What is this malaise? This lack of focus and ennui combined with a skimming restlessness? My mind won’t settle on anything for more than an instant. The piles of paper around me are growing, escaping my recycle bin. I can’t seem to force myself to get to work on them or anything else. Those short stories I was revising religiously every morning? Not today.
Today my mind is a cloud pushed by the wind.
It could have been a regular workday with a schedule I knew from experience to be effective. Usually I rise between 5:30 and 6:30 AM, head for the meditation chair, sit for 20 minutes, then concoct morning chai for the household. Next I’m off to my writing desk. I work for two hours on my latest manuscript (these days, it’s that collection of short stories), after which I stop for breakfast. Later I’m on to returning phone calls, making progress on consulting work, emailing friends and clients, or blogging. Somewhere in the day will be a swim, walk, or bike ride. Then I’ll go back to writing, especially if I’m on deadline.
Today I broke that pattern. I thought taking a shortcut past the meditation and morning writing and getting directly to business and accounts meant I was being responsible. I could return to the short stories in the evening, I told myself. I’d be efficient and effective, putting important, earning work first.
How wrong I was. Without that morning ritual, as well as the critical, concentrated creative time, I was like a ship with no compass. The usual landmarks I look to for guidance weren’t there. Not only did I not accomplish my non-writing tasks more efficiently or quickly, I found them curiously evading my prized problem-solving ability. In short I didn’t get anything done before breakfast and very little after.
I had missed my most creative time, when my circadian rhythms allow me to sink most deeply into the world of make-believe. By not stopping in at the usual checkpoints, I scuttled the well-honed craft of my general working life.
Mark McGinnis, poet and business coach at www.wishfulthinking.co.uk, puts it this way: “Ring-fence your most creative time.” He advises that we pick our rich, creative time of day and separate it from the rest for our lives.
Apart from the lack of external interruptions, I write first thing in the morning because (once I’m up) that’s the time of day when I’m most focused and alert. I experience a greater mental clarity in the first couple of hours of the working day than any other time. As a writer, that quality of attention is my most valuable asset, so I’ve learned to guard it carefully. If I start plowing into emails, reading blog feeds, or doing mundane tasks such as accounts, then I’m squandering my most precious resource.
Mark admits that, for him, finding extra hours in the morning means rising earlier than he would if writing weren’t his heart’s desire. It’s the same for me. Without those morning hours I carve out (which might be afternoon hours for you, or after dinner, whatever you can “ring-fence”) I wouldn’t have a writing practice, which is the core of my work. I wouldn’t feel authentic passing myself off as a writing instructor or as speaker at a community writer’s night. I wouldn’t rest easy selling copies of my novel or proposing a new book to my agent or filling in a grant application to support a new project. The creative practice makes up the core of my writing identity. From that ring-fenced time also comes, apparently, my ability to do other work.
It’s true there are other aspects to my life and me, but for that part wearing the author hat, the ring-fence is as mighty as the pen. Mightier.
Read Mark’s paper, Time Management for Creative People.