Lightbulb by Alexas_Fotos at Pixabay

Working With Inspiration’s Schedule

Creative professionals often talk about how you can’t wait for inspiration, and this is true. You have to work even when you don’t have inspiration if you really want to complete a project.

And what of the times when you do have inspiration, but you can’t devote that time to your creative project?

I mentioned a few weeks back that ten o’clock is when I am most productive.  It’s when I reliably get a rush of ideas coupled with the energy to write them down—key ingredients for that magical state called flow.  Sadly, because I work what our society has designated “full time,” I spend day after day of ten o’clocks stuck in a cubicle, being paid to focus on something else as ideas gush out from between my ears and pool into puddles all over my desk.

“Carry a notebook!” is one tip that you’ll often hear, and I do that. At ten o’clock, though, it’s easier to open up an email to myself and take 15 minutes or so to sketch out my ideas, if only so they’ll leave me alone and I can return to what I’m supposed to be doing.  But even apart from my  professional obligation, this is my personal gold, and I’m desperate to catch as much of it as I can before it gets away, in the hopes that I can work with it later.


Unfortunately, by the time I get home, the gold has long since stopped flowing.  I’m often exhausted and reluctant to stare at a computer screen any longer, though I sometimes try.  As I write this on September 13 at 9 p.m. sharp, I’m actually piecing together some notes that I jotted down some days ago, but I’m pretty tired, and it’s not really clicking.  Meanwhile, my email inbox is overflowing with seeds of post material that I have the desire but not the energy to weave and polish in the evenings.

This forces me recognize that I’ll never succeed in my goal of being a functioning creative writer if I can’t regain control of my ten o’clocks on more than just one to two days a week.

For me, that is a terrifying thought.


While studying Russian a while back, I came across a reading in the New Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas J. Brown that talked about the daily life of composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky.  Here, I typed it out in Russian, because Russian is fun:

Он вставал в восьмом часу утра, до девяти занимался английском языком и читал. В половине десятого приступал к работе. Работал Петр Ильич до часу дня. Час обедал, а затем ровно два часа гулял. Гулял обязательно один, так как во время прогулок почти всегда сочинял музыку. С пяти до семи Петр Ильич снова работал. После работы гулял или играл на фортепьяно. В восемь часов подавался ужин. После ужина Чаиковский проводил время гостями, а если гостей не было, читал. В одиннадцать шел в свою комнату, писал письма и перед сном снова читал.

For those not quite so pumped about code-switching, here’s how Tchaikovsky spent his days:

He got up at eight, and until ten, he studied English and read.  At half past ten, he got started with his work, and continued until 1 p.m.  That’s when he ate lunch, and then took a two hour walk.  He necessarily walked alone, because he almost always composed music while he was walking. From five to seven, Pyotr Ilich (i.e., Tchaikovsky) worked some more. After work, he walked or played the piano. At eight o’clock, dinner was served.  After dinner, Tchaikovsky spent time with guests, or if there were no guests, read.  At eleven he went to his room, wrote letters, and before sleep, he read.

Wow.  This would be pretty much my dream daily routine, and it’s close to what I do when I have a full weekend day to myself: get up earlyish, read; start working when ideas start rolling in (reaching peak velocity at about 9:50, almost like clockwork); then write until hunger interferes, usually at about one.  Next comes physical activity, generally swimming, at which point ideas start replenishing themselves.  (Max is actually making me a waterproof notebook for this very purpose.  Isn’t Max great?  Yes, he is.)  Then more working on the project of the day.  After that, I don’t mind doing something different, which usually means cooking, though bonus points if someone else is making dinner.  And then social time in the evening, or back to the bookies and relaxing (which actually usually means doing dishes and other chores).  Evenings, alas, simply aren’t naturally productive for me. While one has to work around that sometimes, the fact that other times are conducive to magic productivity adds a layer of frustration.

This made me wonder how similar the schedule of other people with a innate, powerful creative impulse would be to this pattern, if only those people had such control over their time.

Then, several months after reading of Tchaikovsky’s schedule, I stumbled across an article on the Huffington Post about the behaviors and habits of creative people.  While the whole thing was easy to relate to, one part relates directly to the topic at hand:

[Highly creative people] work the hours that work for them.

Many great artists have said that they do their best work either very early in the morning or late at night. Vladimir Nabokov started writing immediately after he woke up at 6 or 7 a.m., and Frank Lloyd Wright made a practice of waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. and working for several hours before heading back to bed. No matter when it is, individuals with high creative output will often figure out what time it is that their minds start firing up, and structure their days accordingly.

Ah, so this is a noted phenomenon.  I’m not nuts!  Or at least, I fit a nut profile.  Hooray!

Side note: perhaps some of you think that we “creative” people (oh geez, that’s such a culturally loaded word; I mean it as neutrally as possible) are just “trying to be weird,” but we generally don’t have to try.  So it’s actually nice to see that we are, in fact, not wholly “original.”  Solidarity forvever!



So, creative friends, I pose the question: what is to be done?  For those of you who get that it’s not hyperbole when I say I really must do this, as fervently as I must eat (and eating gets pushed aside as long as my blood sugar holds out), what do you do about it?  We can’t all be as fortunate as Tchaikovsky.  Some creative types are able to make a living selling their idea puddles, but many of us have to work 9-5, or if we’re not doing so, we spend our time looking for an opportunity to spend our time working 9-5.  Others are parents. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have kids; the question of time weighs into that calculus, though I’ve heard of parents who somehow, with supreme determination, make their creative lives work.

This is part of why I question the 40 hour week overall, but until we succeed in altering the established paradigm, those of us who have this extra need in life—the need to create—have to make do.  Even a little more time, or a little more freedom to arrange our schedules would help.

Personally, though it’s a bit scary to step out of the prescribed career track (especially for anything other than child-rearing demands), I’m thinking about asking my boss if I could arrange an alternative work schedule for at least a couple days a week.  In my dream world, rather than getting a raise, I’d prefer to keep my current salary and have them slowly shave off hours.  That, of course, is not what employers prefer, as we accumulate more and more expertise in our 9-to-5 existence and become more valuable in the office.

So it seems that, as all people really driven to create already know, there will be a trade-off somewhere.  How have you managed that?  How do you make space for creative projects?   Have you been able to change the world around you to any small or great effect?

In the meantime, I’ll let you know how my efforts to exert control over my daily routine pan out.

Image credits: Light bulb header by Alexas_Fotos; notebook by Unsplash; writer by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, used under a Creative Commons 0 license through Pixabay.


6 thoughts on “Working With Inspiration’s Schedule

  1. You know what’s weird? Ever since I started doing Nano, I find it super easy to shift everything aside in November and focus on that. I end up starting just after midnight on the first, writing for an hour, going to bed, getting up and writing first thing in the morning. I am usually close to the day’s word count goal by then, so the rest of the day I work on it when I get an idea or something hits me – and it happens a lot during Nano. But I always do the before bed and right as I get up writing.

    Then Nano ends … and so does this schedule! For some strange/stupid reason, I just can’t keep it up outside of November. I’ve tried, but I end up staring at the screen and doing nothing. It’s like the actual event of Nano being on somehow kicks my inspiration into gear and only then lol. Maybe it’s the knowledge other people are also writing like maniacs during this time … I don’t know. All I know is there is *something* that really kicks me into super productive gear.

    Outside of Nano I basically write whenever I have an idea. I usually end up doing most of my writing work in the afternoons, which I would probably say is my least favourite time (but obviously not since I do it lol). It’s actually becoming a problem that I can’t seem to sit down and write a novel outside of November, since in self publishing it pays off to release multiple books a year, and I seem to only be able to bang out a draft once a year. (I tend to spend the rest of the time editing/re-writing that draft or one from a previous year).

    I think part of this is that feeling that a creative pursuit isn’t as worthy as something else – like a job. Granted, mine is basically “whenever they call me” which doesn’t help with its random scheduling. But there’s this feeling outside of November that working on a book (even though I publish them!) is … like a treat or a fun thing and not “real work”. And maybe that’s why I find it hard to schedule myself. I can justify once a year as “this contest I do” and I do it far faster than 30 days anyway, so it’s not really taking up toooooo much time. I hate that thinking so much, that the creative pursuit isn’t as worthy of my time, but I know that’s in the back of my mind. Just a fear that people think I’m being frivolous and not doing something worthwhile with my time.


    1. Interesting, Jen! It seems like you have an annual cycle of inspiration while I have a daily cycle. I suspect our own habits and personal sources of motivation have given rise to this, or perhaps reinforced a natural tendency. You’ve made me wonder if one of the reasons that Nano never appealed to me was that I’ve always only had evenings available to me, and that was never a good time to me — though when I was a teenager, the evenings were better writing times for me.

      I think you’re absolutely right in that a creative pursuit isn’t deemed to be as worthy as a job in our culture. One of the blog posts I have in the works touches on the idea of external validation, so I’ll refrain from going on about that now. But perhaps Nano serves as an external source of validation, condoning and encouraging it in a way it’s not during the rest of the year. I wonder if there’s a way to find other sources of encouragement outside of that time. I also feel like it’s a huge challenge — there are so many other worthwhile things we should be doing with our time. Work is obviously the big one, and then there are also friendships to maintain, obligations to those friends and to family, ordinary life maintenance…it can be hard to feel justified working on writing.


  2. Oooh, what a topic. (I just found a more recent blog entry you linked on Facebook and discovered this place! So I’m backreading a bit now.)

    I am lucky, as creative-with-a-day-job goes; I have always been a night owl. I used to do most of my writing late at night (probably 10 PM to 3 AM, back when I used to stay up to 3 AM…) and now work pretty consistently in the evening after my job lets out (so usually something like 6:30 to 8:30 PM) and then eat a late dinner when I get home. But even on weekends, if I have no “need” to get moving early (ie meeting a friend for brunch and then writing, which is pretty frequent) I will usually find myself getting started with creative stuff between 4 and 5 PM. So my weekday schedule doesn’t quite match my ideal, but is a closer fit.

    That said, I also think some of it is habit and planning. I decide what days will be writing days at the beginning of the week and I stick to that, come hell or high water. I have routines — even just the subway ride from my office to the coffee shop (or the walk from my apartment to the coffee shop) gets me started clearing my mind. I can order a drink, boot up my laptop, play one round of a game on my phone, and then I dig in. I’ve been doing that 3-4 days a week now for *years*, so when I step into the coffee shop, my brain goes, “Ah, yes, time to work.” (I also begin by prewriting on paper to help organize my thoughts.)

    (Also maybe worth noting; now that I’m at the copyedit phase on a project, which doesn’t require quite the same intensity and focus, I’m doing it at home – between 9 and 11 PM. And then I’m in bed by midnight.)

    That said, while I don’t tend to email myself during the day, I do have a Google doc where I stash ideas and brainstorms, so that’s pretty similar. 🙂 (I like the google doc format because I can organize it pretty easily, and it’s accessible on my personal computer, my work computer, and my phone.) When something occurs to me, I jot it down there so I can make sure I won’t forget it later. I never go back to a lot of those notes, but on the plus side, the stuff that I can jot down and never think again is not the stuff I find worth pursuing. When I find myself opening that doc to add to the same idea thread again and again, that’s when I know I’ve got a potential winner.)

    That said, I have been thinking a lot since diving into these copyedits about what helps me be productive even with the day job. In the last few months, since I turned in the most recent draft of book two to my editor, I haven’t been productive in almost *any* aspect of my outside-of-work life. Just noodling around with words, no real writing; not going to the gym; not really cleaning my apartment (yikes). I’ve realized that when I’m at a part of my process that requires dedicating huge chunks of time, I’m more productive everywhere. (Including at my day job, for some reason.) It makes me spend a lot more time examining my schedule and how much bandwidth I really have in any given week, and prioritize how I’ll spend it. So in that way I think we might be different. I thrive on a pretty rigid, enforced structure and routine, which is not the case for everyone!


    1. Thanks for looking through the back issues, and for chiming in on this thread!

      The power of routine is absolutely important. I have completed one novel draft, and that was through a dedication to writing 750 words per day in the evening every single day until it was done. That was while I was teaching in Japan, which was a job that was less draining in key ways than my current job — namely, that it didn’t involve sitting at a computer all day, and also because the commute was short and pleasant (a 10-15 minute bike ride). (I want to emphasize that part about less draining in a key way, because I would otherwise not imply that teaching is not draining, even JET Program teaching, which is usually much less draining than what professional classroom teachers put out every day. But I’m digressing!)

      So I’ve been trying a little bit these days to schedule writing evenings, but the main hurdle to me for doing this is still that even if I do so, the quality just is not as good as the stuff I write on weekend mornings (when getting up and writing both Saturday and Sunday, usually from 10 to 1, is now a habit). Habit plus natural rhythm combined is a powerful mix — and that’s what I’d like to try to achieve!

      This means that brunch is an unfortunate institution for me, sadly. I recently conveyed to some friends that writing in the morning is a habit I’m really trying to stick to, and they are fully supportive, which was really lovely and affirming! But I haven’t fully conveyed that by “morning” I actually mean, y’know, until 1, which means not actually being able to be anywhere until 3 at the earliest. I’m trying to promote dinner as a fun alternative, but it’s not really catching on.

      But then we come to something that I expect you’re fully familiar with, given your dedicated schedule – the ability to say “no” to things. “Sorry, but that’s my writing time.” That’s the trick to making a habit, for me. The question is, what is the cost of saying “no” to various things? Saying no to exercise after 8 hours in a cubicle? Saying no to friends’ invitations to brunch? What about saying no to a standard working schedule? That’s what I’d love to do, if I can ever swing it. In the meantime, we do what we must. What I want to do is try to flex life in ways I might not have realized it can flex!

      Oh, and I’ve had that very same thing happen with my notebook and other notes to myself — if something keeps popping up, then I know I’ve got to write it!


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