What is your morning routine?
I generally wake up around 4:30am and make a pot of coffee. Twyla Tharp said that in order to get to the gym in the mornings, she focuses only on getting to the cab because she knows if she makes it to the cab, then she’s good. The pot of coffee is my cab.
On ideal days, I read one reflection from a book called 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, and then I meditate for five minutes. I sometimes write in my journal for a few minutes to remember details from the previous day—and to just warm up creatively. I then dive into whatever writing project I have going and try to stay off the internet so I can focus as intensely as possible. My dog Buster usually joins me by this point, and he sleeps on my lap with my laptop perched on top of him (he’s now a key part of my creative process).
Unfortunately, around 6:00 or 6:15am, I have to switch to my long queue of email because if I don’t triage it and answer as many as possible, it becomes overwhelming. At 6:30, I rouse my kids from sleep to get ready for school, and then I walk Buster and try to think through my morning’s writing.
After the mad rush to get the kids to school, I go to work for part two of my morning routine—my day job at NaNoWriMo.
How long have you stuck with this routine so far?
I’ve done this for the last five years or so. I think my brain reacted to an increasingly busy life by insisting that I get up early in order to write.
I’ve always been a morning person, but rising so early is a new thing. Sometimes I’m up as early as 3:00am. I just wake up and can’t go back to sleep, so I get up to write, which I consider a blessing.
How has your morning routine changed over recent years?
The routine hasn’t changed too much. I’d like to add some yoga stretches because I hate how my body has stiffened into the shape of a man sitting in a chair writing. I’d also like to spend more time writing in my journal. My brain and my journal used to enjoy a tight and sumptuous relationship, but I’m afraid that I write in it less and less as I get older, and the writing is less raw and open. I don’t know why that is, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.
What time do you go to sleep?
Last summer, I went back to Iowa, where I grew up, and when I returned to Berkeley, I told my wife (Heather Mackey, who is also a writer) that I was going to stay on Midwestern (Central) Time. So nowadays I go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00pm (and even sometimes at 8:30pm on days when I wake up super early). I’m so exhausted and unproductive at night that I figure I might as well use that time to sleep so that I can maximize the time I have in the morning for my most creative energy.
Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?
We live in a tiny house, so in order to not disturb anyone, I try to lay out my laptop, books, and writing materials so that they’re next to the recliner I work in. For some reason, I usually forget to do this. If I was smarter and more organized, I’d have the coffee pot all set up as well.
Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the morning, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?
Since I’ve had sleep troubles for my entire adult life, I have a policy of not truncating my sleep because I have thousands of hours of sleep debt. If I don’t wake up naturally, I need the sleep.
How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?
I make breakfast after walking Buster. I have three soft-boiled eggs… and more coffee. I might also have a banana or an orange.
Do you have a morning workout routine?
When I was younger, I loved to run in the morning, but now, alas, my knees won’t allow it, and my time is so limited and precious that I need to use that beautiful glow of morning time to write. I exercise on the weekends, and then I try to make it to the gym on one weekday morning each week.
Also, I just got a Fitbit, which encourages me to squeeze in a long walk during the day.
Do you have a morning meditation routine?
If I linger in bed on the weekends, I’ll listen to Audio Dharma or On Being, so I consider that my meditation time. Otherwise, I’ve just started using the Headspace app. I’m a little embarrassed to use technology to meditate, but it works. I love when Headspace tells me what my meditation streak is—and I hate when the streak is broken.
Do you answer email first thing in the morning or leave it until later in the day?
I don’t answer it first thing, but if I don’t dig into it a bit, the queue gets too long, and then I’m buried—both in terms of my personal email and my work email. It’s unfortunate, but my personal email account feels more like work than it used to.
Do you use any apps or products to enhance your sleep or morning routine?
I listen to podcasts in bed to go to sleep, or if I wake up in the middle of the night.
How soon do you check your phone in the morning?
I read The New York Times and check social media on my phone as I eat my breakfast.
What are your most important tasks in the morning?
I get up early to write, but I suppose you could say my most important tasks are getting my kids to school and walking my dog. How can my projects take priority over taking care of others?
How does your partner fit into your morning routine?
My wife and I are both writers. She tends to be a night owl. I’m obviously an early bird. We structure our lives to support each other’s creative endeavors in many ways, so she’s always been generous about giving me as much space and time as she can in a life that is hectic and somewhat cramped.
That said, she can get upset if I make too much noise in the morning (“ruckus,” she humorously calls it). Likewise, I can get a little peeved when she wakes me up at night after she’s done with her work. These are just small inconveniences, though. I can’t imagine being with someone who didn’t support my creative endeavors and vice versa.
Do you also follow this routine on weekends, or do you change some steps?
The weekend is a bit of a wild card because I like to cut loose a bit, to indulge in dinner and drinks with friends. I tend to linger in bed and meander in that beautiful dreamy state of early waking. Our lives are just so busy, so it’s good to sink into the sumptuousness of thoughts and just follow the drift.
On days you’re not settled in your home, are you able to adapt your routine to fit in with a different environment?
I generally try not to carry out my routine when I travel. I’ve always viewed travel, whether for business or fun, as an opportunity to read, daydream, and open up my mind to other thoughts. Some of my best creative moments have come when I’m on the road, away from the confines of my routine.
What do you do if you fail to follow your morning routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?
If I fail to follow my routine, it’s generally because I’ve had a bad night of sleep. If I don’t get in my writing time, I find that I’m crankier, a bit off kilter, and a bit less fulfilled. My routine keeps me charged up and optimistic. It also helps me be more generous and thoughtful to others. If I’ve done my work in the morning, my ego is just less needy.
Anything else you would like to add?
One of the things I like most about my routine is that I wake when the house is dark and silent, when no one is awake. I feel like I’m the only person in the world who is alive, as if the entire world is mine in all of its mystery. I’m thankful that my routine gives me such moments of wonder.