The Battle Of The Larks And The Owls: When Is The Ideal Time To Be Creative?

I’ve never been a morning person, well not by nature. Even at the tender age of eight, I used to stay up with a flashlight under the covers, and tear through my Babysitters Club books into the wee hours of the morning. As an adult, I held onto the idea that my creative writing juices only came alive at night. But in entering responsible adulthood, working a day job  seemed to interfere with that romantic ideal.

Strangely, these days, I’ve found myself in the twilight zone. I pull my tired body out of bed hours before the rest of the house comes to life. Automatically, I begin my ritual of brewing lavender tea and wrapping myself in a plush blanket. Then, I dive into my writing routine while my mind is alert, but still too groggy to talk myself out of it.  And somehow, productivity happens. Only a few years ago, around this time, I lounged in the sheets, hanging onto every delicious morsel of sleep until the last moment, where I had to get up in order to keep my job.

Truthfully, this early morning experiment was born out of desperation and a lack of time. There seemed to be no afternoon window for undisturbed creativity, and in the evenings, my mind was too fried from my day job to make it happen, so I crossed over out of necessity. Now, a full fledged member of the early riser’s club, I revel in this self-made solitude before the rest of the world awakens.

Historically, some of the greatest artists of all time have been early risers. “The morning is the best time-  there are no people around,” Georgia O’Keeffe told an interviewer in 1966. “My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.” Her custom was to build a fire and make tea, then watch the dawn break before getting to work. But in contrast, there’s Franz Kafka who didn’t jump into his writing routine until 11pm, and Pablo Picasso who’s brilliance kept him painting all night and sleeping all day.  

So, who’s got it right, then? Is the most brilliant work born in the undisturbed first blush of morning, or the dusky, romantic hours of nightfall? Though admittedly, I may be biased in my new found love of knocking things out in the AM, the fact is that people’s bodies are on different clocks. We all come alive at our own particular times of the day. Some people are “larks,” working better in the morning, and others are “owls,” who thrive at night. Science has found these preferences may be due to a variety in circadian rhythm, the internal clock that controls melatonin levels and sleep drive. The key is to experiment and locate your own golden hours, then organize your day in a way that takes advantage of them.

Once we’ve found that window of opportunity, we should do everything we can to protect that time. This is when our rituals form. These are magical little habits which support and trigger long term endurance in our work. Instead of getting caught up in sweeping statements we hear about which time frame everyone should sit in, it seems that the focus should really be on embracing what suits us as individuals, then forming habits which support that routine.

In her book The Creative Habit, world renowned choreographer and ballerina, Twyla Tharp describes her daily ritual.  As a classic lark, she rises at 5:30 am, and hails a cab to the Iron Gym in Manhattan’s upper east side. She works out for at least an hour before having contact with anyone else. As a dancer, this gives her physical strength to guard against injury, but it’s also what she views as an almost religious first step of the day, a habit that forces her to commit to her creative muse. At sunrise, she hops in that cab before she has a chance to reconsider and crawl back under the covers. “It’s vital to establish rituals- automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour- at the beginning of the creative process,” she says, “when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

In a way, rituals can hold you accountable, and give you a reason to stay the course when things get intimidating. They can act as an automatic anchor in the tunnel vision stages of creation when the end result isn’t in sight. Though influential trends about the best ‘peak times’ of work productivity can come and go, this is an issue where you really need to trust your body and initiate your own mission to locate personal peak times of creativity. When your routine and rituals are firmly in place, it doesn’t matter how others around you are succeeding.

When I first stumbled on the beauty of early mornings, I was so exhilarated by the result, I made the misstep of suggesting the habit to friends, who were most likely content with their own evening routines. After researching this creative debate, I realize what a deeply personal choice it is. There is no wrong way of creating art. Everyone’s on an individual mission, and tied to their own internal clocks.  Knowing there’s no one size fits all is actually sort of liberating. We’re all free to invent our own worlds that no one else has access to. If something doesn’t feel right, we don’t have to do it. That’s what the subjectivity of creation is about, after all.

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