Writing in the morning

I know that I need to write in the morning if I’m going to be productive at fiction. Even just 20 or 40 minutes of early morning writing gets my head into the story space, and once it’s there I’ll continue to have story ideas through the day.

I’ve had trouble making this work since I started teaching taiji. For most of the year I need to start getting ready early enough to be out the door no later than 8:40 AM. I’m only gone for a couple of hours, which isn’t such a big hole in the day, but it’s big enough that it’s made it hard to get in the necessary early-morning writing session.

But after months—years, really—of not getting my fiction writing in, I’m taking a fresh stab at making an early-morning writing session happen.

I started a week ago so I could test-run the new schedule and get the kinks worked out before the last week of August, when the first fall taiji session starts. So far it’s working pretty well. I got my early-morning writing done every day except one, and that day I managed to get in a good writing session in the afternoon.

The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to just start even earlier. That isn’t easy because I’ve put together an early-morning routine that I’m finding really satisfying:

  1. Do a tiny bit of mobility work first thing.
  2. Weigh myself and check to see what my Oura ring says about my sleep.
  3. Sit down at my computer and record that info.
  4. Drink some coffee.
  5. Do the Daily Jumble with my brother and my mom.

After Jumbling and a couple of cups of coffee, I generally have breakfast, after which is my window to get some writing done before taiji.

What I’m doing differently is simply that I’m trying to start breakfast no later than 7:00 AM (ideally a little before), so that I can finish before 7:30.

I need to leave by about 8:40 to be sure I get to the Rec Center in time for my class, which gives me a generous hour to write.

If I manage that—spend enough time writing to get immersed into the story space of whatever I’m working on—then my brain gets started working on story problems. All through the rest of the day I’ll have plot points, possible story twists, clever turns of phrase, bits of dialog, and so on, popping into my head.

Until I start writing, none of that happens. It’s actually kind of awkward when I don’t get a chance to write during the day, and then try to squeeze in a writing session late, because then I’ll be getting those ideas while I’m trying to go to sleep.

Actually, it turns out it can be kind of awkward even when I do what I’m trying to do. Two days last week I skipped the group taiji practice session, but on Friday I did pretty much just what I’m planning to do going forward, and the result was that my brain was fairly fizzing with story stuff at the point I was getting set to head out the door. That’s fine for the summer practice sessions where I’m just a participant and not in charge of anything, but when I’m the teacher it’s my job to be fully present and mindful in the class, not in my latest fictional world.

It was okay this time; my fizzy brain had settled down by the time I was in the car ready to drive. But it’s another thing to take into account as I calibrate this new routine, which is why I wanted to have these couple of weeks for a test run.

Still, if I want to get fiction written, it’s best to get started early. And for a week now, I’ve been managing it. (And as a consequence, have finished a draft of my first new short story in a long time.)

Summer work

I was making some notes, trying to organize my thinking about how I wanted to spend the summer. My first draft looked something like this:

  1. Finish my novel
  2. Work on my parkour strength/skills
  3. Do some running
  4. Go for some long walks
  5. Get in some bike rides
  6. Practice taiji in the park

It’s not a bad list, but as soon as I started playing around with it, I noticed that there’s a lack of parallelism. Specifically, the first item was a goal, while the other items were activities.

So I changed it, turning the first item into “Work on my novel.”

I think that’s better. I think having a goal to “finish” my novel has been an obstacle to actually doing so.

And it’s kind of odd that I’ve been thinking that way at all, because I’ve always enjoyed the actual writing part of writing. I’ve never been one of those “author” types of writers—the ones who don’t want to write, but only to have written. I’ve always liked all the phases of writing. I like starting something new, when I have a clean slate and haven’t made any mistakes yet. I like the phase of cranking away on something, putting the words down. I like the phase of revising, getting my raw words closer to the story I’d envisioned. They’re all good. So why have I found it so hard to work on my novel these past many months?

Perhaps I have tricked myself into replaying my perpetual struggle with the things I merely wanted to get done, as opposed to the things I actually wanted to do. It’s a problem I had all through school, and then all through my career. The things I needed to get done were always the hardest.

Since I quit working a regular job, I discovered that I am way more productive when I do the things I want to do and put off the things I just want to get done. This makes some things problematic—the taxes come to mind—but overall it’s been an effective strategy.

I have other thoughts about trying to be more productive this summer—this actually started out to be another “daily routine” post—but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

For the rest of this morning, I’ll just see if I can quit worrying about finishing my novel, and instead spend some time working on it. And maybe squeeze in a run, along with some strength training.

Monomaniacal multitasking

I’ve long struggled to balance the need to be somewhat monomaniacal (in order to complete a large project) and the need to perform at least the bare minimum necessary tasks of everyday living. This struggle is made all the harder by the realization that multitasking is a terrible strategy for getting things done.

So, I was interested in the recent post by J.D. Roth, Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation, which argues that there are two kinds of people: Those who can achieve a moderate balance versus those who lurch from excess to excess unless they go for a zero option with regard to the things they’re prone to overdo. Of course, it immediately made me think of my recent conversation with my doctor about how addiction was the right model for thinking about diet and weight loss.

More than that, though, it made me feel pretty good about how things are going for me right now. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling like I’ve found a pretty good balance between productivity and fitness. I’m getting my writing done, and I’m getting my exercise in. Rather than finding myself doomed to lurch from regular exercise (and no writing) to lots of writing (but no exercise), I’m having pretty good success with a schedule that includes both.

I’ve been working my way toward this for a long time. As far back as 2008 I wrote Being Routinely Creative, where I argue that rather than constraining your creativity, having a firm schedule protects the time you need for creative pursuits. It took me a while to find that post, because I had been conflating it with the even earlier 2007 post Scheduling Time versus Scheduling Tasks, where I make a related point praising the value of blocking out chunks a time (as opposed to the then-recent time management fad where you instead organize your work around lists of “next actions”).

One key for me has been the realization (really, the re-realization, because I’ve known this for a long time too), that the writing has to come early in the day. Once I’ve started writing—once I’ve gotten my brain in the story space—I can take a break for exercise (or whatever), and then return to writing later in the day. Starting with exercise is much less effective. After exercise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which blunts my urge to be productive. I’m also often tired. And, if I’ve had to go out to exercise (such as to the Fitness Center or the Savoy Rec Center), it seems only reasonable to run an errand or two on the way home, which has the effect of postponing the start of writing even further. The result, far too often, is no writing at all.

One concern I have is that the block of time that I’m protecting for my writing falls right in the middle of the early morning hours when it’s cool enough to exercise outdoors during the hot days of summer. But I can’t work up much worry. At this point in the winter, I positively yearn for a long afternoon too hot for vigorous exercise.

Oh—and this post would not be complete without a shout-out to Jackie, who performs so many of the necessary tasks of everyday living for both of us, freeing me up to do far more of my creative work than would otherwise be possible. (And who somehow does it while also doing her own creative work.)

Non-weekly training schedules

I got a great comment on my previous post (thanks Ilana!), and started to reply in a comment there, but realized that I was straying into something that I wanted to talk in a post—training cycles that aren’t a multiple of 7 days.

Rereading my post, I see that it does look like my only runs are my long run and my fast run. That’s not the case, though. I try to include two or three easy runs each week as well.

In years past, my training schedule was pretty ordinary. Each week would include a long run and a fast run, each followed by a rest day. The other three days would each be a chance for an easy run. I found that I could just about maintain my fitness if I ran three times a week, but that I had to run four or five times a week if I wanted to improve either my speed or my endurance.

This summer my training routine has been complexificated by these very long walks I’ve been doing. It turns out that I need about two days to recover from a walk that pushes beyond the farthest I’ve ever walked before. Adding a long walk and one or two recovery days to my usual schedule pushes it out to a 9 or 10 day cycle, instead of a 7-day cycle.

The obvious thing to do would be to create a 9-day cycle—something like this: long walk, rest day, easy run, easy run, long run, rest day, easy run, fast run, rest day. One obstacle to that is that the various tracking tools I’m aware of all provide summaries for weekly periods, not for 9-dayly periods. (If you know of an exercise tracking tool that can produce useful summaries for training cycles of arbitrary length, let me know.)

So, I’m just winging it as far as a training schedule goes. Since it became clear that we wouldn’t get to Kalamazoo for the Kal-Haven trail walk this summer (we’re now hoping to do it next summer), we’ve eased up a bit on lengthening our very long walks, although we’re still planning to do 17 miles shortly. At these distances, it seems like doing each “even longer” walk ought to happen only every other week (with the long walk on the alternate weeks being comfortably within our established capability).

Not one of the busy people

All my life, starting in childhood and continuing through college, my career as a software engineer, and my career since then as a full-time writer, some of my friends and acquaintances have been busy. They were always hard to schedule anything with, because they were always already scheduled to attend Junior Achievers or to volunteer at the soup kitchen or to meet up with the group they’re joining for a trip abroad or whatever.

I, on the other hand, was not busy. That made it possible to schedule things with these guys, because if they could find a clear spot on their calendar, odds were it was free on my calendar too.

I generally found that to be okay, although sometimes I’d feel a bit taken advantage of. (In particular, when I had to move stuff that I’d planned to do, simply because it was at least possible to adjust my schedule, whereas theirs had no adjustablity.)

In what I now think was an odd reaction, when I was younger I felt kind of jealous of these guys. Sometimes I even went so far as to fill up my own schedule, so I could be one of the busy guys. I think I was just reacting to the fact that everything ended up having to revolve around them, and felt like at least sometimes everything ought to revolve around me.

I’ve since changed my mind. Not being busy is vastly preferable. Plus I no longer feel taken advantage of, because I’ve largely given up trying to do stuff with the busy folks.

Starting way back when I was in high school, I noticed that these unadjustible schedules could suddenly develop adjustability when the right opportunity came along. I mean, sure, if you’re invited to accept the Nobel Prize, of course you clear your schedule. But it didn’t take an invitation for dinner at the White House for these people to shuffle around their schedules. Faced with any sufficiently exciting opportunity, their schedule would suddenly develop some of that hitherto unavailable adjustability.

So, many years ago, I started letting it be a little test. Was spending time with me sufficiently exciting to produce a little schedule adustibility?

I don’t think I’m a jerk about it. Everybody has some immovable items in their schedule—that’s fine. But when so many items on someone’s schedule are immovable that it becomes difficult to make a plan, I become doubtful.

Writing a whole post about it may make it seem like I pay more attention to this than I actually do. In fact, I scarcely think about it at all any more. I pay no attention to whether the busy folks schedules are more adjustable for others than they are for me. (I did briefly, when I first noticed the phenomenon, but that was long ago.)

I just spend more time with people who are easy to schedule time with, and less time with people who are busy. And I make sure that my own schedule has enough adjustability in it that other people can schedule time with me.