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?

Saying ‘No’ — A Successful Writer’s Must

There’s no one way to build a successful writing career, but there are essential ingredients. One of the most important, I believe, boils down to two little words: saying no. Think about it. How can we produce our best quality work and continue growing, day after day, year after year, if we’re bogged down by needless obligations?

If I sound harsh, don’t worry; becoming selfish writing-only ghouls isn’t the goal. And supporting others and taking time away from writing are invaluable. But there’s a big difference between saying ‘yes’ to every request for a favor, lunch date and job offer, tending to others instead of our craft and careers, and obliging when it matters most. Each time we say ‘no’ to obligations that detract from our success, we strengthen our commitment to our work and step further into our dreams. While it’s not always easy, it’s worth it. And it does get easier along the way.

Seven Ways to Say ‘No’ With Greater Ease

1. Swap guilt for gusto. It’s not easy to tell your pal you can’t meet for lunch or walk her ferret. But if doing so takes away from your writing, is it worth it—even to your friend? If she asked you if you could “please walk Snoopy instead of progress as an author,” declining would be easier. So view it that way. Once you’ve made your decision, make the most of that preserved time. Productivity breeds gusto and kicks guilt in the keister.

2. Feel the twinge. When someone asks you to take time away from writing, listen to your gut. As some of you may recall, ‘saying no’ played a big role in divorcing my acting career. The more auditions and offers I turned down, the more apparent the right decisions became. Now every time a question sounds, I feel the twinge—a no-longer-subtle stir inside that tells me exactly how I feel. Awareness and practice strengthen our ‘saying no’ muscle. So even if you can’t yet abide by it yet, start honing in on the twinge.

3. When in doubt, take time out. When we’re put on the spot, we are much more likely to yelp, “Sure! Anything!”… on the outside. When your palms sweat in the face of a time-sucking request, tell the person you need to think about it. Or call them later. Or say “hang on!” and rush away to your private cave. Whatever it takes to give yourself that privacy, which often brings clarity, do it.

4. Weigh your options. How much time and energy would fulfilling the request take? What are the consequences of committing versus declining? Is there a way to fulfill the request and still get your work done? How much of your desire to commit stems from guilt or perceived obligation, and how much from genuine desire? How important is the task to the asker? Looking at a situation from all angles can help clarify our decisions.

5. Speak your passions. Talking about our creative goals, progress and priorities gives them breath and deeper meaning. When we say “I’m now prioritizing my writing,” “I am a writer,” or “I’m stoked about my loaded work day” (referring to writing), we’re more likely to believe ourselves and take our work seriously. Sharing our priorities with others also helps keep us accountable.

6. Sleep on it. Ever wake up with an epiphany about your WIP? I know I have. Our brains work through questions and conflicts during sleep. Sometimes the best way to recognize the best decision involves catching those zzzs. Try not to stress too much just before bed, however. Not sleeping enough or well can have the opposite effect. For useful information on sleeping better, check out MayoClinic.com’s Sleep Tips.

7. Hold yourself responsible. No one can make us take on endless favors, tasks and responsibilities. Blaming the friend who calls or the ferret who needed sunshine won’t do anything but increase our grumpiness. And probably other people’s. And maybe the ferret’s. We make our own choices, so choose your goals and dreams. Go after them like the protagonist in your novel, and never, ever back down. You don’t need anyone’s permission but your own.

Do you overload your plate with non-writing commitments? Have you mastered your ‘saying no’ capabilities? Any tips to add or challenges to share? I’d love to hear your brilliant thoughts. 🙂

The Truth About Social Media Time Suck

Are you sitting down? Good. Because guess what. *takes a deep breath* ‘Time suck’ is in the dictionary. This may not stun urban word-anistas, like Natalie Hartford, but it was news to me. Close your eyes and ponder the term. What leaps to mind? Lemme guess—Facebook? Twitter? Pinterest? All-things-internet?

The Urban Word Dictionary defines ‘time suck’ as: “Something that’s engrossing and addictive, but that keeps you from doing things that are actually important, like earning a living, or eating meals, or caring for your children.” Example: “Facebook is a time suck! I posted a funny picture after dinner and all of a sudden it’s midnight!”

Hmm… But no one is tying us down before the keyboard, or forcing our eyes on the screen. We may feel compelled to abandon other responsibilities and lose track of time, but if a child cried out from a nearby room, we wouldn’t say, “Quiet, kiddo. I’m on eBay.” We’d rush to his or her rescue. In other words, time sucks are voluntary—more like investments than stealers.

Unless you A) have a compulsive psychological disorder involving social media, or B) are being held at gunpoint by an internet-mongering psychopath (in which case, please visit 911.com) there are many ways to keep TS at bay and still reap the many benefits social media has to offer.

7 Ways to Dodge Social Media Time Suck 

1. Approach it like a pro. Social media is a lot like L.A. nightlife, minus the swanky outfits and over-priced drinks. When I was working as an actress, the scene was part of my job. But my goal was networking, not partying. So I never—okay seldom—partied too late or too much. Doing so would’ve given the wrong impression and sabotaged opportunities. The same applies for authors on social media. Like parties, social media is fun. But if we approach it like a party, our professionalism might tank.

2. Prioritize. Think of your time as an up-side-down Christmas tree. (Use a regular pine tree if you wish. I prefer the sparkles.) The widest part of the tree represents what matters most and what demands the most time. If you’re an author, your craft and career are likely top priority, as far as work goes. Building a social media platform is an important component, but the most important is producing quality work and growing craft-wise. Don’t let social media steal that away.

3. Step away from the net. We all know when we’re helping our platform and when we’re simply procrastinating or surrendering to the TS vacuum. When the latter happens, un-plug. Take a break. Eat a healthy snack. Turn your wireless off. Step…away… If you feel incapable, seek professional help. (I mean that sincerely. Therapy’s a great thing.)

4. Strategize, time-wise. After blogging—arguably the most important web presence for authors—the top three social media platforms are Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. We have limited time to spend on-line; best we use it wisely. Popping over to Google+, Linked In and other sites can help, but spreading ourselves too thin turns even modest efforts into TS. Invest more time into the most popular sites and less into others. Basic, right?

5. Strategize, timing-wise. I’m a morning person, so I prefer to get my writing in early. As much fun as it would be to post creative, witty or otherwise sharp blurbs on Facebook during my peak brain-time, I’d rather invest that sharpness into my craft. If you’re groggy during morning hours, social media can provide a great warm up; save your juice for later. In other words, find and commit to timing that works for you. (If you’re someone who can’t help but be sharp, creative and/or hilarious at all times, timing is less of an issue—lucky duck!)

6. Link it up. Remember those three social media superstars from #4? We can link them all together—a huge time saver, if used appropriately. Since I’ve linked my Pinterest account to Facebook, I’ve had more dialogue and connectivity going on via both. My Facebook fan page is linked to Twitter, so anything I share on the fan page goes out to the Twitter-verse. Don’t overdo link-ups, however, as we don’t want to spam our friends and readers. Spending quality time on each platform is important.

7. Keep your goals in mind. If we lose sight of our goals, little will hold us to them. Distracting-TS-ers will seep in, robbing us of dreams we’re fully capable of reaching. If goal-focus doesn’t come easy for you, keep reminders near your computer—inspiring photos, quotes or affirmations. Connecting with supportive friends can also help. So while over-doing social media can detract from our careers, lean on friends—on the web or in-person—as needed.

Extra Tips & Tricks:

  • If you don’t have time to read blogs throughout a particular week—or even if you do—read Gene Lempp’s Blog Treasures. His Saturday morning mash-ups feature the “best of the blogosphere” from the previous week, and they never disappoint.
  • Pin on Saturdays. Pinterest activity rages on Saturdays, when other social media quiets down. So if adding pinning to your already-full plate seems daunting, save it for Saturdays.
  • If you are prone to social media TS, set a timer. Dan Taylor, a Vienna-based social media consultant, offers this and other great advice in his post, How to Avoid the Social Media Time Suck.
  • Consider joining Triberr. Not sure what it is or how to use it? Check out Jenny Hansen’s great post, My New Time-Saving Social Media BFF—Triberr.
  • Use Twitter lists. Roni Loren sold me on lists in her post, Picky, Picky – The Danger of Authors Being Too Clique-y on Twitter.
  • Take your computer out for coffee. Okay, sounds sort of sick. But seriously, social networking in social settings can help shake things up, put us in a sociable mood, and prevent day-long Facebook/Twitter-thons. (Once you run out of coffee, go home. :))

How do you avoid social media TS? Have you mastered time management? Any tips or challenges to add?