Scrolling through Facebook the other day, I saw a post from a writer that said:
I’m a total night owl with creative bursts around 11 PM. But there’s all this advice on getting up at 5 AM to write. I’m desperate to be an early bird! Anyone know how to change your sleep cycle?!
There were plenty of comments with advice on how to magically metamorphose from a night owl to an early bird:
Limit screen time. Hire a sleep consultant. Drink three glasses of alkaline water first thing in the morning. Lavender essential oil.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw other folks comment, “Just go with it. It’s a losing battle to change your biorhythm. It’s genetic!”
I feel this writer’s pain. In a world built for ultra-early birds, everyone else is left struggling to adapt. Not to mention all the productivity advice out there telling writers to wake up at 4 AM and write their masterpieces. Non-early birds are left foggy, fuzzy, and flippin’ exhausted.
The truth is:
Fighting your body’s natural biorhythm is a recipe for disaster.
By disaster, I mean: depression, anxiety, poor performance, fogginess, procrastination, resentment, crankiness, and all the other juicy goodies awarded with sleep deprivation.
This concept clicked for me when I read Daniel Pink’s book on chronotypes, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. With journalistic precision, Pink outlines the research that proves all living things have a biological clock. In all organic creatures, this internal clock determines when they eat, sleep, mate, work, and yes, write.
The pattern of your unique internal clock is called your chronotype.
Your Chronotype is Your Secret Weapon:
A Tale of 3 Writers
When you study the data, you’ll quickly find that not all great writers rise at 4 or 5 AM to work. Looking closely at their routines, productive writers align themselves with their body’s chronotype and capitalize on the natural peaks and valleys.
Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938
Known for his chunky novels and impressionistic prose, Thomas Wolfe was a devoted night owl.
He began writing around 12 AM, drinking copious amounts of coffee and chain-smoking to psyche himself up for creative work. Fun fact about Wolfe: he was quite tall at 6’6” and used a refrigerator as a standing desk to write. Ahead of his time, that one!
Around 5 AM, Wolfe finished up writing, had a stiff drink to wind down, and climbed into bed. He slept until noon and would wake up to work with a typist on his writing, who often found the work from the night before strewn across the floor.
Source: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
Mary Oliver, 1935-2019
American Poet & Essayist
America’s poet sweetheart, Mary Oliver, was a solid early bird. Just take a peek at the titles of two of her major works: Why I Wake Early (2004) and A Thousand Mornings (2012).
In Upstream: Selected Essays, Oliver recounts “It is six A.M., and I am working.” She’s bombarded by distractions tumbling through her mind –– the beans in the pot, the empty mustard bottle in the fridge, the dentist appointment to be made.
And yet she carries on. “The poem gets written," she writes.
Oliver is reported to have said that, if a writer has a 9-5 job, there’s no excuse for not rising to write at 4:30 or 5 AM before work, which was her typical routine. She believed the writer’s obligation is to the extraordinary, and there’s no reason not to give employers our “second-best effort of the day.”
While the concept of unique chronotypes tell us not all writers can wake before dawn and get their best work done, Oliver’s devotion to the silver hours of morning places her firmly in the early bird camp.
Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986
French Writer, Philosopher, & Feminist
de Beauvoir began her day with a cup of tea, typically procrastinated for a bit, and then sitting down to write around 10 AM. She wrote until 1 PM.
She spent her afternoons visiting friends, often her quasi partner Jean-Paul Sartre. She and Sartre would sip tea and have lunch, occasionally working together in silence.
She’d settle back into writing around 5 o’clock and work until 9 PM.
Her lover Claude Lanzmann (de Beauvoir and Sartre had an “understanding”) explained that de Beauvoir lived a simple, “uncluttered” life. She deliberately designed her life around the essentials so she could produce her best work. Like Wolfe with the standing desk, de Beauvoir was a fierce minimalist long before the age of Marie Kondo.
Source: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
While it’s tempting to label de Beauvoir an early bird, I wouldn’t call sitting down to write at 10 AM true-blue early bird behavior. So why have I included her in this run-down of writerly routines?
There is no universal answer to “when should I write?”
We each have a unique biological programming that makes us more effective, more alert, and happier doing different activities at different times of day.
It’s not easy to tune out all the “should’s” “must’s” and “have to’s” culture tosses our way––especially as creatives. We’re flooded with formulas and diatribes on productivity. How often have you heard these pearls of wisdom?
“You must write at 4 a.m!”
“You must write at midnight!”
“You must write every day!”
“You must only write when inspiration strikes!”
How can you follow the advice to write at 4 AM every day AND write only when inspiration strikes?
Wolfe, Oliver, and de Beauvoir had wildly different writing routines, and all three produced exceptional work that’s reached millions of readers.
The lesson from fruitful writers: listen to your body and inner wisdom.
The Three Chronotypes
In When, Pink outlines three categories of chronotypes: The Night Owl, The Early Bird, and The Third Bird
While most of us have heard of early birds and night owls, Pink addresses a third chronotype––The Third Bird––after he took a close look at the data on circadian rhythms.
The Early Bird (AKA Lark)
Wakes between 4-6 AM
Small portion of the population
Often organized & responsible
Often born in fall and winter
Famous Early Birds:
The Third Bird
Term coined by Dan Pink
Wakes between 7-10 AM
~60-80% of the population
Happy medium between Early Bird & Night Owl
Famous Third Birds
Simone de Beauvoir
The Night Owl
Wakes between 10 AM & 1 PM
~20% of the population
Often eccentric & extroverted
Often born spring & summer
Difficulty fitting into 9-5 workday
Famous Night Owls:
Working in synchronicity with your chronotype rather than fighting it isn’t just “good advice.”
The research is clear: aligning your creative work with your body’s natural rhythm helps you be:
More effective (fewer mistakes)
Simone de Beauvoir would not have functioned well if she was forced to wake at 12 AM to write. And I would not want to be the unfortunate soul to wake Thomas Wolfe at 5 AM and ask him to get crackin’ on his next chapter.
In the LitHabits Workshop, I devote an entire session to understanding and identifying your chronotype. In my January workshop, one student burst out with this revelation: “I’m a night owl! My family told me for years that ‘Night owls don’t exist!’ but we do! I’m so relieved. I have permission to work WHEN I work best.”
Now, over to you. Tell me in the comments: Where do you fall on the chronotype spectrum? Do you relate to any of these writers or chronotype qualities?
If you’re not sure, the Horne-Ostberg Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire is a fantastic assessment to identify your chronotype. Own your chronotype and shout it out in the comments!
As a writer and teacher, I’m a firm believe in capitalizing on our strengths versus wasting time improving “weaknesses.” You’re not broken because you work best at an unusual time of day. You don’t need to be “fixed.”
However you identify on the chronotype spectrum, lean in, embrace your nature, and FLY!
Before you jet…
When you get an amazing idea for a story or essay (ya know, the kind you feel deep in your belly and the tips of your toes?), do you ever think: “Dang, it’s all been done before! No one’s going to care about my story”?
Friend, let me lovingly tell you: you’re wrong! I want to see YOUR by-line somewhere this fall, so let’s cure that “It’s all been done before” Syndrome.