On changing my creative process

For the second week in a row I completely screwed up my times for the first Couch-to-5k workout. I found it odd that I was practically begging for mercy at the end of today's run when just last week I was breezing through the routine. It turns out that I ended up running about 33% more than what was called for - good times! Now my legs feel like cinder blocks. As I'm writing this my knees are wrapped in ice. If nothing else today's mistake shows just how much work I have ahead of me if I want to be able to run more than a mile non-stop. There's going to be a temptation to keep pushing myself ahead of what the program calls for, but I've had enough failures due to over extending myself to know better.


A new thing I am testing out this week is trying to get some serious writing done before noon. As far back as college I did most of my work at night: whether that be writing for my local paper, doing school work, or for the slew of internet jobs I've had in the past eight years. There is something romantic about drinking a bunch coffee past midnight, trying to finish a story on deadline.  A kind of mania sets in when you work late into the night, you start to lose the inhibitions that hinder the creative process during the day. To prove my point here is Hunter S. Thompson's self-reported daily routine:

The other major reason for my nocturnal writing habit is in large part due to the depression induced insomnia of my early-mid twenties. There was a year where most days I would not wake up until afternoon. Awake at two or three in the morning, writing was a way to slow down the thoughts that were racing in my head. One of these days I'm going to go through my old hard drives and figure out just how many pages of fiction I wrote on those sleepless nights, but off the top of my head there were two half-finished manuscripts, one full manuscript, and at least a couple dozen short stories.

While I'm proud of a lot of the work that I produced those years, I was not exactly setting the world on fire. There is a virtual file filled with rejection e-mails from the work I produced in those years. Looking back it's clear why none of that stuff ended up getting published, there were a lot of half-baked ideas that were reasonably well executed, and some really great ideas that were poorly executed.

Now that I have a reasonable handle on my insomnia/depression, my sleep schedule has returned to normal. At times staying up late enough to catch the Colbert Report is a challenge. There was a time in my life when going to sleep before midnight would seem depressing, ironically now it's a sign of wellness.

For the last couple of weeks I've been writing right after dinner. I really enjoy going to the gym, coming home and making dinner, then settling down to work. As much as I'd like to go on working this way, it just does not leave enough time to read, and since one of my major goals is to read 51 books this year, some changes have to be made.

This is all a really long way for to say that I have to start writing in the morning, habit or no habit. This morning I got up at 6:45, made some coffee, and sat down to write. For the next 45 minutes or stared blankly into the screen of my laptop, and when frustration levels got too high I just made some eggs, watched last night's episodes of Girls and the premiere of True Detective (more on that later?): then got back to work. After another half an hour of the infamous - write paragraph, delete paragraph loop (sound familiar to anyone?) - I was actually able to get some meaningful work done. I then treated myself with a double shot late, because reinforcing good behavior is key to creating a new habit!

I know I'm treading some familiar ground here, but this is a specific example of trying to change a deeply embedded habit. Last week the terrific and highly recommendable Brain Pickings ran a post about how long it takes for habits to change. Here are the results of a study done by the University College London for the book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick: 

The simple answer is that, on average, across the participants who provided enough data, it took 66 days until a habit was formed. As you might imagine, there was considerable variation in how long habits took to form depending on what people tried to do. People who resolved to drink a glass of water after breakfast were up to maximum automaticity after about 20 days, while those trying to eat a piece of fruit with lunch took at least twice as long to turn it into a habit. The exercise habit proved most tricky with “50 sit-ups after morning coffee,” still not a habit after 84 days for one participant. “Walking for 10 minutes after breakfast,” though, was turned into a habit after 50 days for another participant.

There's something reassuring about knowing I can completely rewire myself in a little over two months. Whether or not I end up rearranging my entire routine: going to the gym, writing, and reading, is yet to be seen. I'm finishing this post up at around 7 PM, but I'm also riding off the high of getting good work done this morning. When things get tough, I know the only thing that will beat back the dual headed monster of procrastination and doubt will be my ingrained habits.

Changing your personal approach to doing creative work is a delicate thing. I'm going to do my best to start writing when the sun is coming up and get my read on when the sun goes down. Have any of you ever made a major to change to your creative process? Is there something that you would like to change about the way you approach creative work?