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What Is The Morning Writing Effect? (gwern.net)
405 points by jxub on Nov 3, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments

Few thoughts: For me personally, I experience a lot of ego depletion during the day. But having kids tends to do that. There's no way I can write at the end of the day, I'm just way to mentally tired. Also as someone who both codes and writes, writing is far more emotionally taxing. Coding is problem solving - there is usually a clear path to follow and I generally know when I've solved a problem. Writing for me is unclear and amorphous. There is almost never a road map, and I never really know when I've "finished." Finally, I think that lark/owl stereotypes are overblown. Up through college, I was absolutely an owl and did my best work from 10pm to 2am. Once I entered the workforce, I was forced into becoming a lark and after a painful transition, loved mornings and did my best work from 6am to 10am. 18 years later, I'm still a "lark" but from time to time, I have to pull late nights and my "owl" tendencies come back quite easily for short periods of time. But I need 8-9 hours of sleep... I can't do both lark and owl at the same time. I think studies show that the vast majority of people are in the middle - neither larks nor owls, and for those people, I believe you can train yourself to be whichever one you want.

I'm reading a terrific book -- "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing"[1] -- that reviews the literature on this exact topic. Recommended.

1. http://a.co/hY8eixX

A book that I have read and has changed my life is: "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" by Laura Vanderkam. This book changed my "overtime work" from being a night-owl, fighting for efficiency, to early bird (catching the worm) in just a few days.

The aforementioned book in combination with "The art of not giving a f..." by Mark Mason, and the "The 4-Hour Workweek" by Timothy Ferris made me change my working habits to the better/more productive.

I now spend more time on journaling on my ideas/results, and find myself being more focused. I guess that journaling is "some kind of writing" (I am not a writer), but it helps that when I write and immediately read something (a paragraph, numbers, rough pen-and-paper diagrams,bell-shaped-curves/sweet spots).

I suggested the "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" book to (former) fellow night-owls to switch their 10pm-2am routine to a 6am-10am. Most who actually tried it are enjoying the benefits. I do understand that this depends also on other factors (health, workouts, driving kids to school, daily commute, walking the dog, morning workouts) but a balance can be achieved so that one can fit a 3-hour-work without impacting other functions.

Any takeaways from that book?

Disclaimer: only 1/2 done reading it. So far, the biggest actionable takeaway for me is the importance of taking breaks. I have the luxury of working for myself, mostly from my home office, which allows me the oppty to experiment w/ different ways to manage my workday. At some point I will write something longer-form about my system...

Is that a URL shortener? Please post the link with a fully disclosed address. I’d like to see the content on the other end, but don’t know where it’s going to take me.

It links to Amazon Kindle. I believe this is the link that their app spits out.

https://urlex.org/ can expand these for you.

I still have no idea where this link is going to take me.

a.co links always go to some illegible Amazon URL, so I think it’s fine to use them.

I guess, but...

1. You can see it is Amazon

2. If you click it and are expecting "product A" and instead you see "product xxx" you probably won't proceed further.

3. This is Amazons fault, not those that have posted short URL's. There simple is't a longer URL that says: http:// amazon.com/this-is-the-product-you-were-after-just-in-case-you-are-skeptical-of-a-short-url-given-to-you-byu-someone-you-dont-know-beware-danger-will-robinson.

Some urls maybe I guess. I can’t claim that all products Amazon sells don’t have more descriptive urls.

Sorry about that, it's an amazon url shortener; was in a hurry and just c/p the link from ios kindle app. Others have posted the url for you.


Don't apologize to the ornery whingers. URLs are addresses, not content. There's no reputation or credibility issue with URL paths, they are totally arbitrary. Only domain names have credibility.

Same experience here. Always an owl, always easier to stay up than get up. But damn these days I’m just tired at the end of the day and writing is hard. I can pull it off but it hurts.

In the morning writing is a lot easier. But mornings are also a lot harder to clear up. Girlfriend waking up, bird waking up, gotta shower and stuff, get to the office.

Very easy to fritter away a whole morning and get nothing done. Plenty of emails and tweets and such waiting from the previous day.

Anyway lark and owl is just a timezone. If you can switch 9 timezones when traveling, you can switch the 2 or 3 timezones from owl to lark and back.

Just don’t do both at the same time. That never ends well for me

I write a lot. (It's a good part of my job.) I basically can't write in the evening and really haven't since college. (I did code in the evening for a number of years when I had a shareware business.)

Ideally, I have coffee/breakfast, take care of any outstanding items that have to be dealt with, and start writing for most of the day. That's a constructive day. In practice, I often have time getting into the flow and end up doing "research" for at least some of the morning before buckling down to what really has to get done.

I struggle with same issues everyday. Job, marriage, Kids, and life in general does not allow me to have a fixed schedule.

The thing is in today's world of small apartments, noisy kids, and demanding jobs does not allow having the luxury of following a fixed schedules. I see blocks of time during the day getting wasted and I am not able to muster enough courage to claim those. On the other-hand is Cory Doctorow who is able to use these 20 minutes time blocks[1].

On the problem of not able to finish. I think Peter Elbow in his book Writing with Power[2] suggests many different strategies but they basically boils down to separating writing from editing. One technique he suggests is to divide the available time into 2 parts. Write uninhibited during the first time period and only do the editing in second half.

[1] http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writi...

[2] https://global.oup.com/ushe/product/writing-with-power-97801...

> Job, marriage, Kids, and life in general does not allow me to have a fixed schedule.

The way I fixed this was to get up early. If I get up between 5-6am, I easily have 2-4 hours of time before anything attempts to derail me. During these hours, I go to the gym and then get my most focused productivity of the day done. The rest of the day is flexible depending on what's going.

Before someone chimes in that I'm going to die from lack of sleep, I'm in bed between 9-10pm every night and get 7-8 hours sleep.

If only my kids would sleep to 7 am every day... Our youngest (2y) is awake between 5-6am every day. Both go to bed between 7-8pm. Not much time before and after unfortunately.

Exactly my point, I am trying to work out how to manage despite these interruption. Cory Doctorow's suggestion seems reasonable but personally I need more structure so not able to implement his advise.

Biggest issue is energy. One bad day of unhealthy eating because I got too busy simply screwup next few days. Sometimes I feel I need a drill sergeant to keep me ontrack.

I too find that after a 10-hour day, I can not do anything productive. My best time is morning till early afternoon. I think ego depletion definitely has some anecdotal evidence. Most of us can only do quality focused work when our mind is clear after sleep.

If you look at the data gwern provided, some of the supposedly owls actually sleep till noon, and do work immediately after waking up. That is not an "owl" in my opinion ... I too can do work at night if I spend the day wandering around. An owl is someone who could pump good work after a taxing day.

I disagree.

On a fundamental level, there's no way to draw a line demarcating owls, and otherwise non-owls. It's a false dichotomy, founded on behavior alone, which is subject to peer influence, and other sources of behavior modification. All people lead lives distorted by circumstance, particularly when it comes to circadian rhythm. The behavioral effects of daylight savings time prove this. Casual caffeine consumption is another fact to poison the well.

Anyway, I'm routinely up until three or four in the morning. I despise getting up for a nine to five work day, but I do it. Every chance I get, to sleep in, I take it.

Many times, what's really going on, I've discovered, during periods of extended vacation or unemployment, is that I wind up in rotations that push my bed time forward by a couple of hours every day, and then I sleep for any number of hours, until my body need me to get up, and begin my routine. This pushes me all the way from a midnight bed time, around the entire clock, realigning with a midnight bed time in less than two weeks.

Technically, this is classified as a disorder:


When I get locked into as static 9 AM, alarm induced wake pattern, this frequently expresses itself as pulling an all-nighter, just to realign with the totalitarian nature of the work week, such that I might arrive to work on time, for some bullshit, daily 10 AM scrum stand-up, or whatever. It also leaves me really fucking moody, including symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

But you know what? I'm not crazy. I'm not sick. I'm just forced to live my life on other people's terms for economic reasons, because I wasn't born into a trust fund, and I'm not otherwise independently wealthy. So, by corollary, I cannot tolerate the idea of being taxed financially, to treat something medically, when it should not actually require medication.

Anyway, you have to account for the proper modular math, when declaring that night owls "simply do not sleep in" nor can you claim that your supposed version of a night owl never experienced fatigue, after 10 hours of undescribed daily activity, due to the psychological cost of an ego facade, or whatever.

Not really a reply to your point. Thanks for your post, I think i finally understand my sleep "problem" now. I think I have the same "disorder"

This brilliantly captures my own experiences with "writing & coding".

> There's no way I can write at the end of the day, I'm just way to mentally tired. Also as someone who both codes and writes, writing is far more emotionally taxing.

> Coding is problem solving - there is usually a clear path to follow and I generally know when I've solved a problem. Writing for me is unclear and amorphous. There is almost never a road map, and I never really know when I've "finished.

It’s fundamentally an anecdotal thing: Kafka, Joyce, Neruda, Eliot, etc. all wrote at night.

My working theory is something like “romanticism/emotionalism vs. abstract rationalism”; if you’re writing something that benefits from immediate experience and emotional input (e.g. Kafka writing about nightmarish bureaucracy after working all day in an insurance firm) then it is better to write at night, after the events of the day have happened and your mind has been operating for 12+ hours.

Alternatively, if you’re working on a large, broad project that requires long-term, sustained effort and a clear mind, a morning habitual routine is better for making step-by-step progress.

I write a lot: probably average writing 1 book every 1 1/2 year over the last 35 years.

This may be key:

“Yet another version might be that sleep itself is the key: sleep, aside from any resetting, is also responsible for memory formation and appears involved in unconscious processes of creativity.‘

I find the morning is my best work time for either writing or designing and writing software. It seems that often good ideas are just there for the taking in the morning.

That said, I often get the same effect after dinner if I have taken the afternoon off for leisure (e.g., hiking all afternoon).

> sleep, aside from any resetting, is also responsible for memory formation

When my son was little, he had to memorize the 13 colonies of the United States for History class. He was getting frustrated that he just couldn't remember them all. I told him to just read through the list again right before he went to bed. He did so and came home from school that day to tell me, "It worked!".

Better ways to memorize such things: create a story between each colonies so that you can remember it as a linked list.

Absolutely. And as a bonus, by using historically accurate stories to link colonies, you'd remember those extra pieces of information "for free."

I dare you to write us such a story. Remember, it has to be short.

Same. I try to get a few hours done before the cruft of the day creeps in. After that, it's a bit of a wash unless I go for a hike, and then the next round has to be after 4:30PM. 2-4 is the worst, but great for being outdoors.

You might find the book Why We Sleep interesting.

My first question was about how writing prose differs from writing code. The post covers this:

> despite being apparently similar activities (both mostly involve slinging text), the temporal timing of software development & writing are strikingly different. Thinking back, I don’t recall early-morning programming being a trend among programmers (programmers are infamous for preferring to come in late and late-night programming sessions which may wrap around the clock, especially in college). It’s fascinating that the stereotypes about writing vs programming line up so perfectly with the RescueTime data.

I am very curious to learn/think more about why the 2 activities are stereotypically (and empirically) on opposite schedules.

Personally, when writing prose (mostly docs, blog posts, and product plans), I prefer to wake up early and do it in the morning. I much prefer coding at night. My hunch is that this is because interruptions are rarer at night and more bothersome when coding.

For anyone else who is both a writer and coder: do you follow the same schedule for both?

For me, writing prose (mostly short stories, journals, memoirs) is more emotionally taxing. To write well I need to find ways to silence the self-censorship that will inevitably prevent me from expressing the things I really want to say. This often happens when I am in a state approaching mania. Donald Glover says he writes in the morning because it is "closer to dreaming".

Coding is primarily a task about cognition, so focus/concentration wins. I find I code best in the late morning, when I'm well rested and have had a good breakfast.

Donald Glover says he writes in the morning because it is "closer to dreaming"

This is really the crux of it, in my experience. The first things I write down in the morning are usually continuations of subconscious creativity that began in the last dream I had before waking up. And usually my dreams are emotionally rooted in whatever problem I was solving the night before, which is especially helpful in making the stimulus of dreams fruitful.

First thing in the morning, my recall is very good, and I am lucid about the essential concepts needed to explicate what I am really trying to solve in abstract terms. After hours of working on a problem that's going nowhere? Not so much. But then a break or evening hike, and I am just as creative again until bed.

That said, for skilled activities like coding and playing a musical instrument, the temptation to be too creative before warming up and trying some experiments can probably only hurt your productivity, because if you sink your teeth into an idea before figuring out where your real problems are likely going to crop up, you're just committing to something that's probably unworkable.

So if I have lots of code to write, I instead simply collect a list of bugs in the morning that I intend to squash, grab a bite to eat, and then start hacking away. Then very often, by early afternoon, there's the chance to reach some kind of minor epiphany, where it becomes painfully obvious that something simpler can obsolete the need for the kind of hacking done in the morning. ;-)

If you're doing independent research that requires coding AND creative writing, I recommend going back and forth between the two approaches, perhaps alternating by day.

Two tools I've found useful for getting text on page:

* https://getcoldturkey.com/writer/ -- just a very simple full-screen text composer

* https://otter.ai/ -- an app for doing transcription of human speech. I find it very useful to go to a quiet area and talk into it and then use that as my very rough draft of my thoughts. You'd never use it for stenography, but the quality is good enough to make it clear what you meant to say.

and if your voice of self-criticism says "that seems like a crutch", reflect on the fact that you are a tool-using human who will probably wear shoes tomorrow and many days thereafter.

I do both, and I also tend to find it easier to write prose early in the day and code later.

I think it’s because of the depth of focus that’s required and how fragile it is. I can have a productive 30-60 minute writing session all the time, but unless it’s very trivial work, it takes me so long to get fully in the zone of maximum productivity when coding that it’s really not worth doing unless I have a few hours. And my morning rarely offer that, so I use them to clear the decks so I can do deep work like coding or whatever later in the day.

I’m not a natural morning person, but i routinely get up at 430am. I’ve deliberately adjusted to this masochistic schedule over the course of 15 years because I find it so superior in terms of effects on my life. I’m not a natural daily exerciser, healthy eater, relationship builder, etc. either. Sometimes it’s good to push yourself to do things because they’re good for you.

I wake up before 4am (between 11pm the day before and 2am usually). While everyone else spends the last 6 tired hours of their day on their hobbies, I spend the first 6 best hours of my day on my hobbies (writing, coding, etc). I'm definitely nocturnal, I'd just rather not be sleepy, so night is the beginning of my day.

I think it works for coding too.

I don't like morning and prefer start coding late. But if I can wake up in early morning and start work in first half-hour, it improve my coding skills: I write better code and do it faster.

But it depends on personal qualities and daily regime very much.

And one interesting thing: it show enhancement only for first times. My current experiment is wake up at 5-5:30 a.m. And in first time I had improvements to my productivity, but now I work like in the past before experiment.

Morning coding works best for me.

Night coding also works, but tends to mess with my falling asleep and decrease the quality of my sleep. If I'm in a tight spot I find it more effective to not work later, but to sleep a bit less and start a few hours earlier.

I get most if my productive day done before everyone arrives. Then I just muddle through the day at limited capacity until either the evening or next morning.

I think there are 2 keys to this:

* I think there is contention on some mostly unconscious cognitive resources. Social processing seems to be an antagonist for deep focus for me. I focus deeper an longer when no one else is around.

* There seems to be memory/history effects in the short term. In the morning some "buffers" and "staging areas" are clear making it easy to build a good focus and flow. As the day progresses it looks like these can get scrambled.

I do a lot of both writing and coding and I also follow this schedule. I find coding at night to be very efficient, but when I try to write at night, I end up rewriting the same paragraph 10 times before giving up.

No idea why these activities are so different, but I feel the thought process is very different. Coding requires active concentration. I find writing to be more of a passive activity. Too much concentration, and the words stop making sense -- something like this effect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_satiation

There was this notion that at night the brain is more tired, meaning it cannot both focus on the code and daydream (or similar). From personal experience, this is at least partially true.

I buy the third explanation, that sleep is key.

How often do you find yourself thinking about code in your sleep? A lot, right? And then when you wake up somehow you have some clarity about the problem to hand. Once you've mucked around a bit and found the solution, cleaned it up, written some unit tests, and documented it, you're a bit tired. And the next problem is starting to form without being entirely clear.

> A lot, right?

Can't say I've ever thought about code in my sleep. Is that a common thing among coders?

I sometimes dream about being & moving amongst the abstract structures that I build in my head when reasoning about a complex problem. Sometimes it gives me an insight; others, it’s meaningless, the Tetris effect in another form.

Sometimes that is really poor-quality sleep, when your brain is gnawing on a complex problem.

I've solved many difficult problems sleeping or showering.

I wake up with answers. My first waking thought is often a solution or something I failed to notice.

My own anecdotal evidences:

1. Waking up early is a great thing. 2. Waking up early allows you to be less stressed during the day. 3. It also projects a halo of confidence around you since people receive your stuff first thing when they arrive at work. 4. But the first thing when you wake up should not be work. You can read the press, listen to the radio, catch up with the day.... 5. At some point - after 30/45m, you'll think it's time to get to work. It's an exhilarating feeling. 6. Best time that works for me is 5:30am/6am. 7. Taking the time to do some sport after 8am or 9am is even better.

What timing. Couldn't sleep well, and got up even though it was only 4:15am. Pop open HN, and this was at the top of the list. When I grabbed my laptop, it was with the intent of working in Final Draft to work on some things I just can't seem to get to in normal hours. Makes me feel less grumpy about being awake, or for procrastinating by reading HN first.

Large parts of my second book [1] were written between the hours of 4am and 8am, my wakefulness necessitated by my daughter’s medical issues. Things are more stable at home now, but on my third book [2] I often feel the urge. I’m naturally a morning person, and combined with the benefits of writing uninterrupted, it’s hard to resist, even if it means getting out of bed. If I didn’t, I’d only be composing in my head anyway.

[1] https://www.agendashift.com/book

[2] https://www.agendashift.com/right-to-left

I suspect there’s a strong selection bias here: nobody likes to admit they are a slob who doesn’t rise till noon, whereas people will gladly tell you they follow a Spartan regime and rise before dawn (even if they only manage that one week per year).

If you read this article and found yourself wishing there was more detail about the writing routine of each author, then you might like "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" [1]. It's a really great small book that goes in detail through the daily routines of many authors and artists.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Daily-Rituals-How-Artists-Work/dp/030...

I'm in circumstances (allergies, noise, etc.) that leave me feeling relatively poorly in the morning. They can clear somewhat during the day, leaving me feeling better and clearer headed in the evening -- except that then I'm fighting tiredness.

I'd suggest it may not just be morning. It may be also how you feel -- then and at other times. This is my point: That it may not be just time of day, but also your state of health and well-being at that time of day.

I hope to move to circumstances that leave me feeling better in the morning. I miss it.

Anecdotally, moving to the desert and waking up feeling dry and stuffy in the mornings has reduced my morning writing urges.

I'm a night person but I never write code by night, mostly in the morning. Because when the day starts I simply have a lot more urgency of doing something creative. Later in the day I start to be less interested and tired and want to do less stressful activities.

Anecdotally speaking, I tend to write well late in the nights -- when everyone's gone to sleep. I tend to focus well, think throughout the evenings. I think it also depends on the most distracting-free time. For me, it is late night.

Can it also be about geography? I am not sure if there is a correlation between the region an author belongs to and his writing habits. I couldn't find any reference in shared article.

I'm a night owl so I tend to get more things done at night. However, when I wake up in morning, I can actually physically feel my brain focused and clear.

Unfortunately once I get to work, that feeling is all gone as the brain tries to adjust to world of constant context switching between meetings, projects, and people.

Alternative explanation for modern writers: write then there is less breaking news.

“Important” news feels important and one may feel more justified in attending to it.

As a former beat journalist I can anecdotally attest to this. By number, I've definitely written about more "breaking news" in the morning than at night. The content I'd write about at night would invariably have to be more interesting to me than whatever needs to be written about in the morning due to personal fatigue more than anything.

Coincidentally I visited Hemingway's house in Key West just today. The guide told us that he had made a habit of waking up at 6 AM, move to study room and wait for 700 words to be written or lunch - whichever comes first. He would then go out for fishing rest of the afternoon and then in the night go to nearby Sloppy Joe's bar to mingle with public which often gave him inspiring story ideas.

Personally, however, the best work I have done is after 5 PM when most people have left the office. I go out for quick snack, come back to office and go in to midnight. The chatter around in office, emails etc are too distracting for full focus.

> and then in the night go to nearby Sloppy Joe's bar to mingle with public which often gave him inspiring story ideas.

Well let's be honest -- the main reason he went to the bar was to get drunk. He was a notorious alcoholic.

My theory? We think while we sleep. It's not a "normal" kind of thinking, more free association as your brain wanders around various connections it's made, testing them out. But I also believe we string together larger concepts. We just don't remember it.

When you awaken, your mind has all of those new tentative associations and is ready to try them out by writing them down. As you go through the day, it gets "cluttered" again, going back to using almost extensively older, tried-and-true connections.

I find that creativity on a subject comes to me when my brain has taken a long break from it and thoroughly switched to another subject. It makes sense that sleeping functions to force my brain to look away from something, so when I return to it I have fresh eyes and new ideas.

Conversely, complicated technical work like coding seems easiest when I've got it all loaded into my brain. It makes sense that this would be true after a long day of thinking about it and building connections, but before it partially unloads overnight.

Interesting, though little in the way of hard evidence. I personally write in the evenings, and do an editing pass the next morning. However, I do feel like I write code better in the mornings than later in the day. When I have an hour and a half before I leave for work and I decide to write some code, I've found that I can generally get a lot more done than I expected.

The question of timing -- finding the optimal "when" for various activities -- is an interesting and useful one to study. I'm reading and enjoying a book[1] that does precisely that.

1. [When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing](http://a.co/hY8eixX)

I'd be curious if there's any correlation between morning/night work and introversion/extroversion. For some reason I imagine extroverted people would be more likely to work at night than morning.

I find that a day spent hacking away at computer code usually results in a burst of creative energy right after work. My best -but also silliest - writing has been done then.

Not related to writing but I found that I usually solve problems and bugs the first thing in the morning. Always thought that's because I am the freshest in the morning.

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