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What Is the Morning Writing Effect? (2011) (gwern.net)
111 points by luu 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments





In my experience writing (at least writing fiction) consists of two different activities: the writing proper, in which you produce text, and the editing, in which you mostly get rid of text. Think of the editing phase as liberating the statue from the marble, and the writing phase as producing the marble.

These activities, since they are so different in nature, are best separated in time and space and tooling.

I produce in the early morning, sitting at my dining table in the living room, using a pen and paper. In the early morning your dreams still linger and your critical faculties are not yet fully awake. This makes it an ideal time for just producing stuff. I take this seriously in that I do not even allow myself to cross out words. Just keep on writing, and sort it out later. Later on the day I edit, sitting in my study and using a text processor.

As a side note, I would not recommend this practice for writing code.


> As a side note, I would not recommend this practice for writing code.

Oh, I do! I mean not all the time, but if I have a particularly hard problem I'm working on, pencil and paper and coffee in the morning help me work it out. You're not going to write out pages and pages of code, obviously. But there's just something about scratching out the algorithm or sketching a design freehand on paper that helps my thinking process.

Bonus: I don't tend to need to rely on IDEs writing code for me. And Whiteboards don't scare me in the least.


I do that sometimes, too. Sometimes it works better if I do it somewhere other than my desk. I can go outside with a notepad, sit on the lawn, look at the clouds, and work out an algorithm.

I'm curious to know why this process wouldn't work well for code?

Some of the best code I've written has also been in an exhausted/ not-fully-awake state


Because to me designing a piece of software is the analytical work: making estimates, picking candidates for data structures and algorithms, doing back-of-the-envelope calculations, considering trade-offs, maybe making a little prototype in a toy language.

The coding proper can be done in a less vigilant state: it is like laying bricks or folding napkins. The hands know what they are doing. (Exaggerating here, but not too much. God knows I have coded tired or drunk or stoned, and not even my worst work.)


I generally agree that coding can take a lot more planning than writing and the more experienced I get, the more I plan. I also like to occasionally run with the "write one to throw away" method, which is very much like splitting between writing and editing. It's just that the second version is less editing of the original text and more editing the original approach / methodology / process.

I so wish I could code stoned. I've never been able to in any meaningful way. I don't code inebriated anymore, but in my twenties it was preferred. These days I think my brain basically responds to inebriation of any sort as "why are you still working while I'm trying to enjoy myself?".


One of the most complex pieces of code I have ever written, I wrote while traveling home intoxicated on the midnight train.

It was something I had been considering, analyzing, debating and discarding as impossible for several weeks prior to that. Then when it came down to it, not only was I able to implement it, but it worked perfectly for more than 6 years before anyone was able to improve on that design.

I attribute the success to two things: (a) the fact that I had done a lot of analytical work beforehand; (b) the inhibition-lessening effect of alcohol that allowed me to enter the zone and implement the solution without worrying about complexity or other external factors.

Once the core idea worked - and worked it did! - all that was left was to revisit it the next day, sober this time, and fix the remaining issues, documentation and tests.


i hope you checked the code afterwards. i can't code when i am not fully awake. but somw of the best documentation i once wrote after pulling an all-nighter.

Thank you for the visual write-up. You've named and described something that wasn't even aware of - how I came to develop my best functionalities. Initial work in a half-dreamy state, and clean up later on. Probably more of a holistic, rather than analytical, approach to design.

The secret might have been, all along, wake up late, arrive at work shortly after without doing much in between[1], and start designing already while commuting.

Notably I've been able to achieve a little bit of the same while half-falling asleep, with the added caveat that it requires jotting down good ideas for the next day. And they may be not quite discernible the next day.

Bears repeating - not quite the best code, but certainly the best functionalities.

--

[1] breakfast before work is a productivity killer


A quote often misattributed to Hemingway puts it even simpler: “Write drunk, edit sober.”

“If an important decision is to be made, they [the Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober.”

Herodotus, allegedly


You left out the rest of it: " Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk." So it's not just that all decisions should be considered sober; it's that they should be considered both sober and drunk.

> You left out the rest of it

Intentionally, yes. I couldn't find a definitive translation that I liked. Here's another take:

"They [the Persians] are accustomed to deliberate on matters of the highest moment when warm with wine; but whatever they in this situation may determine is again proposed to them on the morrow, in their cooler moments, by the person in whose house they had before assembled. If at this time also it meet their approbation, it is executed; otherwise it is rejected. Whatever also they discuss when sober, is always a second time examined after they have been drinking."

I really just wanted to riff on the subject of involving alcohol in decision making.


Breakfast for me is the occasional weekend perk. A lazy luxury. I love it. But not for working days.

It looks somewhat related to the following strategy for making important decisions: start by getting drunk, then make decisions. Then wait enough time to sober up completely and repeat the process. If you reach the same conclusion as when you were drunk, then go ahead.

An idea similar to "write drunk, edit sober".


Funny, that actually is my approach for difficult code projects. I generally just try to hammer something out, even if I have to brute force the result. Then I spend time editing that code down and optimizing it so it isn't a mess and actually works well.

YMMV, I'm a morning person, and I generally do my best coding before 10am.

This rings true with my experience. I typically wake up at 3.30-4am to get stuff done before the day starts. When I went back to university I was finding two major issues with doing work at night. 1, I was tired at night from a days work. 2, Intense mental activity at night kept me awake longer than I'd like.

After discussions with a friend I figured out I could just relax after work (which reduces stress) and wake up early to get my work done. It was the single best discovery I made in regards to improving my overall productivity.


This rings very true. I'm a night owl and in the beginning of my career I worked in mostly 13-21 bracket, with strong preference for hours after 17 when office got quiet. It was great, but at some point it started to impact my life very negatively(days just pass and you do not do much beside work). Early mornings are the next best thing. You get quiet, you can easily focus, you're rested and when the day really starts you have something done already, which significantly reduces stress for me. Definitely recommend to everybody.

I’m a night owl, struggling with the adjustment to fatherhood and expectations to be present at home right at the time my motor normally fires up.

I’ve always felt 3-5am was the most beautiful time of the day; though I’m used to seeing it on my way to bed, and pushing myself to wake up early enough to make it worthwhile hasn’t paid dividends yet.

Thanks for sharing your experience - it gives me confidence I can switch.


Ah yes, fatherhood will change a night owl. I've made the adjustment for the same reasons, went from sleeping 4am-10am to 930pm-4am (extra half hour sleep!) and while the first two weeks are rough, it's been smooth sailing since. You can do it. The 4am-6am is just as magical as the 2am-4am was for me. I'll skip breakfast until after 6am so I can jump right in it.

That being said, I still plan on going back to being a night owl when the kids are grown.


Jeez I wish I could survive on 6 hours sleep. I need at least 8 to feel fully refreshed. I can survive on 7 for a day or two but after that it catches up with me in a bad way. Any less than 7 and I feel like absolute death.

I'm left astonished at the amount of work that went into this article! Not simply its length (which is padded with large amounts of quotes) but the number of sections. I had assumed there would be an enormous comments section at the end, instead section after section after section. Oh look a randomized study he ran. Oh an enormous table of anecdotes.

Incredible.


That's gwern for you... it's unbelievable how much effort he puts into the things he's researching. Check out his 'nootropics' article for example.

Gwern is known for that, actually. There's some very in depth (and very good, also) articles on that site. Explore! :-)

Absolutely! In summer I get up as early as I can handle, usually 5am in the height of it. The gentleness of the morning always holds such great expectations - no one is waiting for a response to emails or calls. Traffic is quiet, or birds or neighbours.. And you have the promise of the entire day to get something done, so something usually does..

As for the article, it does try its best to uncover reasons, which ultimately seems to conclude 'because'. Maybe it's just because it's very taxing, to write or be creative, and the body is best suited in short bursts earlier in the day. Skip to Additional anecdotes of writers’ preferred time if you want the good stuff.


I find this is also true for writing code. Sometimes I wake up at 4 AM and will easily code until 8 AM, and that will be 80% of my code for the day.

I also found that this is the time when I write my least cynical comments, that pull in the most upvotes.


I am missing a rather likely cause in the article: The idea that writers lie about their morning writing because it makes them sound virtuous. (Which also explains why fiction writers prefer morning writing ;)

Given that a large part of this article rests on self-reported data from interviews (which are specifically vehicles of self-promotion), and that the more anonymous data seems to contradict the interview data, I'd consider this as a more likely explanation than most.


The problem with that is that it's just as easy to make evening writing sound cool and bohemian - look at the evening writer anecdotes like Hunter Thompson's (https://mentalfloss.com/article/33487/hunter-s-thompsons-dai...)! They're all like "after sleeping in to afternoon, I go to cocktail parties exchanging witty banter with New Yorker editors, and then at midnight I settle down in the darkness with my snifter of cognac and fine Cuban cigar and write immortal prose until dawn while the muggles snore away".

You do, however, sound anything but virtuous doing that. Cool and bohemian, sure - but most people strive, ultimately, to be accepted as part of society, not live outside of it.

And, tbf, I don't know if my theory is in any way applicable. But it's certainly more plausible than "the liminal space right after sleep" and other quite esoteric models.

The article as-is is assuming humans without ulterior motives. That often doesn't hold in practice. (This is in general a problem with studies relying on self-reported data - how much is truth vs. wishful thinking)

Ultimately, any decent writer understands that the purpose of an interview is to project an image, not to deliver truthful statements about mundane details. Thompson's image requires him to not be a lark. (It was likely shaped by the fact that he really isn't one, but it's a self-reinforcing cycle)

So if you are interested in finding out more, I'd suggest that it pays to focus on writers where their stated behavior contradicts their public image.


The 'liminal space' comes up all the time in self-reports, though, including literally the top comment on this page! There's no social desirability bias I can see there.

You may be onto something there. I wonder, has anyone done any real digging on why the heck so many people think being a morning person is morally good? It makes no sense to me.

I suspect it's a combination of facts

1) For most of history, we could only do work during daylight. 2) Agricultural work specifically wants early light - there's a lot of things you can't do in bright sunlight because it stresses plants.

It's definitely around for a while - the whole "the early bird" thing dates back to at least the 1600's. Aristotle was mumbling about getting up early as well. ("Rising before daylight is also to be commended; it is a healthy habit, and gives more time for the management of the household as well as for liberal studies."[1])

Personally, I'm more a fan of Diogenes ;)

So, likely it's considered good because it maximizes "productive" time.

[1] Economics, Book1, section 1345a: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg...


I think that's obvious isn't it?

- One component of the popular concept of "laziness" is staying in bed for much longer than you need for sleep.

- It's not symmetric: going to bed early is not popularly associated with laziness because going to bed is an active decision (you have to change your state from up to in bed). In contrast, staying in bed is passive.

- "laziness" is considered morally bad

- Being a morning person involves waking up early and is therefore thought, rightly or wrongly, to be evidence of "not laziness".


Under the heading of "inspiration", the author A E van Vogt had a method involving waking himself up several times a night. His Wikipedia entry[1] describes it as "he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes during his sleep period so he could write down his dreams", which sounds like an output process, but in an interview [2] it sounds like an input process: "When I was working on a story, I would waken myself every hour and a half, through the night--force myself to wake up, think of the story, try to solve it, and even as I was thinking about it I would fall back asleep. And in the morning, there would be a solution, for that particular story problem."

However his output was notably different from other writers (by reports[1]) so it may not generalise.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._E._van_Vogt#Method_and_them... [2] http://www.icshi.net/worlds/Plattprofile.htm


Interesting paper, it's really weird that even night owls are writing in the morning. I write try to write fiction and the best time to do is after an afternoon nap. You get the sleep-creativity juice going. I'm normally a night-owl, I finish my other writing and works at night but when I write for myself it's in the late afternoon.

I'm definitely a "do something early in the morning" type -- whether it's working out or writing. I'd rather wake up early, do some writing, and then go for a workout afterwards.

And to your point -- I'm one of those people who can't nap. Napping messes me up. I can feel my hormones sloshing and bending me around.

To each their own, of course.


i am going through this right now. what i find so far is, that for the actual productivity, the time of day doesn't matter, but if i set myself a goal of achieving a certain amount of progress in my writing, then the later the day gets, the less likely i am to get it all done. so i want to start early simply so that i can relax later, or use any additional time available to write more.

I have to write a lot of technical reports and I really dislike writing. Writing first thing in the morning is the only way I can be productive with it.

I just had this light bulb moment about separating the writing and editing processes a few weeks ago. I am grad student and writing is an essential part of my job. I am not as good as I would like to be, but writing first and editing later removed a lot of mental load for me. I experimented with a couple of systems in the past, but always got paralyzed by my inner critic commenting on every sentence. It was exhausting to even produce "one page worth" of writing a day. I thought that as I was editing while writing, it would be of great quality, but it was usually of pretty bad quality. Last week I just connected a bluetooth keyboard to my phone, opened up my favorite writing app[1], and started typing while staring out of a window. I was dishing out page after page of moderate quality writing. I would then wait a day or two and edit it. It was far easier to convert the moderate quality stuff by removing the fluff than to try producing great quality writing directly as I did before.

Appendix: Previous systems

1) Try writing perfect prose on the first try: This is paralyzing. I would just sit staring at my computer screen for hours, thinking of the perfect introduction and perfect sentences. I have since realized that this is bad for my mental health and productivity.

2) Write on paper: I then tried writing on paper. Got more done than just staring at the screen. It is difficult for me to write for extended periods of time like this. My hands start aching, and my handwriting goes from bad to illegible. Typing everything out also adds unnecessary friction.

3) Hemingway mode: I was looking at markdown editors for Pop OS when I stumbled upon "Hemingway mode" on GhostWriter[2]. This disables your backspace key. Not being able to edit was frustrating for me at first, but I got used to this. I also implemented this on my MacBook by using BetterTouchTool to disable backspace in iA writer. The typewriter and focus modes on iA writer are helpful for a smoother writing experience. I wrote more using this system, but still spent a lot of time looking at the sentence I was writing and trying to make it better in my mind before I typed.

4) Typing blind, or "type the first draft without looking at it": I was trying to find a hardware solution to this problem. I almost convinced myself to buy a $500 typing machine with an eink display. That is overkill for me. I figured I could make my own by somehow displaying the text I was typing on a kindle. I found out about the kindleberry Pi[3] but that had too many moving parts. I tried using seashells[4] to output my terminal display from the mac on a website in kindle browser. That failed. While testing that, I realized I typed fine enough without looking at the screen! Spent that day experimenting with some keyboards and apps. I now use a small cheap bluetooth keyboard connected to my phone, or a nice mechanical keyboard connected to my iPad. I set up a GitHub repo for my markdown notes, syncing with my iCloud Drive iA writer folder through Working Copy. The repo is for redundant backup and to access the notes on my Pop OS desktop. I mostly write on my phone or iPad now, use my laptop to edit it later. I wake up, meditate and start typing while staring out of the window. I get about 1000 or so words out in about 30 minutes. This is better for ideation and stream of consciousness writing. For more technical stuff, I type blind to get ideas and general framework in place, and use Hemingway mode to type out the rest. Been very happy with this system so far. Writing is a joy again!

[1] https://ia.net/writer

[2] https://wereturtle.github.io/ghostwriter/

[3] http://maxogden.com/kindleberry-wireless.html

[4] https://seashells.io, it seems down right now. Some info here https://github.com/anishathalye/seashells


Everyone has their own circadian rhythm. I'm an owl and my writing flows most easily late at night.



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