I hate mornings. I hate the crisp morning air, I hate the dew, I hate birds chirping, I hate the sun shining down on me oh so smugly, burning my eyes with its golden lasers of death. But unfortunately, my professional life demands that I not only be up with the chirping birds but that I’m productive and creative to boot.
So what’s a vampiric creative type to do? Devise a routine, of course. And while a structured routine to boost our free-wheelin’ creative side might seem contradictory, it’s anything but. Waiting for the muse to strike is for amateurs and trust fund kids. Pros rouse the muse out of bed, hand her a cup of coffee and tell her to get to work. Here’s how I do it.
WHEN DO YOU NEED TO BE UP? GET UP AN HOUR EARLIER THAN THAT
My best friend used to be the snooze bar. Every morning I’d play my game of whack-a-mole with the alarm clock, which would usually last until I had all of 15 minutes to jump into the shower, grab a Clif bar and run out the door. But what did those extra 45 minutes of sleep net me? I certainly wasn’t any more alert. In fact it would usually take me another hour and multiple cups of java to shake the grogginess and get my juices flowing.
So what was my solution? Set the alarm an hour earlier and put the clock far enough away that whack-a-mole wasn’t an option. I didn’t learn to hate mornings any less, but the extra hour gave me time to ease into the day, allowing my body to wake up on its own terms without the added stress of having to rush around.
MEDITATE! YES, MEDITATE
I don’t mean to sound like a new age California hippie, but meditation has done wonders for my stress levels, mood and yeah, creativity. Besides, it’s not like I slipped straight into the lotus pose as soon as I got my California driver’s license. For years I dismissed meditation as Eastern pseudoscience hooey like cupping, feng shui and giant radioactive Tokyo-destroying monsters. But after stress became an issue in my life (around about the end of my Red Sox’s 2011 season), and upon hearing two of my heroes laud the creative benefits of meditation (i.e. filmmaker David Lynch and jazz bassist Gary Peacock), I decided to give it a shot. Boy howdy, am I glad I did. Meditation clears away all those annoying little thoughts that crowd my brainspace like hipsters at an Echo Park gastropub and allows me to focus on the task at hand.
CAFFEINATE! BUT NOT TOO MUCH
For years it took me multiple mugs of “wake up sauce” to get through the morning. Unfortunately, all that stimulant coursing through my veins would inevitably lead to a hard crash, stranding me in a creative dead zone. Caffeine wakes you up, no doubt, and it seems like every day there’s a new study espousing its health benefits – but I find that a little moderation goes a long way. These days I get my fix with green tea. Sure, it contains less caffeine than coffee, but it also contains the amino acid theanine, which conjoins with caffeine like Voltron to form a super-stimulant that reduces stress and improves mental performance without caffeine’s usual crashes and jitters.
You don’t have to run a marathon or anything, but some cardio first thing in the morning will get blood flowing to that all-important gray matter up in your body-attic. After meditation and green tea I like to go for a 20 to 30 minute run; enough to get the heart pumping but not enough to make me want to crawl back into bed. Yoga is great, too.
I know, everybody’s on a low carb diet these days. And there’s no doubt that consuming nothing but white flour and simple starches will turn your six pack into a keg faster than you can say “pass the donuts.” But carbohydrates are not only an essential nutrient (meaning, you’ll die without them) but they have been shown to improve cognitive function. Hey, you’re going to need to eat some carbs anyway, might as well do it first thing in the morning when they’ll do you the most good. Stick to whole grains, fruits and nuts, and avoid refined sugars.
READ SOMETHING! BUT NOT JUST ANYTHING
I don’t mean spam emails from Foot Locker or your cousin Trudy’s Facebook status updates. I mean something of substance. The internet’s full of easy distractions. You sit down to read a few tweets and the next thing you know, two hours have passed and you haven’t accomplished anything except watch a bunch of cat videos.But research shows that reading offers a great many benefits for the mind. These include boosted memory, improved verbal skills and better analytical thinking. Surreal or absurd reading material in particular has been shown to improve creativity. So if you have to get sucked into the internet’s wormhole, better to skip TMZ and read The Onion instead.
HAVE A NOTEBOOK HANDY
It may be surprising to learn that in today’s digital age, when we have a litany of electronic devices at the ready to collect our ideas as fast as we can think of them, old-school Moleskine notebooks are selling like proverbial hotcakes. Some have dismissed the Moleskine trend as a retro-hipster affectation, like a wearing a fedora or riding an old-timey bicycle. But writing by hand might actually be better for the brain. Not only does it improve memory and help us better express our ideas, it offers lower risk of distraction than digital devices. 
My notebook of choice is the classic Mead Composition Journal. I have one by my side in the morning for brainstorming as I drink my tea or read The Onion. At less than two dollars a pop, it’s a lot cheaper than a Moleskine and does the job just as well.
REVIEW YOUR BEST WORK
Nothing gets my creative juices flowing like the reassurance that I am in fact creative. If I feel like the idea wheel is turning a bit slower than usual, I’ll read a piece of work that I was particularly proud of, or one that had a client particularly stoked. My screenwriting partner and I used to call this “sniffing our own poop” (admittedly, dookie jokes were our bread and butter). And as disgusting as that sounds, it really works.
MAKE A SCHEDULE AND STICK TO IT
It would be wonderful if being creative simply meant lounging around the pond like Henry David Thoreau and writing when the mood strikes. But chances are — if you’re a creative professional these days — you have tight deadlines, a backlog of projects, demanding clients and plenty of distractions. Rather than let my day become a nebulous blob of activity, I make a schedule and stick to it. Compartmentalizing what I’m going to work on, when and for how long keeps my ideas sharp and focused while conserving my mental energy for the projects that need it most.
TAKE A STEP BACK
Before tackling a project, a helpful technique is to establish some “psychological distance.” The theory being that the more abstract a problem is, the more creative our solution will be. Sound weird? Well it is, but as the recent Bud Light campaign informs us, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.
Ever notice how easy it is to give a friend or colleague notes on a project, even while we’re tearing our hair out trying to break free from our own creative gridlock? That’s because we have less riding on our friend’s failure or success. It lives in the abstract rather than in the concrete realm of our psyche. So how do we apply this to our own work, exactly? Before digging in, I try to imagine that the project I’m working on is for a client in some mysterious, faraway land (say, Detroit). Or that my deadline is years away, or that it isn’t even my project at all. Yeah, this “playing make believe” is kind of like a LARPer pretending he’s a wizard from Middle Earth and not a 30-year-old virgin living in his mom’s basement. But isn’t the realm of imagination where our creativity come from? As professional idea conjurers, it’s our duty to take the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. And it doesn’t really matter how we get there, so long as we meet our deadlines.
 Full disclosure, I am a California new age hippie
 In fact I still can’t do full lotus. I generally do half lotus or if I’m feeling lazy, criss-cross applesauce.
 See footnote # 1
 Fruits (especially berries) and nuts have the added benefit of being rich in antioxidants, which also improve brain function.
 For instance I probably would’ve finished this article a lot quicker if I hadn’t been able to check my fantasy football scores every 30 seconds.
 That I wish I’d thought of