The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science

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Writing photoWhat does your ideal day look like? Would you believe there’s a scientifically correct answer to the question?

Research into the human body—its hormone  allotment, its rhythms, and its tendencies—has found that there are certain times of day when the body is just better at performing certain activities. Eat breakfast no later than 8:00 a.m. Exercise between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Read Twitter from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. (your fellow tweeters are more upbeat in the morning).

Turns out our optimal times for performing a large number of tasks are best left up to science. If breakfast can be black-and-white, does that mean writing and creativity can be, too?

The best time to write is early in the morning

Your experience with writing may contradict this morning advice, and I hear you. The consensus on a single best writing time is very much up in the air. There is still a lot we don’t know about body rhythms and the writing process.

But we can make some projections based on what we do know.

We know that willpower is a finite resource.

A large body of research suggests that we have a limited reserve of willpower, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Researchers test this by asking participants to perform a difficult, draining task followed by a second difficult, draining task and then compare these results to a control group that got to skip the first and only perform the second. A popular method is to start participants with a Stroop test like the one pictured below:

Stroop test effect

You must identify the color of the word, not the word itself, and your speed is timed on a computer. The second part of the experiment asks participants to hold a coiled handgrip. Consistently, the control group outperforms the others, leading researchers to believe that willpower can become drained.

Naturally, willpower is beneficial to the writing process, especially for those days when we’re just not in the mood to write. Mornings, then, make the most sense since willpower can be sapped throughout the day by any number of different stressors—work, school, kids, chores, etc.

We know that the creative mind is an early riser and that the editing mind sleeps in.

Bouts of creative writing might be easier to come by just after waking as this is the time of day when the prefrontal cortex is most active.  A scientific study of brain circuits confirmed that this creative activity is highest during and immediately after sleep, while the analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on. The study looked at morning and evening MRI scans and observed that mornings showed more connections in the brain—a key element to the creative process.

Brain scans

 

Together, these insights into willpower and creativity hint that mornings may be the best time of day to write—any time from as soon as you wake until the daily tasks of your workday begin. However, the morning write time is far from set in stone, as you’ll read below.

The best time to get ideas is right after waking

Ever notice how you get some really stellar ideas while showering?

As mentioned above, creativity peaks in the morning as the creative connections in our brains are most active. If you believe that creativity is your best source for ideation, then the early morning should be your best time for new thoughts.

The greatest evidence for this effect is with dreams. Science has told us that creativity is a function of connections between many different networks throughout the brain. With that in mind, consider this observation from Tom Stafford, writing for the BBC:

An interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.

Try this: Ideas when you’re at your groggiest

If early morning idea sessions aren’t your cup of tea, you might be interested in a study from Mareike Wietha and Rose Zacks that found creative ideas often come at our least optimal times.

Their experiment measured insight ability and analytic ability, two components to the creative idea process. Participants identified themselves as either morning people or evening people and underwent a series of tests at different times of day. The tests for analytic ability revealed no significant findings, but for insight ability, the results were telling:

What Wieth and Zacks found was that strong morning-types were better at solving the more mysterious insight problems in the evening, when they apparently weren’t at their best.

Exactly the same pattern, but in reverse, was seen for people who felt their brightest in the evening: they performed better on the insight task when they were unfocused in the morning.

The theory goes that as our minds tire at our suboptimal times then our focus broadens. We are able to see more opportunities and make connections with an open mind. When we are working in our ideal time of day, our mind’s focus is honed to a far greater degree, potentially limiting our creative options.

The importance of routine: Larks vs. owls

If a morning writing sessions sounds insane to you, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Morning larks and night owls have very different perspectives on the best time of day to get work done, including optimal writing times. These differences have been evident for ages.

Charles Dickens was a lark. He finished his writing by 2:00 p.m. each day.

Robert Frost was just about getting started at 2:00 p.m. and would often be writing late into the night (and waking up the next day around noon).

What each of these famous authors lacked in synchronicity they made up for in routine. Their daily schedule of writing was set to the same time every day, even though the exact time was different for each writer.

It is possible, then, that the most important time of day for writing and ideas is the same time of day you always write and come up with ideas. Routines and habits could trump the clock.

In fact, the brain appreciates these habits. Routine reinforces neural circuitry, and the more you work at the same routine, the stronger those connections become. Author Amy Brann describes exactly how this added brain activity can be boosted:

Neurons will automatically be drawn to electrochemical activity. This means the more you can light up a new circuit the stronger it will become. The brain doesn’t distinguish between real or imagined thoughts when you’re lighting up circuits, so mentally rehearsing the new desired behaviour will help strengthen the neural circuit without actually performing the action.

Turns out, creating a consistent writing routine and idea habit could be just as good as searching for the best time of day. If your habitual time don’t sync with the advice above, at least be sure that your writing and brainstorming happen consistently.

When is your best time of day to write? When do you come up with your best ideas? I’d love a peek into your writing process and brainstorming sessions. 

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like The Origin of the 8-hour Workday and Why We Should Rethink It and 5 Ways to Get Through Writer’s Block

Image credit: photo credit: Slaff, Psychology TodayJournal of Neurophysiology.

  • mschmidlen

    GREAT info, THANK YOU!

  • http://www.crissapetrovic.com Crissa

    I’m much more of a morning lark, and I absolutely agree that my creative bursts manifest within the first couple hours after waking. Very interesting comparison of the morning lark & night owl with regards to writing.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      I’m right there with you. Mornings are my best time of day.

  • Anne

    I find that I am more right-brained late at night, and I’m more left-brained early in the morning. This means that I work on creative writing late at night, then in the morning, I go through the work from the night before to correct grammar, punctuation, etc. This leaves the afternoon and early evening free do do other things.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      That’s a neat system, Anne! It definitely makes a huge difference to recognize when you are most productive and in which ways (e.g., creative vs. analytic).

  • http://www.jenniferhester.com/ Jenny Hester

    I love mornings, but find that most of my creative bursts hit me when laying in bed at night. When they start pouring in I grab my phone and jot them down to review the next day.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Jenny! I’m guessing the “ideas at your groggiest” may apply here. :)

    • alex abaz

      I’m absolutely the same. But if I need to send an important email, it’s best if I leave it till the morning when I’m fresh and hopefully make fewer mistakes. This I think is in agreement with what Kevin said in his blog I think, that we are more creative when the brain is not at it’s peak.

  • Han Zhen Liu

    I feel a designated routine and place is key to channel creativity or to keep focus. I really can’t do work in the bedroom and I can’t sleep well in the guestroom.

  • Todd Brison

    “The editing brain sleeps in.”

    Even when not writing, it makes sense to do this at work as well. Put the more creative tasks toward the beginning of the day. Thanks for this.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Funny you mention this grouping of tasks. I do creative work in the morning when it’s quite, and I do analytic work in the afternoon while listening to music. The mind is a strange, beautiful thing, isn’t it?

      • Todd Brison

        It is indeed. The more we learn, the more we can optimize. I love little tweaks like this that simply allow biology to help us out.

  • http://bilelloryan.tumblr.com/ Ryan Bilello

    Thanks for the info, Kevan. Funny enough, a student asked me for ideas on what to do an 8th grade science project right after I read this. I told her, THE BRAIN and it’s limited willpower. Stay tuned…

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Cool beans. Please do share what she discovers!

  • Samantha Owens

    Since my job does not have a great set routine, I end up usually doing a ton of tasks and getting them done before lunch and then being kind of brain dead in the afternoon. But usually I get my second wind after work and can do some creative stuff then. But I don’t consider myself a morning person at all, I’d rather sleep in any day. Although waking up earlier and sitting in bed with my coffee and iPad reading in bed before work has been very helpful for feeling more alert at work. Interesting stuff! The science-y posts are very informative :D

  • Rachel Leigh Smith

    I’m the exception to this. I have a chronic illness that makes functioning in the mornings close to impossible. I depend on routine and I have my ideal schedule mapped out. So long as I stay to it I do great. I’m definitely in there with Frost.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Frost is good company to keep. :)

  • http://www.kurtjohansen.com/ Kurt Johansen

    I find writing emails for clients is best achieved and creative in the mornings up to around 1 pm. That is not to say I cannot write in the afternoon or evening as sometimes ‘deadlines dictate workload’. Everybody has a time of the day their energy is higher and I support the theory to do your most important work during this time no matter what the clock says.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Love what you said here, Kurt: “Everybody has a time of the day their energy is higher and I support the theory to do your most important work during this time no matter what the clock says.”

      • http://www.kurtjohansen.com/ Kurt Johansen

        Thanks Kevan. Time Management is really a misnomer. You can’t manage time but you can manage yourself. Discovering when you are at your best energy levels is crucial for maximum performance. Then do not allow anyone to steal this time of the day from you so you can dominate your chosen tasks.

  • http://newinternetorder.com Azalea Pena

    Hello Kevan, this is great research you did! It helps to know what Science is saying too. However, I’m really not a morning person and even if I wake up early, it doesn’t help with my writing at all…even with complete sleep and all. So, I have to agree with the latter part of the article that talks about routine. That applies more for me and I believe, applies to more people too. I start work late in the afternoon and since I’ve been doing that every day, that’s when my creative juices start flowing. And in my case, I get my best ideas before sleeping and not after dreaming. It’s all about the routine for me, but great info nonetheless!

    • http://www.kristiandupont.com Kristian Dupont

      Have you tried experimenting with your eating habits (i.e. eating more or less before you go to sleep, or before you start working in the morning?) I’ve found that honey before bedtime (discussed by Seth Roberts here: http://blog.sethroberts.net/2013/11/05/honey-at-bedtime-improves-sleep/) seems to make me more energetic and creative in the morning.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Azalea! I didn’t want to leave off the part about routine because I know so many people who work the same way you do. There is definitely something to say about creating habits that help you work smarter (and more creatively :)

  • Cathryn Cade

    Kevan,
    Fascinating science, thanks for sharing.
    I agree that exercising the creative centers of the brain regularly is crucial, and that consistency rules. Only by committing to regular and rigorous writing can I produce work at the pace I want.
    Another crucial piece for me is not expecting perfection, especially not in the first draft. Freeing myself to just write it, knowing I’ll come back later and use the craft I’ve learned to revise and edit, lets me write fast, which also frees the creative side of my brain to produce what it wants, without my second guessing every step.
    I start writing in the morning, and end mid-afternoon, with breaks. If I need to solve a plot or character problem, I exercise or pick up a fairly mindless creative activity such as quilting, so my body is busy but mind is free. It always works.
    Cheers to you for the great blog.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great point about perfection. I know I struggle to turn off my editing brain sometimes. :)

    • alex abaz

      I really agree with the part about perfection. I’ll tell you a short story – On parents’ night, my child’s teacher reported that my son was having trouble writing and it shocked me (he was gifted; I know all parents think that). His workbook had a lot of pencil smudges – he never got past two lines because he kept erasing and you could see the stress he was under. The cure was him writing every day. He hated doing it but it stopped his critical mind and got him writing.

    • alex abaz

      I really agree with the part about perfection. I’ll tell you a short story – On parents’ night, my child’s teacher reported that my son was having trouble writing and it shocked me (he was gifted; I know all parents think that). His workbook had a lot of pencil smudges – he never got past two lines because he kept erasing and you could see the stress he was under. The cure was him writing every day. He hated doing it but it stopped his critical mind and got him writing. (re-posted w/out photo)

  • Mary

    Please proof your proper language usage:)

    • Courtney Seiter

      Did you see an error we need to fix? We’re happy to take a look :)

  • HE3

    Personally I subscribe to the idea that we are much more than pieces of flesh–that there is an additional, crucial component omitted from the observations of Western scientists: the human spirit.

    This is old news in the East–and has been for a least a couple of millennia.
    “Thanks” to guys like Wihelm Wundt in the 1800s, we Westerners somehow bought into the idea we are just made of meat and synapses.

    Things like willpower and drive and the like are much more likely to come from the spirit.

    By considering that as a possibility we open the door to so many other ideas, if for no other reason, because we have removed the limitations from our thinking–limits which come from the fact that we are so certain we could only be these pieces of flesh.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Interesting perspective! Would love to read more about this if you have some links …

      • HE3

        Hi Kevan. Email me at 3a41e2b7@opayq.com (temp address) and I’ll send you some stuff from my real email address.

      • HE3

        Haven’t forgotten you! Just been swamped. Got your email. :)

    • alex abaz

      That would explain why it is that once we get on with it (because we have to), the creative juices start flowing and we surprise ourselves even.

      • HE3

        I like the way you think. :)

  • theirmind

    I, it is difficult to say when there will be the best inspiration to write the article.

  • http://www.lawrencemediainteractive.com Larry Wolf

    Kevan, well written and well said! I am definitely a night owl, but I do understand that a lot of my creativity comes in the mornings and at shower time!

    The section about “limited willpower” is fascinating. We often confuse this with procrastination. I have found myself using up willpower and creative energy early in the day doing meaningless tasks, only to struggle the rest of the day to try and accomplish what I set out to accomplish.

  • Melissa Lore

    Then there are those of us who don’t have the luxury to choose optimal times to write. We snatch 20 minutes before the kids get up, half an hour after work, a few precious evening hours when our spouses are away on business. (God bless the spousal business trip.) I love science, and this is all filed under “good to know,” but I grab it when I can, optimal be damned.

    • alex abaz

      Don’t know how you do it Melissa. You should be so proud of yourself. I have a friend who does so much in 15-minute slots. I think she’s awesome. I am fmore like Gen. I need deadlines and then I just work away non-stop. Ouch! Not disciplined at all.

  • http://www.FetchResponse.com Roxann Souci

    Great article! I’m a night owl, as are many creative types. I know when I set up my “action area”, regardless of the activity, (e.g., pen & journal, paints & canvas. or sweats & sneakers), my brain seems to kick into the corresponding gear.

  • http://www.anphira.com Gen Herres

    I’m definitely with the night owls. I have taken the milk out of the fridge at 8am and stared at it knowing I was supposed to do something but taking about 10 seconds to figure it out. Prior to noon, I have almost no willpower. If I don’t want to do something and don’t have a tight deadline I just can’t get it done in the morning. Whereas afternoon and late evening I can totally tackle those things on my to do list I couldn’t even bear to look at earlier.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Funny story about the milk! I’ve done the same, except at night. Guess we larks and owls aren’t all that different after all. :)

  • alex abaz

    Great stuff. Some good pointers for someone like me that doesn’t stick to routine and schedules. Now I understand why my ideas come at the oddest times and how it is that I go so long without inspiration and motivation. Thank you Kevin.

  • Lara Dunning

    I usually write best in the mornings, but occasionally I do find that at night the ideas start moving or the editing kicks into gear.

  • Troy Camplin

    My optimal time has shifted over time. I used to mostly work late at night — I was a definite night owl. But my writing time shifted earlier and earlier, so now it’s pretty much any time during the day. Of course, I now have three kids, 2, 4, and 7, and I am working full time, so my writing is more catch-as-catch-can.

    There is also research that suggests that creativity is maximized when you are manic and analytical abilities are maximized when you are depressed — which probably explains why this slightly bipolar writer is both a poet/playwright and an academic scholar. The good news is that no matter what my mood, there’s something I can write!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Love this, Troy! Great insight into creativity. :)

  • http://www.otimollc.com/meet-vin Vincent Messina

    is it possible to consider that the dude that wakes up at noon actually is writing in the morning…it’s just that he is writing in HIS morning?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Whoa, deep insight, Vincent! I think you’re totally right!

    • Anon

      Just what I was thinking.

  • Paul

    Great article. I’ve always felt that I write better in the morning. Unfortunately, I don’t typically take the necessary time out of the morning rush. Interesting note on one’s “groggiest time.” I might just give that a shot!

  • Paul Jenny

    When do YOU write? Please tell me at http://pauljennynyc.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/tell-me-when-you-write/ Thank you!

  • Jennifer Thornberry

    I’m more like Robert Frost. I like to sleep in some, then use the late morning for planning and social media checking. It’s not until around 2 p.m. that I’m ready to write.

  • https://twitter.com/jenniferxjoseph Jennifer Joseph

    I’ve written my best short stories in the early hours of the morning, after I’ve deprived myself of sleep for a whole day. Since I know this about myself now, I have gone without sleep on purpose so I can write better stories.

  • http://www.eahendryx.blogspot.com Emilie Hendryx

    Hum, this is VERY interesting :) I love the idea of the morning…but my body doesn’t always seem to cooperate. I definitely get some of my best ideas in the shower though -ha! I’ll have to try establishing a routine as you’ve suggested. Maybe that inline with Randy Ingermanson’s 500 club and my next book will be done :D