By Ellen Margulies
When I die, there are any number of things my loved ones could inscribe on my gravestone. But the truest thing would probably be this: “She was not a morning person.” It’s a bit of an understatement, sort of along the lines of “Donald Trump has unusual hair” and “Kanye West is not lacking in self-confidence.”
In my 20s, I once briefly considered joining the military (I think I was just having a REALLY bad day). I drove to the recruitment office a half-hour away. I found a parking space, put the car in park, let it idle for 5 minutes… then drove off. Given the early-rising nature of military service, along with someone constantly telling me what to do and teaching me to use an assault rifle, things could’ve ended badly for everyone.
What this means is: you’re not going to get my best work in the mornings. Hit me up in the night hours, though, and I’ll be sizzling. I’m at my most creative somewhere between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., which can be inconvenient when you have to align your hours with a business world that gets cracking well before noon. Yet there are plenty of creatives who do their best work just when the sun comes up.
Can you schedule creativity? Consider these snippets from Open Culture’s website:
Novelist/runner Haruki Murakami beats the sun to his desk every day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”
When Franz Kafka was a clerk at an insurance company, he kept an insane schedule that nevertheless made the most of his magic hours, creativity-wise: He worked his day job from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., napped from 3:30-7:30 p.m., and started his writing at 11 p.m., working until anywhere from 1-6 a.m.
The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People has the most fab graphic, based on Mason Currey’s equally fab book, on famous creatives and their schedules; if you hover your mouse over the colored blocks, you’ll see exactly what they did when. Pablo Picasso did his best work between 3-9 p.m., when Kafka and I would prefer to nap and maybe watch something on Hulu. Beethoven was more of your 7 a.m.-1 p.m. creator, while Voltaire and Charles Darwin worked in fits and starts throughout the day.
Of course you can schedule creativity. If you’re lucky, you can pick the time that best suits you. Other times, you just have to force it, like Play-Doh hair.
Remember: Chefs and reporters don’t have the luxury of creating when they feel like it; their creativity is dictated by their audience. And their audience’s stomachs. Not necessarily in that order.
Find your best creative time
If you’re just not sure when your best time to create might be, give yourself a little test. Set aside 5 minutes at various times of day and make a list. The list can be any theme; I’ll give you some sample subjects: songs to play when you’re feeling sad, menus for a dinner party, must-haves for a spring wardrobe, ways to entertain your toddler on a road trip, etc. (You may have to start out with a list of lists!) Do this for several days in a row, using different topics. At the end of the experiment, see when you come up with your longest, most creative lists. Is it 10 in the morning? 4:30 p.m.? Right after your daily run?
You’ll start to get an idea of when all the cogs are turning quickest for you. I did a little experiment last week in which I compared my performance on Lumosity brain-training games at different times of day. I consistently scored best at night, around 8-10 p.m., although, surprisingly, my second-best time was before 10 a.m. Don’t go getting any ideas, though; I’m still not a morning person. (You can download the free Lumosity app in the Google Play Store, FYI. It’s addictive.)
I think it’s important to find a way to shoehorn creativity into your life, so if that means getting up 2 hours early to write or blocking out time on weekends, then do it. Many people who feel shy about tapping into their own creative urges may feel intimidated by this at first, but it gets easier. I’ve been writing for a living for a few decades, and my schedule is dictated by outside forces about 90% of the time. But I still enjoy painting on Saturdays, and I keep a notebook by my bed in case inspiration strikes irritatingly in the middle of my slumber.
I think one of my favorite quotes about making time for creativity is from Van Gogh: “If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”