Good Morning, Sunshine: Distracted Writer Habit #1

My electric kettle, my friend
My electric kettle, my friend

Any other early risers out there? Can I get a shout out? (Or maybe a whisper so we don’t wake everyone else)?

Last year, when I had a full-time day job, I got up every morning around 4:30 a.m. to start my writing day (okay, sometimes it was more like 4:38 after the snooze button). I’d work until 6:00, when I would get ready for work while my husband tried to pry the kids out of bed for school.
It was a tough gig, I’m not going to lie, especially at first. But I eventually mastered the art of going to bed (read: collapsing) before 10 p.m. so I could peel myself out of bed before 5 a.m. I put a kettle and instant coffee in my office, and I have a small light on a timer, so that I’m not blindly bumbling into everything and waking the whole household.
After a couple of weeks of staring blankly at the screen and drooling until time for work, I began to find that the quiet hour-plus before my family woke up was a very productive time for me. I often got 800-1200 words written in the quiet of the morning. Eventually, the hardest part became stopping at six to get ready!
When I lost my job in January, I thought maybe I’d try to keep the habit of rising early, even though I had more hours to myself while the kids were at school. But within a few weeks, especially once I decided not to look for another day job right away, human nature kicked in. I found that I’d lost my motivation to get up earlier than necessary.
I have all day, I’d think as I pounded the alarm clock with my fist for the seventh or eighth time. What difference does this hour make? So I did the sensible thing and quit setting an alarm to go off when I was NOT going to get up anyway, and went back to what most people would think of as a normal, human schedule. It gave me more time to watch TV with my husband in the evenings and made getting up in the morning far less painful.
But then something else happened. In the same way that water always finds its level, when your days are “free,” the universe will fill them for you. Without my steady paycheck, we no longer had the budget to hire a housekeeper,* and we cut back on the kids’ after school care. Where my husband and I had been scrambling together to accomplish household chores, pay bills, and make administrative phone calls with our matching workdays — these things fell back into my court more and more often.
*Let’s be clear: our house is NOWHERE near as clean as it was when we had help keeping it that way. I don’t clean regularly. But when things get to a particular level of grossness, it’s usually me who finally whips out the bleach and scrub brush to keep our house from becoming a giant petri dish.
It makes sense, too. I am at home. Technically, I have time. I don’t have to find an empty conference room to make a private phone call or pay a medical bill. When the kids get sick, it’s far more sensible for the person who works on her laptop, with long-ranging and generally flexible deadlines, to stay home with them. I don’t have to worry that my boss will judge me for cutting out early to pick up the kids. I am the boss, and I judge myself for lots of other stuff instead.
Over time, however, all these little things add up and began to eat away at my workday. When you add that writing is a profession about wrangling creative energy, little household and family tasks can be big procrastination tools, too. If I’m not careful, the wide open space of a day at home can sometimes produce less than I used to write for 30 minutes on my lunch break.
So this week I decided to re-start my early morning habit. Like it or not, I work best when my writing is the first thing I think about every morning — before the conversations and complications of the day begin. Before I’ve checked Facebook or listened to the radio or fought with anyone about whether their shirt and shorts match or if they absolutely have to wear socks to school today. [Answers: no and yes. Giving in on the first one, standing firm against foot fungus.]

For me, it’s not just about the hours I have available to write. It’s about making my writing a priority, and that sometimes starts before I do!

This is the first post in a series of my personal tips for other writers and creative professionals who have trouble keeping their busy brains focused (and those who don’t).
Stay tuned for more! And, if you would like to be notified whenever I post a new blog for writers, simply subscribe to my newsletter and check the box for “I’m a… WRITER.”
Happy creating!

MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a distracted writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. She blogs erratically with writing advice, random observations, and reflections on raising very loud kids and dogs. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

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