Tag Archives: sleep

Crack of dawn

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Set my alarm for 4:40am this morning and actually managed to fight the urge to go back to bed. I’m a little groggy now at midday, but still happy for the effort.

I’ve written before about creativity being a somewhat finite resource, at least on a daily basis. The thing is, I’m not sure I really believe that. Yesterday I had a whole day of fairly repetitive, meticulous work, and when I got home I thought that the several hour block of time I had would be more than sufficient to write 1200 words .

I barely got to 250. My mind was mud. I was tired, and just not in the right head-space. Thankfully I was at least able to come to this realization quickly, rather than powering through which is my usual method for dealing with these problems. I got to bed at a reasonable hour, and woke up at an unreasonable one.

In terms of physical tiredness, it was probably about the same, at least until the first few swigs of my Venti Americano. But there’s something about my early morning brain that is just better able to string sentences together. Before another day of meticulous work, I spent my day happily typing away on my tablet and eating a cranberry-orange scone, and before I knew it I was comfortably over the 1200 word target.

Some of this may be due to the type of work. Most of my original composition is blog posts during the day. The majority of my evening time is given over to research, reading, and programming, which is a little less sensitive to my head-space. Perhaps if I built up the mental muscles again this late night timing wouldn’t be a problem, we all go through cycles of this, but I also think there’s something to the “first fruits” idea.

It’s easy to let work or the things we have to do be put ahead of the more creative projects we want to do. We think, sometimes rightly, that sleep is a more valuable resource than time, and that it’s better to have 8 hours sleep and to write in the evening, than six hours and to write in the morning. But it does make it easier to get through the more “worky” parts of my day when I know that I have also accomplished something toward my own goals. This may mean that when I get home all I’ll want to do is veg out and watch TV, but I still got something done.

There’s a saying, I think it’s from the UK, that “a change is as good as a rest.” Often this is said with irony, but in the case of this morning at least, it was quite true.

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Recharging The Batteries

As you may have guessed, life’s a little hectic right now. I’m in the middle of some significant writing projects at home, and a new software development project at work. Last night after a full day of banging up against a new platform, I worked until 10:30pm at night finishing rewrites (with maybe an hour break for dinner). It was a very productive day, and that can be energizing, but it can also be exhausting.

So how do we writers live to fight another day?

Comfortable Environment: At work I have a cube, and kind of a crappy chair, but I’ve personalized the space as best as possible with various tchotchkes and pictures. I also tend to post the covers of my current projects as a reminder of where my true passions lie. At home it’s a little better. Last night I was curled up in a favorite recliner with a blanket over my legs, the record player on, and my laptop balanced on a nice lap desk my wife bought for me. Add hot chocolate and I’ve got it made. Sure it’s still work, but at least it’s in the most relaxing way possible. The danger of course is that I might fall asleep.

Go to bed: Eight hours is kind of a pipe dream, but I can get a solid seven if I go to bed on time. Too many days cut down to six hours will harm my productivity and general mood, even if it feels right in the moment. I’m a natural night owl, so I have to do things to help this goal. The 50 Peanuts strips before bed has actually been really good for this. It’s not tablet reading, so it’s easier on the eyes. It’s amusing without being too engaging. and it puts me in a good mood. Don’t check e-mail late (a rule I often break). If it’s something you can’t deal with immediately

Do something else: Distractions can be a good thing. They get your mind thinking in a different way, or just let your mind rest. I’m not one of these people who thinks any particular distraction is bad. I like TV and comic books, as well as video games and playing with my dogs. I think too much of any activity can be a bad thing, including work. And, if you’re writing about life experiences, sometimes you have to go out and have some experiences.

Talk to people: Hey, I know. I’m an introvert too. But talking to people can get you out of your bubble, and maintain important relationships. I never want the people in my life to think I’m ignoring them when I work long hours. This may mean not always following the impulse to talk about your work, or act on every idea you have. A surreptitious notebook or tablet file is a good way to stow away ideas for later.

Remember that people like to talk about your writing up to a point: If all you talk about is one topic, whatever it is, then eventually people will start to find you annoying, and it will narrow your perspective. Right now it can seem like there are really only a couple of things happening that I have to talk about, and maybe that’s true. In that case, ask questions, and find out what is going on with other people.

I better at some of these on some days than others. But they’re good goals to shoot for.

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Getting out of a stall

The last couple of days have not been the most productive. On the one hand I did manage to make some decisions about final changes to Surreality and have even started the formatting for both the eBook and print editions. On the other I haven’t managed to write more than a couple hundreds words a day on the new book.

I’m enjoying the work but I’m used to the more open sky country of 800-1000 words a day (or more). I’d like to blame some of this on my dogs: Murphy who would probably explode if he wasn’t sitting in someone’s lap for more than half an hour, and Riley who seems determined to bark at every perceived threat. But the truth is, I just haven’t gotten a groove going yet. And if anything, my dogs are a restoring force, enforcing calm and simpler thinking when I rile myself up. I tend to frustrate myself by thinking I should be at a certain word count by now, that a chapter isn’t long enough, or that maybe I should wake up early and give my first energies to the project.

These are not the most productive impulses.

So how do you pull yourself out of a situation like this?

Write what you’re thinking about, not what you should be writing – Writing doesn’t have to be a linear activity. My problem usually isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s making them wait. If your brain wants to go in a certain direction, maybe you should let it.

Remove barriers to entry – Part of my problem is my computer. I’m frustrated with AbiWord in Linux and the problem’s it’s having with formatting and catching up to changes. I chose this method because I wanted to get some use out of my old netbook, and because it’s lighter and less distracting than my other machines. But maybe I just need to go with what works and stick to Word.

Write something – Forward progress is still progress. That can be word count or revision. Making the text better will always help in the long run. The rewards of more words will come soon enough.

Get some sleep – Part of my problem is that I’m tired and a little frustrated. Sleep and taking care of yourself solves most of those problems.

Have a little fun – Give yourself a reward for a hard day’s work. Don’t just write and go to bed. You need something to help you cool down and decompress. Catch up on some reading.

I know these feelings come and go, that writing can be a very week to week activity even for those of us who keep a regular schedule. When you’re in a slump, it can feel like you’ll never write another word again, but those feelings go away. They always do as long as you keep writing.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

I’d say one of the things I’m already learning in my 30’s is the truth of an old programmer’s adage: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

When you’re younger you can do pretty much anything you want and get away with it. I’m not saying that drinking too much caffeine, or eating too much, or not getting enough sleep don’t have an effect. You just have a better ability to power through.

Despite being a “creative” I have a very quantitative mind when it comes to this stuff. It’s hard for me to make generalized changes like “eat better” or “drink more water and less soda” without quantifiable goals, plans and known results. Ironically I like my plans clear and my results fuzzy; “I feel better” not “I lost X pounds”.

Today I started my new work schedule which is an hour later. I could tell from the way I felt during the week, and how much better I felt on weekends that I simply wasn’t getting enough sleep. And I know from my own patterns that the solution to this couldn’t be “go to sleep earlier” since pretty much no matter what I do I can’t fall asleep before 10:30pm. I may have inherited some of the Trube “gift of sleep” but so far that only seems to affect the strong desire on Sunday afternoons to take a nap. I do feel more rested and less like a narcoleptic today, and we’ll see how the siesta time in the afternoon goes.

Another change was a hard one, cut down the caffeine and limit when you drink it. Like a lot of cubicle dwellers every time I get up and walk by the coffee pot I come back with some. Sometimes it’s decaf but that’s still 4-6 cups of coffee every work day (which in terms of the actual cup unit of measure is more like 10-12). My solution, brew my own coffee at my desk. I have a little 4 cup (the unit of measure) coffee maker from my college days and I brew a full pot every morning. I try to drink it before noon and don’t drink anything but water the rest of the day (2 water bottle’s worth). I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks and find I am sleeping deeper (less waking up in the middle of the night) and I am feeling a little less high-strung. One down side is that I seem to be having more vivid dreams, not all of them pleasant but that may due to other kinds of input (shows I watch, news I hear, media I consume).

But what seems to have changed in my late 20’s and 30’s is that these kinds of changes actually have an immediate positive effect, or if I go the other way, an immediate bad effect. This might sound like a bad thing but actually it’s kind of helpful. Some of the stuff we do to be healthy can seem theoretical. At best it seems to effect only one arbitrary variable and not the systemic qualitative way we feel. What’s the basic goal of life? Be well, live long, and enjoy your time. That’s going to look different for all of us but it helps to get feedback from more than just external sources.

We’ll see long run if these changes actually result in better health, but feeling better is a good start. It’s a good lesson to learn at 30 rather than 50 (though I wouldn’t have minded really learning it 5 years earlier).

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Writing Tired

Unless you are one of those mythical full time writers, chances are you’re doing a lot of your writing tired. Whether it’s after a long day’s work, or after a short night’s sleep, fitting writing into the workaday life can be tricky. Especially when you find yourself with one of those rare multi-hour blocks of time, but too tired to do work on the project you blocked out the time for.

This is the situation I find myself in at the moment. I’m sitting here in the empty sanctuary of my church with some time blocked out to work on Dust, snippets of which you may remember from a while ago on the blog. But I find myself with enough energy to work on a blog post, but not enough for new fictional composition, at least not without a little warm up.

This got me to thinking about some of the pragmatic choices authors have to make with their time, and how much energy it takes to do all the forms of writing I do in a given week. Here’s my hierarchy from “requires most energy” to “I could do this in my sleep, and have on occassion.”

(Most Energy) – 1st Draft Revision – Whether it’s picking apart sentences word by word, or re-crafting and rearranging entire scenes, revision is harder than creation. You have to keep all of the threads of the book in your head, and think about what a change made to the beginning will do the end of the book. It’s detail oriented, and can’t be done in the short bursts of regular writing, at least mostly. And 1st draft revision is when the book is most in need of retooling (in theory).

(More Energy) – Clean Rough Drafts – I’ve taken both approaches to the first draft of a story. Clean rough drafts are written with the editor in mind. You try to create less mistakes for later on by keeping an eye on bad grammar habits, and re-reading past work to make corrections as you go, and to keep consistent. This is probably more where I’m at right now with fiction composition, which is probably why I feel too tired to do it most of the time. The flurry requires less energy, but requires more clean up which is in itself a high energy task.

(Moderate Energy) – Flurry Rough Drafts – Writing 1000 words in an hour can be taxing, especially if you haven’t built up to it, but momentum tends to carry you forward till you reach your goal. And it’s the kind of writing that makes you feel really good about getting a lot done, until you go back and read it.

(Less Energy) – Blog Posts – I don’t know if it’s repetition, or the fact that I’m often just writing about what’s happened during my day, or what I’ve been thinking about but a good 400 – 600 word blog post is pretty much second nature to me at this point. If I did it every day it might be tiring, but my “Daily Show” schedule works for me, keeping me always in writing practice and in contact with all of you, while not taking too much away from other projects.

(Low Energy) – Technical Writing – Technical writing has very nearly put me to sleep on a few occasions, but since it’s done during the day, no matter what my baseline level of energy, I can always chemically enhance it with a little coffee. At night when I’m working I don’t like to drink coffee, because it’ll affect my sleep and negatively affect my energy for the next day.

(No Energy) – Repetitive Computer Tasks + Programming – I could write code any time of day, and have. The logical part of my brain must be my default setting, because I can write a fractal program till 2 in the morning, but whenever I do creative work that late, it can get really weird (which sometimes is a good thing since being tired can lower inhibitions, but that’s a whole other discussion).

I guess the point of this is that you have to take good care of yourself so you have the energy you want to write. But you also need to know where your energies are best spent. Maybe you only have blog posts in you tonight, but that will free up more energetic time for creative work later.

What’s hard to write when you are tired?

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The monkey on my back

It’s kind of a stereotype that writers (and programmers for that matter) drink a lot of coffee. Heroic amounts of coffee (and diet soda and energy drinks and red bull).

For the last month now I’ve been trying to regulate that. I was feeling tense and I felt like the quality of my sleep wasn’t as good. I was drinking anywhere between 4-5 cups of coffee, plus a couple of 20 oz diet sodas and the occasional 20 oz energy drink (though at the end as many as two, thanks Fast Start).

Zero didn’t work too well, so now I’m down to one. A cup of coffee (grande at the most) or a diet soda (12 oz at the most) and no energy drinks period. I’m feeling a little better, sleeping a little deeper, but my brain feels sluggish. I think it’s possible that one of the things that keeps me sharp and disciplined is a little liquid pick me up.

This is kind of a hard realization. There is actually some science (discussed in the book Quiet) of the effects of caffeine on creatives and introverts, but its still weird to think that part of my writing and programming talent is mental, and part of it is stimulated.

So I’m looking for the new normal. I want to feel physically better and mentally sharp. So maybe I’ll drink two cups of coffee and try not to let things get out of hand. That and maybe get some actual exercise when the weather finally gets warm, though we’re supposed to get snow again today 😦

What keeps you going throughout the day?

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The wee hours

I’m up 40 minutes later than I meant to be.

To be fair, 5 in the morning is a terrible time to start the day, especially for someone who likes to be a night owl.

Problem is during the week morning is really the only time I can get certain things done, going for a walk, breakfast that’s not at my desk, and writing the blog.

I know my friend Brian writes in the morning, and I used to think he was nuts.

Actually I still do.

There is something to be said for some times being better than others. I used to write on my lunch break at work. The problem was that writing the blog became something that interceded into my thoughts during the whole morning, which could sometimes be disruptive to productivity. There were often interruptions, and even in the best of circumstances a cubicle is not the most creative of spaces.

I tried writing at night, which is actually my preferred time to work on projects like my book, but this always felt like it was cutting into time with my wife and time to relax.

So here I am at 5 in the morning, or this morning 5:40.

Thing is I kinda like doing something like this even though I can be miserable and tired until I get that first sip of coffee. I have this romantic vision of the writer that years of practical experience has yet to shake. I like the idea of staying up all night to work on a project, or going to a coffee shop in the wee hours of the morning, the few times one can be alone in a hectic lifestyle.

But in all those years in college when I stayed up til all hours of the night, I was never as productive as I am now, waking up at the ass crack of dawn. Something in my being fights the notion of driving to work and the dark, and arriving home in the same dark, but writing alone in the dark is somehow perfect.

It’s calm, and quiet, and though you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous fellow I am, I need that quiet time.

Time to write, think, pray, and give my time first thing in the morning to the thing I really want to be doing. It’s worth being tired later to have started the day right.

Now if only I can get to bed a little earlier…

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