when our energy and abilities most shine.

Early Birds Versus Night Owls

During college, I took a circadian rhythm test, which measures physical, mental and behavioral changes during a 24-hour cycle. All of the students in the 100-plus member class took physical and mental tests at various time intervals over the course of a few weeks. We woke during the middle of the night to take our temperatures and attempt word puzzles and math problems, tested our skills after a full night’s sleep and just before, and journaled about our thoughts and observations. Me and a 65-year-old were the only “ultra larks” in the class. (Most college students, apparently, function best late at night, and poorest during early morning.)

I didn’t need the test to realize my morning person nature; my brain is pretty much jelly after 9pm and sleeping in past 8 has always been a rarity—after 9am, I’m probably sick. It did help guide my study habits, however. I started waking up at 4am to write papers and study for tests. I ended up studying less and relaxing more at night while keeping my grades up with ease.

So if you asked me when I’m most creative, I would’ve yelped, MORNING!—before reading a recent study…

Proof in the Research-Pudding

The study, featured in the Washington Post last March, analyzed the brain function and creative capabilities of hundreds of students at varying times of day. Students who deemed themselves “early birds” were creative and experienced more “a HA!” moments during the evening. The night owls tested the opposite, experiencing revelations earlier in the day.

What does this mean? The researchers concluded when people feel most awake and energized, they can concentrate and produce work best. But when it comes to drawing up fresh ideas and trouble shooting, we fare best during our “non-optimal” times of day. It sounds contrary, but during these times, our minds work through issues and projects without pressure of working on them at the same time. And distractions actually boost creative thinking.

Since reading the study, I’ve realized that many of my best ideas really do come later in the day while I’m cooking, walking, driving or watching TV, or first thing in the morning—based on what my mind figured out during sleep.

You’re Golden, Now What? 

Many of us already realize when we tend to be most productive writing-wise—regardless of when revelations come. And perhaps none of this is news to you. In either case, I think we can all take steps to make sure that we make the most of our writing time.

10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Writing Time

1. If possible, write during your prime concentration time—early for larks, late for owls and mid-day for the bluebirds in-between.

2. If you can’t write during those times, find other ways to invigorate your brain, such as exercising or eating a healthy, carbohydrate-rich snack, before hitting the page.

3. If you have a job that interferes with writing during your prime times, consider a different job.

4. If your partner or spouse interferes, consider a new partner or spouse. (Okay, or couple’s therapy. ;))

5. Take breaks and/or avoid writing during your non-optimal times. I used to write late into the evening, to the detriment of my sleep, moods and writing. Remember, writing more isn’t necessarily better.

6. Eliminate distraction during writing time. Phone calls, texts and Facebook chats are fine, and potentially helpful, during non-writing time. We’re likely to have more of those “a HA!” moments. Mid-writing, though, try to keep distractions to a minimum.

7. Write where you feel most comfortable. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about his fancy writing desk he purchased once he started gaining professional success. On it, he couldn’t write a darn thing. Choose a place you feel like writing in, not the place you feel you should.

8. Eat well. Our brains need sufficient amounts of calories and nutrients to function well. Aim for a balanced diet, containing mostly healthy foods. Emphasize brain-boosting foods, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, cold-water fish and whole grains.

9. Get enough sleep. Sleep challenges run rampant among writers, but we can all take measures to improve. The poorer our sleep habits become, the less sharp and creative we become.

10. Learn to say “no.” Not setting boundaries and saying “yes” to every needless outing and responsibility are surefire ways to kill our writing careers. (I talked about this in depth in this post.)

When is your golden hour for writing? For thinking? How do you make the most of your writing time?

Leave a comment

76 Comments

  1. Karina

     /  August 23, 2012

    As you know, I’m a fellow lark, but I’d agree that the best ideas can come later in the day – really, at any point in the day. You never know when inspiration will strike. That’s why it’s important to separate out the writing and thinking processes. You can’t write unless you’ve done sufficient thinking – staring at a blank screen is bound to induce coma, rather than generate ideas. You need to do something else (cleaning!) so that your brain is free to swoop around problems and approach them from every direction. Once you commit words to the page there’s much less room for flexibility.

    Did some crazy thinking when I woke at 2am. Off to put it all into words now!

    Reply
    • So true, Karina. My place has never been so clean since I began writing. 😉

      Thanks for the wonderful insight. I love this especially: “…staring at a blank screen is bound to induce coma, rather than generate ideas.” Amen, sister.

      Reply
  2. Great post August. I knew about the Golden Hour for cinematography and photography but you shed light on other ones that are new to me. I’m a Lark who keeps a journal handy at all times for those moments of inspiration. 🙂 Thanks again!!!

    Reply
    • Happy to hear that, Rich! There’s no official GH for writers, but I think the principles apply well. Keep up the awesome work and habits. 🙂

      Reply
  3. I read about that study a few weeks ago – very interesting stuff! My prime hour for writing is night (or at work, because I’m SO BORED). Early in the morning my brain doesn’t function. Probably because I stayed up late writing 😉

    Reply
  4. Catherine Johnson

     /  August 23, 2012

    Great points, August. Those three things are so important not to bulk altogether. Your ideas time comes whenever, your alert time as you said and writing at a computer desk is sometimes the worst place for your muse. I feel lucky I only write short stories/poems so it doesn’t matter where I am.

    Reply
  5. Amazing post. It totally explains why I have my creative and new ideas while driving or walking. Not very convenient but that’s why I always keep a pen and paper with me and have a note taking app on my phone. Very insightful.

    Reply
  6. mgmillerbooks

     /  August 23, 2012

    I’m glad you wrote this because my friends think I’m a freak. I’m up by 4 every day. During the week I only have time to workout, but on weekends I write until I’m exhausted (about 6 hours), then I crash for a couple hours. Takes me about a year and a half to write a novel at that pace. I only write at my desk, and only in the early morning. One habit I have broken, though, was having to drink out of the same James Joyce coffee mug every day. That was just weird.

    Reply
    • Ha! Not sure you’d be a writer if you didn’t have a superstition or two. (Better yet, 3—my lucky number. ;)) My hat goes off to you for getting up so early to write. It speaks of your passion, which also shines brightly in your work.

      Reply
  7. Wow! You just explained why I had trouble falling asleep last night. I was exhausted, as I usually am at night, but I couldn’t stop my mind from coming up with ideas about possible new jobs. I am definintely a morning person. On my usual schedule I get up at 4am to write before work. In the summer my schedule is off and my writing tends to suffer. I’ve been experimenting with time and I realized that by 3 in the afternoon, my brain is done. But I’ve recently learned that I can write in the middle of the day if I am away from distractions. Great info. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Ooh, monkey mind. I really relate to that. 😉 Sounds like you’ve made some important observations, Emma, which seem key to growth and success. Good luck with the job search!

      Reply
  8. Great ideas for any creative August!

    I learn a lot about focusing on what is important reading your ideas.

    Great post. Thanks!!!

    Reply
  9. Funny (or not) how time changs things. In my younger days I could write from morning till night. I often did marathons of twenty or more straight hours. Now, as an old(er) fart, it’s more like 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. But those are productive hours, 1,500-2,000 words.

    Reply
  10. My golden hour just so happens to coincide with the golden hour of dawn, whatever that may be throughout the year. Nothing seems to work as effectively to having a good day as getting up right before sunrise, getting a few things done, and then using the time to write until either my roommate gets up and starts distracting me, or I have to stop to get ready for work. Sometimes, I can pull something off in the later hours, but my productivity goes down significantly as soon as those morning golden hours are interrupted by my roommate getting up. It’s strange how effectively it works, practically without exception. I wish I had more time, but, on the same token, I manage to get some pretty good work done during that period!

    Reply
    • Quality time definitely seems the most valuable, L.S. And as long as they don’t interrupt our prime concentration and work time, some distractions help us more than we realize. Kudos for finding a system that works for you!

      Reply
  11. I am a morning person–I like to work on my priority creative project first thing. I never thought about a time for a ha moments, but I notice a second wind segment in my day. 🙂 It’s usually late afternoon for me when I can get a little more energy.

    Reply
    • I’m the same darn way. 🙂 I love knowing that no matter what happens the rest of the day, I worked on my top priority—usually fiction—straight away. Works out well since I’m sharper then anyway.

      Reply
  12. Like you I’m an early bird.

    Reply
  13. I’m drawn to the term “golden hour” because it gilds/makes precious the time we devote to writing. Thanks for appropriating the expression from the film and fashion worlds, August.

    Reply
  14. My golden hour varies. Sometimes I write best in the morning, sometimes late at night. I find it’s more tied to what I call “inspiration factors”: relative quiet in the house, and most important, something great and thought-provoking to read. When others write well it energizes me to try to do the same. Great post!

    Reply
  15. I like the idea of the golden hour. I’m a night owl and find I’m the most sluggish and distracted in the mid afternoon, but that is also when I get the most inspired ideas. Now I know why! 🙂

    Reply
  16. I have always gotten a lot more done when I am tired and am most creative at the lowest point in the day. I think I have to “turn off” the energy to “tune in.”

    Reply
  17. My golden hour changes every day depending on the circumstance. Some of my a ha moments appear when I’m having a shower. At the moment I feel like I need to do a routine by writing in the morning and see how it goes. Thank you for the post, August.

    Subhan Zein

    Reply
    • I think it’s always wise to change things up, Subhan—especially when you feel the need instinctually. Good luck! Hope you’ll let me know how it goes. 🙂

      Reply
      • Yes, you’re right, August. I agree with you. 🙂

        My novel project is now stalled for a little while. Not that I don’t want to work on it but because I really need to get this thesis done. Usually I find time during the weekend to work on my novel but now I have to abandon it because I really want to submit my thesis by the end of this semester. I’m saying this not because I don’t love my study. I do. It’s one of my passions. But then now I have bigger passion: writing. And I just feel I can’t live without it.

        Can you imagine how it feels when you really want to do something you love the most but you just can’t do it because you have another obligation?

        To me, it feels like torture.

        Subhan Zein

  18. My Golden Hour is early morning. We’re talking 4-6AM. I love it then… the house is quiet, everyone is asleep and even the dogs will leave me alone. My least productive time is the afternoon ~ 3-5PM. So that’s when I try to get housework or reading done. I don’t think I ever really thought about it, though. Having read this post, I’ll certainly consider when I’m at my most optimal creatively in the future. Another great one, August.

    Reply
  19. First of all I wanted to comment on your new blog header – absolutely stunning. And I’m guessing that’s you in the baseball cap.

    I don’t really fall into one category, a night owl or an early bird, because it simply depends on how I feel, how rested I am, and what’s going on in my household. I often get those brilliant ideas while not in front on my laptop but walking, working out, cooking, gardening etc. I think my brain is wired for creativity no matter what 🙂 And it must have something to do with the fact that I am so hyper.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Angela! Yes, that’s me standing at one of my favorite hiking spots. 🙂

      Being wired for creativity is a GREAT thing. Activity of all kinds keeps me calm and productive, too—also due to that beloved hyper-ness. It’s great to get ideas whenever they strike, right? Sounds like yours are plentiful and joy-filled. Fantastic.

      Reply
    • I can’t figure out if you’re up in the Griffith Park area or down south below downtown. I knew it was you and stared at the photo for several minutes, trying to figure out the direction of the landmarks. 🙂

      Reply
  20. I write when the kids are asleep, which is generally after 8 p.m.

    *thank* goodness I’m a night owl by tradition 🙂

    Reply
  21. I’m pretty sure my “creative” golden hour is in the evening – even when I am asleep. My “database” goes crazy reindexing in the sleepy hours and I get some of the best (or craziest) ideas then.

    My most productive writing time? I honestly don’t think I have one. I’d venture to say from late morning through late afternoon. I have to make the time work for me, having an active toddler in the house. 🙂

    Reply
  22. Love #4! Too funny! I don’t remember when my optimal writing time used to be, probably mornings. Now it’s between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m., sometimes as late as 6 a.m. While I miss mornings, there doesn’t seem to be much I can do about this schedule shift, so I just go with it. Early afternoons seem to be when most new ideas start taking shape.

    Unfortunately some also pop into my head as I’m about to doze off. Sometimes (rarely) I’ll get up to write them down…which usually means I write too many details, and before I know it, an hour or two has flown by. More often than not, I just hope I remember when I wake up (no, a notebook and pen on my nightstand doesn’t work). 🙂

    Reply
    • We simply do our best with what we have, right? Sounds like you do, Kristy. And about the pens. I’d hate to think of you sleeping with sharp objects! 😉 Hopefully your brain tracks them for later reveal…

      Reply
  23. Great stuff, August!

    Reply
  24. Unless I’m pumped full of caffeine or adrenaline, I am most definitely NOT a night hawk. I start to shut down around 8 pm – 9 pm. I do find that the evenings are my brain’s best “problem solving” time. If I’m stuck on a plot point or have a life issue that I just can’t seem to figure out, a solution will usually come to mind as I’m winding down. I relax enough that my brain can put together connections it couldn’t before.

    That said, I’m actually one of the bluebirds 🙂 I’m most productive in the afternoon hours (which is why you’ll rarely see me on Twitter during the afternoons, and why I actively chat there in the mornings). Once I wake up in the morning, I can also get a lot done, but I find that my body wakes up a little more slowly than my mind sometimes, which means a lot of typos and other goofs earlier in the day.

    Reply
    • Our bodies and minds probably do have different wakeup times. I’ve read that most people’s prime workout time, as far as strength and energy, is around 1pm. Sounds like you’re in line with that.

      Your mornings sound like my nights type-o-wise—the reason I don’t allow myself to email anyone after 9pm. 😉

      Reply
  25. I wish I had read this 3 weeks ago! Great post AM 🙂

    Reply
  26. Author Kristen Lamb

     /  August 23, 2012

    Awesome post. It is a shame that Jonah Lehrer got sloppy with his last book Imagination. It was such a wonderful book about how creativity and imagination works (though now don’t know what parts to listen to). Anyway, when he talks about the neuroscience behind creativity, he talks about the same thing. The sharp mind and the tired mind actually serve different functions. And yes, I am a lark. I HAVE to write in the morning or I am useless. I write every day from 8-11:30 (minimum). Afternoons, I am brain dead. Who are these bluebirds of which you speak? I have yet to meet anyone who said, “You know, from 1 in the afternoon to 4 I am AWESOME!”

    Reply
    • I’ve heard great things about Lehrer’s first books. Seems like there are plenty of reasons to NOT feel guilty, declined or lazy if we don’t feel sharp 24/7. Thank goodness. 😉

      I’m with you on the need to write early—probably beats prozac, therapy and spa treatments combined. It sounds like Marcy Kennedy and a few others fall in the bluebird category. Would be interesting to see a breakdown.

      Reply
      • Author Kristen Lamb

         /  August 23, 2012

        His books are fabulous, but he just got fired for making up some of his quotes. His book “Imagination” was AWESOME, but don’t know which stats/quotes are legit. Publisher yanked all the books.

      • Woah. I had no idea… Judging from this NYT article, the ordeal sounds like the movie Shattered Glass (which I highly recommend ;)).

  27. Kathleen

     /  August 23, 2012

    Great post August! It’s revitalizing to realize that your most creative time is not necessarily your most productive time. Thank you.

    Reply
  28. I get my best ideas in the middle of night, when I’m sleeping. I hate waking up knowing that I had a great idea or solved a plot problem and didn’t wake up enough to write it down because I was just “sure” I would remember it. Other than that, morning is definitely my writing time. Love that pic by the way!

    Reply
  29. Karen McFarland

     /  August 23, 2012

    I have to agree with Angela Peart. I love your new header August!

    As far as writing productivity, I can sit and write just about anytime of the day. But it drives me crazy that my best ideas come at night as I’m trying to fall off to sleep. I’m always jotting down ideas on a notepad so I can remind myself later what it was that I thought was so important in the morning. I have learned as you said on your post that the quantity of the writing doesn’t always make it quality writing. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, Karen!

      I’ve had nights where my ideas won’t allow me to sleep. That’s no fun. It’s also a topic I’ll probably address here soon. The ability to sit down and write any ‘ol time is awesome. I definitely find that simply sitting down to type gets things rolling—maybe Pavlovian? 😉

      Reply
  30. I like writing late morning or early afternoon. Thanks for a golden post!

    Reply
  31. Kourtney Heintz

     /  August 23, 2012

    Awesome insight August. I am a night owl, but I find drafting new scenes happens best during the day. 😉 Now I have an idea of why. LOL. On saying no. My poor friends and family. When they ask me to do anything during revisions, I say no. It’s taken some time to cultivate no as an automatic response but it is so worth it. 🙂

    Reply
  32. There is so much awesome in this post to address.
    This makes so much sense now! I’m a definite night owl but lately I’ve noticed that (I’m in the plotting stage) I’m more creative in the mornings. Dead tired, true, but apparently even semi-zombies can plot better when not in their ‘time element’.
    I really want to buy On Writing by Stephen King. That and one of the books by Kristen Lamb. Stupid money.
    “sleep” and “no” — two of my downfalls.
    Did I mention I’m a zombie?
    Saying no makes me feel terribly guilty but I’ve decided its a must. So I now I only cringe inwardly and I just say no.
    Thanks August! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hey Daphne, I so recommend Stephen Kings’ book. It’s writing advice couched as a memoir. How-to information has never tasted so good; it went down so smooth, with all his entertaining stories as examples. And keep practicing saying ‘no.’ It gets easier after awhile.

      Reply
  33. August the information you always share is so always on time! What a wonderful sharing mind and heart you have. That is truly special in this day and time…it makes you a special person! Thanks for the blessing!

    Reply
  34. An hour-and-a-half before work, I sit down to write.network… whatever I have to do for the day. Its not enough, but what can you do? The summer is “Go-Time for a bellman…

    Reply
  35. By the way, August, Sept. 10 – 11 is my free Kindle giveaway fro the book. If you can download it and maybe spread the word, I’d be forever grateful.
    I desperately need to get the word out and maximize the number of downloads I get over the two day period. Thanks.

    Reply
  36. lynettemburrows

     /  August 24, 2012

    I seem to need a couple of hours to wake up, to get enough coffee and the little stuff done to start my brain cranking. About mid morning I start writing and can (on a good day) write for 8 or 10 hours. Inspiration seems to hit me at those inopportune moments – as I drive pass the exit, on my way into an important day-job meeting, etc. I have a pad of paper with me and my cell phone – you have no idea how many story ideas an answering machine can hold until you try it!

    Reply
  37. I love that you took that Circadian rhythm test. I fear I am an owl who longs to be a lark. If I don’t get something done at night, I say I’ll get up early and do it, but Day Me is really persuasive about staying in bed. But if I do get up early, I’m still productive. It’s just about getting some quiet time for me. Once I sit and get in the zone, I’m good.

    Reply
    • Get in line, Jess…get in line. I envy morning people but i just don’t roll that way. I love the quiet of the night.

      Reply
  38. Really interesting studies 🙂 Like Jess, I’ve always struggled with getting up early. I do seem to write better first thing, and get ideas later, when I’m otherwise brain drained. But my natural rhythm is to rise and sleep later. It’s such a conflict. I’ve always wondered if the natural rhythm has anything to do with time of birth. I was born at 9pm, so by that logic, it would make sense I’m not a morning person…

    Reply
  39. Very interesting! I am most definitely a night owl, but very often I wake up in the morning with full-blown ideas about plot problems I’ve been struggling with, or with the realization that there is a hole in a story’s plot that needs fixing. I get up and write it down quick. This has lead to several occasions when my husband thought I had been up all night writing, because I was at my computer when he went to bed, and at it again when he got up!

    Reply
  40. I enjoyed this post very much, August!

    I’m very much a night owl, but seizure meds make me fuzzy after 11 PM or so. I’ve fallen into a habit (where applicable–I have three children, so often my writing occurs in between their meanderings) of writing right after they get on the school bus. I try to get some writing and editing done late at night, even when I’m fuzzy, because I spend time with my husband and kids between 7 and 11 pm.

    I use summers for edits.

    And I create most of my plot lines and get to know my characters while walking and running. So as I edit Ripple and pull together my memoirs, I am working on the outlines of my sequel on the dirt trails here in Northern VA.

    Oh man. As far as creating boundaries and saying no, I’m really struggling with that. Gah!

    Reply
  41. Very insightful! I tend to write best when I’m in the car waiting for my children’s piano lessons and sports activities because I have no internet access and therefore no distractions!

    Reply
  42. Really insightful post. I might be more morning lark but I have gotten into the bad habit of going to bed too late. I would be more productive if I woke up early and got the work done with fresh eyes. But I’m most creative right before falling asleep. Many nights I have to get up and write down the thoughts coming to me. I’ll have to utilize that information more.

    Reply
  43. I have a “‘routine” of sorts — after coffee, walk, shower, I sit down to my writing and stay there until afternoon (though I do try to remember to pull my arse out of my chair and take breaks, lawd.) And I do this most every day. Showing up, discipline – yeah, that’s what it often takes to work in a job that requires self-motivation. What other job do we have that doesn’t guarantee success, or even that we’ll be paid, or even that our work will be seen by anyone but our own eyes and hearts? Dang, that’s a whole lotto faith! 😀

    Reply
  44. Must say number three was simply my favorite.

    Reply
  45. mgedwards

     /  September 8, 2012

    I hear you. Right now it’s sleep deprivation (jetlag) and the never-ending “honey-do” list. Major writer blocks! Reading August’s blog while listening to Train’s new album…a good way to get over it! 🙂

    Reply
  46. Raani York

     /  September 8, 2012

    Another one of your great blogs August.
    My best writing times are the ones when I just “feel” – that moment my pen will RUN across the pages. Those are the times when I make most of my writing too.

    Reply
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