The world at 5am or so

Write Brummie, the BBC Radio 4 documentary by Rosie Boulton that I’m featured in, aired this week and you can catch it on the BBC Sounds app. If you can find your way around that rather confusing app, that is, or if you cheat and just follow this link.

In it, I mention how it feels as if the world expands outwards during the morning. If you get up to work at 5am, it’s just you and a sense of no-one else going on, then slowly you become aware of movement around the city. I mentioned traffic and the bins and kids, but I think it’s also just plumbing.

I like that sense at 5am that the air is different, that it’s waiting. Air and wind have a long day ahead of them and they’re just taking a minute, eating some toast, before they have to get going.

And I’m obviously telling you this because of the documentary, but actually as I write to you now it’s a little before 7am and for once, it all feels the same. I’ve put the bins out, I’ve waved to a neighbour, if I stop typing I can hear traffic. And that very second I said this, I just heard a sound from next door’s pipes.

But mostly, it’s as still now as I’m used to earlier. Maybe Birmingham is having a lie-in.

It’s funny how a city has a personality, and possibly not funny how it doesn’t, it just has what we project onto it. Maybe we do this with people too, maybe nobody has a personality other than that we expect of them.

I’m simply conscious this week of how I would like to live in the Birmingham that is portrayed in the Write Brummie documentary and yet obviously I do. I know some of the other writers featured, I know the work of more of them, I certainly know and like every single place they mention.

Maybe it’s that when you string them together as Boulton did, it makes you reconsider what you know. Or maybe it makes you conscious of we all know so much, we hold so many thoughts and facts and feelings, that we see one whole mass of sensations and miss the the detail.

It’s possible that I’ve just found a long way around to say something about wood and trees.

Still, I want to be part of that documentary’s portrayal of my city, and yet I am.

I do also now want to be every one of the other writers in the show, and I especially want all their kitchen tables and crackling fires, but I’ll work on that.

Don’t do this at home

Not that it matters, but today is the 401st day that I’ve got up to work at 5am. Now, possibly that seems normal to you, possibly it seems a lie-in but I can’t find a way to say it to you without a suggestion of a boast. Yet, I do it from a certain necessity, I vehemently don’t want you to do it, and anyway I’m rubbish at it.

The plan was that on a regular working week I would start at 5am. There had to be exceptions: if I had a speaking engagement late that night then forget 5am, my voice wouldn’t be working right. Similarly, if I had one the night before then forget 5am, I may not have wound down enough to sleep before 4am. Then a distressing number of times I’ve been ill with colds, I booked a holiday once. And there was an interlude where I’d done all the projects I had on my plate and I found myself up at 5am reading Facebook. Nuts to 5am for a while there.

I said this was the plan but I didn’t say when I planned it. All the reasons for getting up at 5am – the phone doesn’t ring for a good five hours, emails don’t come in for a while either and also I just unfortunately write better – came together for me on the night of Tuesday, 1 January 2013 and I started the next morning.

I know what you’re thinking. Wednesday, 2 January 2013 was 1,171 days ago and of course you’re right. But remember, this was about a pattern for the week’s work so that date is just 836 weekdays ago. That’s better.

It’s still rubbish: out of 836 days that I could’ve got up at 5am, I’ve done so 401 times. That’s about 50% If you’re being generous. I can tell you that there has never been a single day when I decided at 5am that I wasn’t getting up. There have been a few where I decided at 3am, but that’s still fine. If I mentally book a lie-in ahead of time, that’s in the rules.

Still, 50% is not brilliant. I’m driven to tell you that even on half the plan, it’s worked out for me enough that I feel I’ve little choice but to continue. Since Wednesday, 2 January 2013, I’ve had two short stories published, I’ve performed three, produced four events, written eight non-fiction books, produced 30 podcast radio shows, run 288 workshops or presentations and written something in the order of 3,000 articles.

All rubbish, obviously.

Logically, I would surely have done at least some of that even if I didn’t get up early. But no, I don’t think so. As well as writing better and writing faster in the horrible early hours, there’s a psychological benefit to it. I sit here screaming and wanting my pillow but also I get imbued with a sense of I’m up now and it was bloody hard so I’d better well get on with it, then.

Also, consider this a tip from the wounded: Apple Watch is a godsend. It silently tickles my wrist at 5am and I can’t ignore it but I’m the only person it disturbs.

Well, you’re looking pretty disturbed at me right now. And you’re also wondering what time I go to bed. After 400 goes at this, I am hopeful that tonight I’ll finally figure out a decent time to go to bed. Because yes, I struggle with this and there are times when I slump over the keyszzzzzzdjkjzfddwefd0493redsx.

Good things happen when you write

I mean this: good and sometimes great things happen when you write. Equally, if you don’t write, then good things don’t happen. Only, I don’t mean that if you write a wonderful script then it gets filmed or a great book and it gets published. I’m finding that there isn’t necessarily even a tiny connection between what you’re writing and what happens.

Yet I have patches where I’m rubbish and I don’t take the time to write. These lead into spirals where I write even less. They’re also tied into when I do and don’t get up at 5am to work but all that early rising does is get me some time to write. Then when I write, whatever time it is, good things happen.

Yesterday, for instance, I was asked to collaborate on a book. The request didn’t exactly come out of nowhere but it did near as dammit. I wasn’t expecting it and it’s got nothing to do with what else I’m working on, but it’s a great idea, I want to work with the person who asked me, ultimately I just really, really want to read the book. So we should write it and I hope we will.

In this case, I think I can point to specific things: the woman who asked me knows I write books because I’ve told her and she knew I’d be interested in the subject because she’s known me for more than seven seconds. She’s also fully aware of my tea and chocolate problems. Plus she knows of a years-long project that died on me a few weeks ago so she even knew I had some availability.

I need to tell you those specific things because I need specific things. I loathe that I’m about to say to you that you have a certain energy when you write but, well, here goes: you have a certain energy when you write. I think it’s just the same way that, I believe, we are all at our most vibrant and attractive when we’re working: we’re making things happen, we’re performing really, and, yes, there is an energy.

So on days when I’ve been writing and then I meet people, I seem to get work. On days when I’ve chosen to sleep in and I’ve not got much done, I don’t.

It’s very easy to not write. It’s especially easy when you’re under pressures: I’ve had many times over the years where I’ve found it fantastically, overwhelmingly hard to write up a story idea when the mortgage is due. Yet every single thing I am doing now to keep the roof over my head began as something I wrote on the side while doing some other job. In every sense, my entire career is based on my writing.

I’m not going to make any grand claims for my career, not when I’ve so much to do and I am so far behind, but I can tell you that it is the career I wanted and that I worked for. And I can tell you that writing this to you today is why I’m confident that I will bound into a workshop I’m running all day. I’ll bound in, I’ll cause a ruckus and I’ll bound out.

Stop listening to me and go write something, okay?

Get up

The following takes place between smugness and embarrassment. Paragraphs happen in real time.

Listen, I have a thing. I have this accidental new gig talking about productivity – it’s a dull word but getting yourself more time to write or compose, it’s worth the odd dull word – and one crucially important aspect is to do with finding your best times to work. In an ideal world, with no day job or kids, there will be a time of day that just suits you the best. Maybe you’re a late night writer, for instance. You just are or you just aren’t.

My point is to look for that time, experiment around until you know when it is and then always do your best to keep that period clear. It’s simple and obvious enough, you get it.

Only, as an example, I generally tell people that I found my best time for writing is when I get up at 5am. The sole thing I stress and underline more than the fact that this is just an example, I am not recommending you do 5am too, is that I stress and underline and weep about how I loathe it. Getting up to write at 5am is all kinds of stupid and it is a damned curse that it’s when I happen to function the best. I would like put this functioning best capability to functioningly sleeping. And similarly, if you write best at midnight, I envy and applaud you. That’s when this should be done. That’s when real writing happens. Going to bed before midnight should be illegal.


I’ve changed my mind.

Not about how stupid it is to get up at 5am and not one pixel about how stupid I am for doing it.

But it’s no longer just an example.

I’m afraid it’s a recommendation.

I fell off the productivity wagon a little while ago, coming off the back of a big book project. Plus I had a lot of evening speaking engagements and it was both crucial that I didn’t fall asleep in them and also knackering that I was doing them at all. Also, plus, and, lots of excuses. It has always been that the weekday 5am is inviolate except for when travel makes it impossible or other things in my schedule make it unwise.

Whatever the excuses and the number of excuses, the result was that I had a couple of weeks where it wasn’t practical to get up at 5am.

Yet I didn’t feel all that more rested and refreshed.

I felt rather bad, actually, and things were just not working out. A few rejections, a lot of very poor writing from me. I do a weekly email newsletter for my productivity site, The Blank Screen, and in it there is always a brief section that tells you what I’ve been writing lately. It is there to hopefully keep prodding you into doing your own writing, it is there to certainly prod me. And the last few have been feeble. Practically nothing going on. And so the newsletter that used to be a nice prod for me started to become a bit of a cattle prod in my side. Just for that section, I enjoy the newsletter. But lately not that section. (I’d like you to see the newsletter, it’s good. Do sign yourself up here.)

I don’t think I consciously connected the problems to the lack of 5am starts but about a week ago, I felt so overwhelmed with what was going on and what wasn’t being done, that I made myself get up at this stupid o’clock again. Not because it’s my best time but just that I needed the number of hours it gives you when you start that early and you don’t finish until late.

And since then I’ve pitched more successfully than I have in months. My new book is about 10,000 words further on. I thought of a new business, started it, announced it, got my first paying clients. We are now fully in the smugness section and I do apologise but there is embarrassment coming, honest. So yes, I can see I got up early and I can point to specific things that have gone well because of it. But I think the truth is that it’s me who has made them go well, not the clock. But the clock has got me some extra hours in the morning, it’s got them before the phones start ringing, it’s given me a head start every day and by 9am I feel I’ve done loads – because I’ve done loads.

So that’s it. It is 5am, Monday to Friday for me now, forever. Always.

Cue embarrassment.

Except today.

Last night I was at the Royal Television Society’s awards gala dinner in the Midlands and I think I must’ve passive drunk because my head is a jackhammer on a spin cycle. Also, I got to bed around 1am. And it’s going to be a late night with a lot of driving tonight. So yes, the excuses are back and I’m embarrassed. But I’ve got the buzz of the week’s work behind me, I’ve got a buzz from last night, actually, and I know that next week is going to be full of 5am starts so I am hoping that sheer momentum will carry me over today’s jackhammer lie-in.

I’d suggest we chat at 5am some time soon but we should be working, shouldn’t we?