“How to Live On 24 Hours a Day”

A couple weeks ago now-retired Minnesota public radio host Gary Eichten interviewed another public radio figure, Garrison Keillor, about his life and his advice for young writers. The entire interview delighted me, but I especially appreciated one word of advice Keillor gave to a caller. The caller identified himself as a freelance writer, and asked Keillor, if you don’t have a 9-5 day job, so that you have the flexibility to work when you want, how do you structure your day?

Keillor’s surprising answer was that he works from 4:00 am to noon on weekdays. He reasoned that early in the morning is the most distraction-free time to work, and typically afternoon is not a productive time of day.

This advice really connected with me, a long-avowed “night person” who now contends with kids and their school nights and – more to the point – their schoolday morning routines. For a period of time a couple years ago, when I felt there was no quiet time to be found in my life, I started getting up at 4:45 some mornings to go for a quick run and then enjoy a leisurely breakfast and watch the sunrise. I felt like I’d come upon buried treasure – I had discovered a secret time period in the day that I could have all to myself!

I also know exactly what Keillor’s talking about when he says the afternoon is a lost cause. Even when I did work a 9-5 job, afternoon was the hardest time to apply mental or creative energy to a task. Yet, for my own writing time, I had recently been attempting to carve out afternoon hours for writing – and mostly, I had failed to keep them.

So, last week I began waking at 5:00 am on weekdays, writing for a good 90 minutes each morning before dealing with household and children. No one calls or stops by the house at that time of day, and since it’s a limited chunk of time, I can muster the discipline to stay out of my email and off of Facebook! I only require a good cup of coffee and a listen to the daily Writer’s Almanac to get me started. Ninety minutes five days a week is only 7 1/2 hours of solid writing time, but then again, it’s 7 1/2 hours of solid writing time that I can count on, and the more I exercise those writing muscles, the stronger they will be for further work hours when I’m ready.

For a short, entertaining, mildly inspirational, highly dated/sexist/classist work on the use of time, I recommend this free e-book I read in about an hour yesterday – How to Live On 24 Hours a Day. I see it’s available in several paperback editions as well.

What sorts of tips and ideas have you found helpful in your own use of time, as it relates to creative work, or any other interest or task you want to pursue beyond the “must-do” activities of your life?


  1. Ernest Hemingway also wrote early in the morning (standing up?!). He said something about knowing it was true if it was ‘true at first light.’

    • I’m in good company then 🙂

      I like the “true at first light” idea, only sometimes when I go back to things I’ve produced early in the morning, they’re not always true. This blog post, for instance, was written early in the morning, and I have since edited the paragraph where I made a mathematical mistake. Ninety minutes five mornings a week does not add up to 5 1/2 hours. But, maybe that was true in a beyond-mathematics sense . . .

  2. Been having this discussion here lately. Mama ain’t happy when her writing time is interrupted.

    Right now I’m trying to learn to say “no.” To the errands that pop up unexpectedly. To the interesting movie screenings at the library. To the lunchtime lectures at the community college. To the mother of five who wants me to chaperone the first-grade library trip because her toddler is sick. To the lonely unemployed mom who just moved to town and is looking for companionship…OK, I’m still working on this curmudgeonly writer thing. Maybe you have ideas for balancing my goals with my desire to be compassionate.

    I also have to say “no” to myself. My head is the Birthplace of Resistance.

    You know, I’ve considered waking up early. I think I could make it work in the summer. Since my time is more limited then because my kids are home, that might be a good way to find a quiet “5 1/2 hours”. 😉 If I tried getting up at 5:00 during the winter, you might peek in and find me glowering at my notebook for 90 minutes every morning.

    Thanks for the ebook link. Does this mean that you ended up buying a Kindle? Side note for those who have a different ereader or none at all: Project Gutenburg makes the book available in several formats. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2274

    Now I have finally worked up the courage to ask, What are you writing and do you want to exchange work sometime?

    • Oh dear, Garrison Keillor’s nearly convinced me to try getting up at 4:00…

    • It’s not easy to strike and maintain a balance between each day’s opportunities and doing your own work, especially when that work is something that can be so open-ended as writing. The best ideas I’ve come up with have mostly been related to minimizing the open-endedness.

      So, making my own work schedule that is realistic both in time of day and amount of time and sticking with it. (I think someone said it takes 21 days to build a habit?)

      Also defining some clear goals for the current year. And listing certain tasks and works-in-progress and deciding how often I will work on each of them – once a day? Tuesdays & Thursdays? etc.

      Having a schedule and a checklist for each day has been a great help for me to evaluate whether I can say “yes” or “no” to a specific request. I do try to leave a lot of margin for being interruptable – especially since that’s the nature of parenting young children – and having friends with young children.

      So, that’s why the early-morning routine really appealed to me – and has been working well. Nobody calls me at 5:00 in the morning asking for help with something, and my kids have never been early risers. Then in the afternoon, knowing I’ve gotten work done already today, I am more prepared for everyday interruptions.

      (I think maybe it helps to sit in front of my glowing laptop screen early in the morning – the light wakes me up!)

      Yes, I did buy a Kindle. I started using the free Kindle app on my laptop and I really liked it. I decided I would make good use of an e-reader and didn’t want to keep straining my eyes by reading from a computer screen so much. I bought a Kindle keyboard with 3g and am eager for its arrival this week! I can upload my own documents onto the Kindle as well, so I thought it’d be great for carrying setlists and song charts when I play live music – and also for storing poems & songs I’m working on, so I can have them handy to think through and add notes when I’m out and about.

      Currently I’m working on a book project and some poetry, as well as songwriting. And I’d love to exchange work sometime!

      Thanks for the Project Gutenberg link. That’s great to know about!

      • The moment I posted my comment, a voice between my ears said, “You know, if you write at 5 AM, it’s almost guaranteed no one will ask you to do something else during that time.” Have you somehow figured out a way to telegraph thoughts to me?

        I’m seeing more and more benefits to early-morning writing. Leaving space for flexibility in my afternoons is appealing. Still hesitant, but I’ll probably at least give it a try.

        I need to work on setting goals. That’s a difficult thing for me because I have trouble getting everyone on board with any one project (by everyone I mean me). And I’m afraid of setting a goal and not reaching it. It’s improving, but slowly.

        Tomorrow I’m Seattle-bound for the weekend, but I’ll contact you when I return and resettle. Thanks for having this conversation with me; I needed it.

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