It was midnight. I couldn’t sleep. And what I wanted more than anything was to skip ahead six hours so that I could just start my Monday and “get it over with.”
Writing is hard. Being a writer is harder. Sometimes you’re so tired you don’t even know your own name. Sometimes you’re so overwhelmed with deadlines and assignments and ideas that you can’t sleep — and end up wasting precious time trying to figure out what to do about it.
So many productivity and even creativity “experts” swear by morning routines. Get up, get going, get it done. #RiseAndGrind. But what if doing all the important stuff in the morning just isn’t your cup of coffee? What if the reason so many of your attempts at establishing a morning routine have failed is because you’re just not the kind of person who will benefit from one?
What if the things you do to prepare for your day ahead of time could happen the night before? And what if you’ve been going about this whole ritual thing completely backward?
It was midnight. I couldn’t sleep. But I knew I needed to do SOMETHING.
Then — as so often and so obnoxiously happens, to me at least — I accidentally discovered a strategy that has completely changed the way I write. In a good way.
As I was sitting at my desk wide awake at midnight (as you do), I knew I had at least two options. I could do what I probably should have done and crawl into bed — these days, no matter how awake I THINK I am, all it takes is my head smashing into a pillow to knock me out almost instantly. I could also try to get ahead on my work for the day, which I was at least coherent enough to recognize would have been AN AWFUL DECISION I WOULD HAVE REGRETTED.
It turned out I actually had a third option, which I will classify as something that fell between “great choice” and “worst decision of my adult life” at the time. It actually ended up being the best decision I have ever possibly made in recent history (aside from ditching the partner who wanted me to give up my writing career for reasons — we don’t need to talk about that).
That night, past midnight, seemingly wide awake with a mind running a hundred miles an hour and a completely quiet house — something I don’t get very often these days, also not something we need to discuss at the moment — I decided I wanted to try mentally preparing for the day before the day had actually, technically, started.
For at least a few years, my go-to morning activity, regardless of what my routine happened to be at the time, was to do all my mental “prep work” in the 30 to 45 minutes before I logged into my day job. I wrote in my journal, I meditated, and most importantly, I looked at everything that needed doing at some point throughout the day, wrote out my to-do list, and made sure to highlight the absolute priorities.
I’ve spent most of my life avoiding doing this kind of mental preparation at night. The worry is always that you won’t be able to sleep once you’ve looked at everything you’re going to have to do when you wake up. And for some people this is actually an issue, and this method probably won’t work for them — and that’s okay!
But after trying it on a whim, I discovered I personally had been going about my nightly routine all wrong. So I decided to change it.
The first night I did my journaling and planning right before going to bed, I had no trouble sleeping because it was late and I was beyond tired. But the next night I tried it — at a semi-reasonable hour this time — I slept well again. And again the next night.
Not only did I sleep fine — perhaps even better than usual, but that’s still up for debate — I also woke up more relaxed and prepared to tackle my to-do list than I have possibly in years. I woke up knowing exactly what was on the agenda for the day, and this completely changed everything for the better. And it continues to work in my favor.
As a writer, one of the greatest barriers to productivity is stress. A common side effect of stress in terms of productivity is disorganization. When you’re stressed, you don’t always make time to keep your desk clear, write out your to-do lists, jot down your thoughts in a journal, or take time to sit still and address your thoughts. Some people do. But others end up getting stressed about being stressed about being stressed … which is just as terrible and unhelpful as it sounds.
But creating a routine is potentially one of the most effective ways to combat this kind of stress. And it doesn’t have to be a morning routine, either. If you’re not a morning person and have accepted that nothing you try will ever change that, you can establish an “evening routine” that has the exact same positive effect on tomorrow.
How do you make an evening routine work?
- First, you make it work for you. This means it’s going to take some consistent experimenting to figure out what you need in a mental prep routine. Do you need to exercise? Write in a journal? Listen to music? Read a book? Some combination of these things? None of the above? There is no “right” or “wrong” routine. There is simply YOUR routine — the one that prepares you for tomorrow and leaves you feeling calm and optimistic (as much as possible on any given day) when you wake up in the morning.
- Make it relaxing. An evening routine — or any “prep” routine — should not cause unnecessary stress. If you need to write out tomorrow’s to-do list, it should be done for the purpose of having something to look at first thing when you wake up or walk into the office. If you need to exercise, it should be an activity that you enjoy — or at least enjoy having completed successfully. The point is to go to bed feeling ready for the day ahead. If you’re convinced you need to write out your to-do list before going to sleep, but doing so only makes you worry about tomorrow’s tasks, save that step for the morning. If it’s not helping, it’s hurting. Don’t force it.
- Be willing to change your routine regularly. There’s a common misconception that a routine cannot be altered once it is set. But here’s the weird thing about being a human in 2019: We get bored real fast. As much as so many people claim they hate change, we actually crave it. Doing something the same way every day is fine for a while, and great if you need to establish some kind of stability in an unstable situation. But there is going to come a time in which you will start to feel restless or bored — and if you don’t do anything about it, you run the risk of just giving up altogether. (It happens in writing — it happens in “real life” too!) So if you want your routine to work long-term, you have to be willing to change it. Change the activities you engage in. Change the location at which these activities take place. Change the order in which you complete a list of tasks. Changes can be small — the brain still counts small changes as new and exciting things, and it gets super happy about them — and so will you! Until you need to change things up again.
Writers need as much help as they can get when it comes to mental and emotional stability — predictable routines aren’t always a job perk when you’re cycling through clients or waiting for people to pay you or trying to get a book in front of a bunch of eyes or, you know, all of the above.
If you can establish some kind of routine that helps keep your head on your shoulders, you might find it much easier to get out of bed and do the work that’s in front of you. It’s not going to be easy all the time — it may never be easy at all. But there are little things you can do within your own daily life that can take some of the pressure off.
Do you have a routine or any rituals you use to get ready for the day ahead? What helps you stay on top of your writing when you’re feeling overwhelmed? Share your methods in the comments. And as always, if there is anything I can do to help you, don’t hesitate to let me know.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.