Reclaiming the magic morning hours


Writer’s block, Part II

So, it had been decided that I wasn’t too old to write another book. So what could be the problem? If there is an external reason why this book wasn’t getting written, I can either change something and write, or at least get the message and move on.

Writing a book requires more than a functioning body and brain. It requires habits, tools, and (as I have advised many a would-be writer) motivation.

My almost forgotten morning habits

For about a decade I was a full time writer. Imagine that, what luxury! During those blessed years, early morning was dedicated to the current creative project. Wake, think, write. That’s how it went, day after day, year after year. Wake, think, write. I suppose I ate breakfast, probably in bed.

One by one came changes that destroyed the simple beauty of my mornings.

When I started a business in my 60s that familiar rhythm went right down the tubes. My early morning routine became more cluttered: wake, meditate, feed the cat, tai chi, breakfast in bed —so far so good, it’s still only 6.30—but oh la la then came the smartphone and social media. To add to the confusion, I now host occasional AirBnB guests, adding more flurry to mornings. And thanks to my boot camp for the bonus years, I then developed a beautiful exercise routine that took place, naturally, in the early mornings.

Goodness knows how I managed to spit out the occasional book. My last novel took a very long time to write, which only makes it harder. My writing behavior was chaotic. I’d create plans that changed from week to week — I would vow to spend Thursdays at the National Library, or write after lunch (daft), or write on Saturdays, or stay in the country for a few days. None of these habits ever stuck. Mornings are better. Mornings happen every day.

Arresting the smart phone saboteur

My smart phone perpetrated the deadliest, most pervasive sabotage. It didn’t just disrupt my mornings: it was disrupting my brain. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? I’ll confess to my own folly, confident that I’m not alone in this. For you it may be a tablet that lures your attention, but same reason: the internet and all who sail in her.

I had been squandering that precious early morning time by diving into the iPhone at breakfast or even earlier. Sometimes even before meditating. Now that is weird, like getting a fix before rehab. What would I check in the morning? Some, no, many of the following: messages, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC news, Stuff, news apps of Japan and Korea, The Daily podcast, Facebook, comments on my blog, other blogs, the weather, earthquakes, meet-ups, and yesterday’s step count. (Over 24 hours I might use 30 applications, including books, podcasts, email, videos, browsers, notes, maps, and games.)

Social media snuck up on me

Social media is a prime culprit, and it contributes to an endless jabber and jumble of news, flinging handfuls of trivial, deep, true, fake, wanted, unwanted, personal and global information in our face. I had been paddling in the shallows, just the way Nicholas Carr predicted.[1]

Worse for the mind is the fact that all this activity was merely consuming content, not doing original work, not producing. Those very words—consume, content, produce—have gained new meanings with the rise of the internet. They used to puzzle me, but now I get it: content means stuff, any old stuff that you put into a container such as a blog or app or website or magazine. Quality is irrelevant. Some people produce stuff and stick it in containers. Other people suck it up, they consume it. Some stuff is good stuff, but we don’t need it more than once a day.

Whenever I picked up my iPhone, I stopped thinking and started sucking. This had been obvious for years, had I cared to see it. Now, finally, I looked at my iPhone and saw the physical manifestation of writer’s block, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been using it.

I’ve kept my Facebook page, Rachel McAlpine Books: that still matters, but I’ve disabled my personal Facebook timeline. Sorry, my Friends, I won’t see your posts any more.

WordPress matters to me: my blog and the blogs of others. But blogging, though “creative”, is fragmented and unsatisfying compared with a bigger work. So that drops back in the queue for my attention.

News finds you: no need to graze

I’ve unsubscribed from news sites. I got addicted to the New York Times when Trump was elected, that’s a fact. But you don’t need to actively hunt for news. You get news by default, you can’t avoid it. If something big happens, people will tell you. Now I get news on the kitchen radio, and I read the New Scientist and local newspapers in cafes. Later in the day I sometimes sample a more reflective article instead of the thrill of endless updates.

My job is not sucking: it’s writing. For the last three weeks I have changed my habits, writing for two hours every morning. When it’s reading time, I read a book. (The iPhone’s handy for that.) Wish me luck with the new regime.

[1] Nicholas Carr The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0


27 thoughts on “Reclaiming the magic morning hours

  1. toutparmoi says:

    Well done. Yes, social media is persuasive and invasive. I’m going to have to get a lot more disciplined with mine.

    1. It’s like wrestling with aloe vera.

      1. toutparmoi says:

        Ah. Now that I haven’t tried.

      2. Su Leslie says:

        What a wonderful phrase 🙂

      3. Aaargh!

  2. lifecameos says:

    It all sounds good, I hope it works for you long term. I leave my computer off altogether until late afternoon, have greatly reduced visits to facebook, and use my phone for texts only – well the occasional call too. I have no ipad. I was feeling that I wanted to live and be doing, as well as writing, for a good part of the day. So far it is working for me.

    1. Live and be doing: you are so right. The shallows creep up on us, but you spotted the tide coming in! Well done.

      1. lifecameos says:

        Thank you.

  3. alison41 says:

    Well done, that Writer! yo9u have identified the problem. Some years ago I devised a Personal Rule for Facebook: only visit once or twice a day, and only read the first 5 items. That approach stopped me vanishing down the rabbit hole for hours. Worked for me.

    1. I like that rule, so simple and clear.

  4. lifecameos says:

    PS. I also love the picture of the cat on the balcony, enjoying the sunset.

    1. She joins me every morning in tai chi. Well, she is present.

  5. Thanks, Rachel, for this analysis and reminder. I, too, have let my precious mornings be eaten up by social media and email. Time to set some boundaries and make sure I use my times of greatest vitality for writing and creative pursuits. I can do the online stuff during the “slump” periods. I suspect this change is easier said than done….

    1. I think the opposite: no sooner said than done! This new habit is infectious. We may need a booster one day — then maybe you will remind me, Donna.

  6. cedar51 says:

    I keep altering my schedule as well – but also where I create things – I had wanted this room to work, but the amount of stuff needed to create say an assemblage meant “too small” – then I needed a table in here, again space too small… then I bought a new laptop, and it wouldn’t work where I had it before…
    At the moment, all over the place, although before I drifted away to retreat – I did tidy up big time, so some spaces less…or is that more.

    1. Somehow things fall into place and you get going again.

  7. The only thing I’m writing these days is a blog, but my morning routine is to head for the coffee. I take it to my desk where I revise unpublished posts while I wake up. Then I tackle new posts. By the time I’m finished with morning coffee I’ve put in a couple of hours on the blog. Then I eat, dress, exercise, and take time for social media. It works because I’m such an early riser.

    1. That sounds systematic, and any system is a good system if you stick with it, right? But now I’m wondering what time you rise…5am?

      1. Often I do wake very early. Price of being old – or benefit.

  8. Roy says:

    I liked the observation about news finding you. Maybe you won’t be the FIRST to know and then be that lucky person who gets to tell others, but you’ll know. And besides, unless you’re an activist, nothing in the news will alter what you’re going to do that day–and while I have nothing against activists, I just don’t have the energy.

    1. I can see you get it, Roy. Life calms down with this outlook, doesn’t it?

  9. Ally Bean says:

    I remember reading a how-to-live-your-life book by Marilyn vos Savant, the person said to have the highest IQ ever. In this book she said exactly what you’re doing– that is, ignore the news because it’ll find you. She also suggested not reading or listening to weather forecasts because you could just stick your head outside to find out what the weather is. I’m good at letting the news find me, but still admit to being a fan of weather forecasts. Of course, I’m not a genus, so what do you expect?

    1. Aha! I certainly appreciate a hint about the weather especially long-range, and especially here in New Zealand where it changes radically twice a day.

  10. Wendy says:

    Ah, so that’s how you do it! 🙂

    1. It’s working nicely so far. Oh and I don’t beat myself up if I miss a morning.

  11. Aunt Beulah says:

    it’s insidious the way social media grabs our attention and holds it; and you expertly analyzed the way it wastes our time. I limit my browsing of whatever — everything but wordpress — to fifteen minutes in the morning and then again in the evening. I dwell in blogland about a half hour every day after I eat lunch. I started building this habit last winter and it now serves me well.

    1. Habits! How I love them. You’ve got this problem beat.

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