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The Early Morning Creative Practice: Start Your Day With What Matters Most

Back in April, I wrote about my morning centering practice. This practice has evolved in several key ways in the past six months. Now, for the first time ever, I feel that I am truly and consistently walking the talk when it comes to my personal creativity.

It’s no secret that successful people make the very most of early morning hours. Whether you have a day job, a family, and/or wear 14 other hats, the first hours of the day are often your only shot at having time to yourself without interruption and distraction. As soon as your kids are sleeping through the night, you can start leveraging this opportunity.

For me, getting up early means 4:00 am.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Getting up early requires going to bed on time (9:00 – 9:15 pm over here). It also requires a fairly consistent schedule, as it’s difficult to get up at 4:00 on Monday morning after getting up at 7:00 on Saturday and Sunday. So I get up for writing practice at 5:00 on weekends. That means I’m not up late or out on the town on weekends. Is that a sacrifice? Maybe. But it doesn’t feel like one at the moment.

For me, getting up early is built on the foundation of exercise and eating right. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, and as you may have read here before, I’ve long felt that wheat products are not my friend. I don’t have celiac disease, but I find that eating wheat (even whole grain) stimulates strong cravings and makes me feel hungry — and tired. (This book was quite affirming.) Today I am nearly vegan and totally wheat free. I eat a very low-carb diet and eat lightly at dinner. I don’t eat after 7:00 pm, ever. By eating lightly and going to bed a little bit hungry, I wake up full of energy and ready to launch into my writing practice. Bonus: I just took off a stubborn 10 pounds.

As you might imagine, the fact that I need to be in bed by 9:00 in order to get 7 hours of sleep has an impact on my marriage. My husband likes screen time in the evening, and I prefer to read, so this isn’t a huge issue. I try to make sure that we connect over dinner and on the weekends. Sometimes he comes to bed at the same time I do. We also share our daily morning meditation practice, which to my mind is more valuable than sitting next to each other in front of the TV half comatose for a couple of hours in the evening.

It won’t always be this way. Writing is important to me, and right now, this is what it takes to be a serious player. Play-ah! No more excuses. (As I’m sure you know, there are always 18,489 “good” excuses.)

Yeah, great, but what does that really LOOK like?

My morning practice starts at 4:00 am and ends at 8:15 am when I leave the house with my two youngest children. I started the 4:00 wake-up over the summer and have now incorporated the school routine. Here’s what my morning practice looks like, woven into the regular flow of home life:

  • 4:00: out of bed, make tea, settle into office
  • Read the day’s page in The Daily Writer
  • Writing practice: 500-word minimum (this helps me focus on output rather than falling into editing)
  • 5:20: join my husband upstairs for 20 minutes of meditation
  • Do three vinyasas (sun salutations)
  • 5:45: back in office, read the day’s entry in Mark Nepo’s Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening
  • Draw an Osho Zen Tarot or Faerie Tarot card
  • Record last night’s dream(s) in my dream journal, if I remember anything
  • 6:15: stop to ensure that daughter is awake, make breakfast for her, eat a few spoonfuls of peanut butter if I haven’t already, husband leaves
  • Make lunch for daughter and two younger sons (daughter catches school bus at 6:48)
  • At some point here, the two little ones wake up; feed them breakfast
  • Unload dishwasher and tidy kitchen
  • At kitchen table, finish morning pages/intention journaling if not already complete
  • Review my list of personal goals and intentions for the year
  • Plan the day (in planner, assigning a time and a duration for each task, or adding them to the “batch task” block)
  • Dress self and youngest son, brush teeth, make bed, put in a load of laundry if time, make sure we’re all ready to leave the house
  • 8:15 heard little boys out of the house for bus/school run

Note that the writing practice comes FIRST. That way, if a wee one wakes up exceptionally early, it’s still already done. If I have to scrap the centering part of my practice (mediation, journaling, etc.) then so be it. But the writing practice isn’t threatened. Usually, it all falls into place, with a little juggling between the aforementioned time slots. Everyone gets off to school and work in good stead, and the house is (gasp!) clean and tidy.

I understand that a routine like this might seem baffling — or totally unappealing. But for me, it’s a completely sustainable loop. Those four hours and fifteen minutes are routine now. It’s a routine that is grounded in my macro level intentions and priorities. I can’t overstate what it means to me to have a daily writing practice that absolutely happens every day. Seven days a week. I’m in touch with my creative work every day, all day, because it’s always fresh, always percolating. Without this morning anchor, the demands of my editorial business, my coaching practice, my studio storefront, and my family/domestic life eat up every available moment.

Interested in what an early morning creative practice could do for you? My last post on this topic included some ideas for developing your own morning centering practice. Add the creative session, mix well, and enjoy.

And hey: If you’re up at 4:00 am eastern time, know that you and I are creative buds.

What think?

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Christine: Fearing the Blank Page

Christine Brandel is a Studio Mothers contributor. She also blogs at A Hot Piece of Glass.

I treated myself to a nice, new journal the other day. I’ve been wanting to try art journaling for a long time, and I can never seem to get started. So many choices, I was always overwhelmed! What type of paper? Should I bind the journal myself, or purchase one? What should I write about? What if I can’t really draw? But I admired so many artists’ pages and secretly wished I could express myself in the same media… I blog, so journaling in and of itself isn’t really a problem, but facing that blank page was terrifying!

Surfing on Amazon the other day, I looked through my wishlist and found that I had placed a Moleskin watercolor art journal on the list a couple of years ago. Impulsively, I put it in my shopping cart, added a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (to read to my kids!), and checked out. The journal and the rest of my order arrived yesterday, and this morning, I removed the shrink wrap, fully intending to dive in immediately.

Instead, I find myself thinking about the journal rather than creating in it. I’m trying to decide what (if any) particular subject matter I want this journal to be about — a travel story about our epic family road trip to Miami in June? Or a journal about my recent return to riding horses, and all the emotion and significance that brings forth? Or a journal about my everyday life here with my family? Or, I know! How about a journal with a theme of inspirational quotes and images that are inspired by them? The options are endless!

Probably the best course of action is to just open the journal and go for it. I tend to like heavily text-based journaling, so I’m thinking I am going to choose a favorite quote as the subject for my first page, and break out my paints and pens and get on with it. I know I want to write about horses and riding, and it only occurred to me today that I can use images of the horses I ride — I don’t have to be able to draw them to include them! What a relief that is! 😉 Once I get started, I know things will roll along; it’s making that very first mark on the first page of my heretofore untouched journal book that strikes fear into the hearts of not-so-confident new art journalers like me. I know I also have to quit thinking in terms of “wasting” my materials or somehow “ruining” my journal book. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be mine. I can’t wait to get started!

How do you handle the “fear of the blank page”?

The Morning Centering Practice

Recently, I’ve been thinking about why some days are focused and productive, and others are just “busy” and unsatisfying. It’s the difference between driving the cart and having the cart push you along from behind. One feels way better than the other.

In working with clients and in examining my own life, I’m gaining new clarity on the importance of a morning centering practice. When I do my morning centering practice, I’m in touch with what’s important, what I want to accomplish that day, and the frame of mind I’d like to maintain. I plan the day, allot durations to each activity, and then work from my list. When I don’t do the morning practice, I jump right into “doing” — and am thereafter shadowed by a nagging feeling of being “off,” regardless of how much I get done. On those days, I tend to work in a state of reactivity, rather than proactivity.

What does a morning centering practice involve?

Here’s what my morning centering practice looks like, in an ideal world. In total, it takes about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.

  • 5:00: out of bed
  • meditate for 20 minutes
  • make tea
  • record last nights dream(s) in my dream journal, if I remember anything
  • choose an Osho Zen Card for the day
  • read the day’s entry in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening
  • review my list of personal goals and intentions for the year
  • creative visualization (Shakti Gawain exercises)
  • intention journaling
  • plan the day (in planner, assigning a time and a duration for each task, or adding them to the “batch task” block)

This might seem like a cumbersome list, but it flows naturally — each step building on the last, ensuring that the things I put in the day’s to-do list (the last step) are grounded in my larger intentions and values.

To create your own morning centering practice, brainstorm the materials and resources that help restore you to who you are. Whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist, I strongly recommend a daily meditation practice. Meditation helps you remember that all of those thoughts in your head — the thoughts that stress you out, make you feel bad, or tell you what to do — are just the monkey mind. You can let them come and go without falling for the little snares they leave in their wake. The best (and cheapest) therapy going.

Making it happen

How does a mama get an hour or more to herself in the morning? At my house, she gets up at 5:00. There’s no other way to slice it. Sometimes (usually) at least one of my younger boys is up well before 6:00. But so long as I’ve completed the meditation portion of the morning routine, I can do the other parts with company. It’s not ideal, but better to do the practice than not. Much, much better to do the practice than not.

There are two important things that fuel the morning centering practice. The first is habit. If you get up every day at the same time and do your practice, it becomes routine within weeks. It’s just what you do. The second is going to bed on time. I’m naturally an early riser, but if I go to bed at 11:00 or later, it’s painful to get up at 5:00 — and too easy turn my phone alarm off and go back to sleep. I need to be vigilant about bedtime.

When I look back on the periods in recent years when I’ve been “in the zone” — when doing what I want to do has been less of a struggle — it’s been when I’ve maintained my morning centering practice. I can feel its value, like an inner compass, throughout the day.

Springboard to creativity

Following your morning centering practice with a window of creative work is an excellent strategy. You’ll have clarity and inspiration. If you have to take a break in there to get kids ready and off to school, that’s OK. But get a block of creative work done as soon as possible. If you can get your creative work done before any “day job” tasks on your plate, so much the better. All day long, you’ll feel great about having done your creative work first thing.

How about you? Do you have a morning centering practice of one kind or another? What works best?

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Intention Journaling

Not long ago, I became so overwhelmed with all of the things on my to-do list (and all of the many things that I really wanted to do) that I was no longer able to easily prioritize at the beginning of each day.

As a result, I’d flutter from item to item, getting a few things done, but forgetting something important that really had to be taken care of. I realized that I was so inundated that I needed to “talk” my way through to clarity. So I started “intention” journaling every morning.

Unlike Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, I write a page every morning that specifically sets my intentions for the day. In conjunction with my planner, I outline what I’m going to do — but more than the specifics, I remind myself of the mindset of presence that I want to retain as much as possible; how I want to eat in order to nourish my body; priorities for my business, etc. It’s kind of like re-programming myself every morning. Intention journaling isn’t about re-hashing the past, although I wouldn’t want to limit myself if something really important seemed to be waving its arms in my face.

By clearing my mind and soothing anxieties, I make room for creativity. During this process, I often come up with new ideas for something I want to integrate into my coaching work or a new blog topic — I note them in my journal and then go back and highlight those items, so the journal is sort of a real-time workbook. It has been an enormous help to me in gaining clarity every morning, working though any perceived stressors, and reminding myself of what’s important before the day runs away form me.

If this approach appeals to you, give it a try. Art journaling would work here too! If you try it, let us know!

This piece was reprinted from the last issue of the Creative Times, our monthly newsletter. Click here to subscribe!

Robin: Decluttered

I have a stack of journals in which I have collected ideas. There are about 6 of them. There is no rhyme or reason to them. Pretty little journals with random thoughts and dreams and ideas. This collection began to wear on me about the same time that I committed to writing out my business plan for the Creative Business marathon. How will I ever find the time to look through these? What am I missing out on? Do I keep re-inventing the wheel of my creativity without realizing it?

I have this same awful habit when it comes to pictures as well. Files and files of pictures on my computer. Random files simply listed by date. No wonder I feel so scattered all the time. No wonder I can’t seem to think my way clear to a concise plan. I have these stacks of randomness. Until this weekend…I looked through the pages of the journals. And guess what I found?  Most of them are only halfway full. AND most of the ideas I am ALREADY IMPLEMENTING. And the pictures? Well that was not as clean and tidy. In fact, that took hours.  LOTS AND LOTS of hours. But that too is complete.

I feel CLEANSED and ready for my NEXT STEPS

[photo credit]

8/3 Weekly Creativity Challenge and New Prompt

Thanks to Miranda Hersey Helin and Kelly Warren for this week’s entries. Miranda shared some poignant commentary with her zoo thoughts and photo below.  I think it’s fascinating to put ourselves in the minds of those caged birds, or any caged animal, and read their thoughts. Fascinating, and probably a bit sad. Great point to “fly anyway!” and make the best of your situation.

From Miranda: We took the two little boys to Southwick’s Zoo on Saturday. We had a great day — although I’m not a fan of zoos, and this is why. The best spin I can give it: Fly anyway.

miranda fly


From me (Kelly Warren): I’ve been working on my first art journal, and this is one of my recent page spreads. I love making the “art” part of this journal, though I’ve been really hesitant on the “journal” part, I think because I’m so afraid I’m going to screw up the “art” with my basically illegible handwriting! I have mapped out things in my head that I’d like to write in there but have not yet had the courage to put pen to art. I think part of that is also because the things that I’m wanting to write about are very personal and not meant for sharing, so I guess I’ll just be sharing the art portion of my art journals before I do any actual journaling.

journal page 4a

journal page 4b


This week’s prompt: “sprout”
Use the prompt however you like – literally, or a tangential theme. All media are welcome. Please e-mail your entries to creativereality@live.com by midnight eastern time on Sunday, August 9, 2009. Writers should include their submission directly in the body text of their e-mail. Visual artists and photographers should attach an image of their work as a jpeg. Enter as often as you like; multiple submissions for a single prompt are welcome. There is no limit to how many times you can win the weekly challenge, either. (You do not have to be a contributor to this blog in order to enter. All are invited to participate.) All submissions are acknowledged when received; if you do not receive e-mail confirmation of receipt within 48 hours, please post a comment here. Remember, the point is to stimulate your output, not to create a masterpiece. Keep the bar low and see what happens. Dusting off work you created previously is OK too. For more info, read the original contest blog post.

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