Magic hour: how to build a daily creative ritual
Dear readers, I originally wrote this post in October 2015! This was back when I was living in upper Manhattan, working a 9-5 job, and dreaming about making art and writing creative essays regularly. This idea of magic hour helped me a lot during that time - and I hope it’ll help you, too. Now. Introducing… the voice of twenty-three year old Kening.
I always feel so guilty about my creative life; how I plan, plot, and organize elaborate schemes, how I spend hours meticulously lining up my schedule, assigning myself chunks of time to write, design, or do creative projects, and I would just… never do it. Or only do 30% of it. I’ll vow to write 15 hours a week, and only actually write 5. It makes me feel pretty bad about my lack of discipline and self-worth. How can I be a writer if I never write? An artist that never makes art? A designer that just twiddles her fingers and waters her potted plants to pass the time?
In the past few weeks, I stumbled upon an important practice that has done wonders for my creative productivity. It’s not anything new – at its core, it uses the same principles of habit formation and behavioral psychology that I’ve always been obsessed with. But the way I’ve framed makes it different from any old habit – I’ve made it a creative ritual. I call it magic hour.
What’s keeping you from accomplishing X?
With any creative endeavor, more half the battle is shutting down the crazy voices in your head. That’s what magic hour does for me. If you’re working on something that feels big and important to you— a side project, an art, a skill, something that requires hours, months, even years of hard work, you’ve probably experience some of what I’ve felt:
Feeling overwhelmed, because the goal seems insurmountable and massive and requires more time (and energy) than you have. When you get home from work, all you want to do is watch Netflix with a bowl of Trader Joe’s coconut shrimp.
Lack of self-discipline— you might schedule in blocks of time, but when it comes down to it, it’s hard to get yourself to work on something when you say you will. The calendar notifications that pop up just make you feel guilty.
Easily discouraged as in, feeling that whatever you do isn’t making a difference. Or, very likely, feeling like it just… sucks. And that you’ll never get any better.
Distracted and can’t focus in the face of all the emails in your inbox, the texts on your phone, the people in your life, the millions of very urgent and important things, you can’t seem to string ten minutes of uninterrupted time together.
What is magic hour?
Magic hour is simple. Magic hour is one hour you dedicate everyday to working towards a specific, long term goal, side project, or building a sustainable creative practice. Magic hour is thus named because you don’t think you have time for it, but it’s important to you to make time for it. In essence, it’s just a habit. But back when my creative work was just a habit, it didn’t hold enough significance for me. I guess you could say that Magic hour is a daily ritual for achieving your life’s work.
I’ve built a set of specific rituals and rules around magic hour in order to make it work for me. I’m not saying all of these suggestions below will all work for you – I made it up, cause I’m the kind of person who needs guidelines, even imaginary ones – but perhaps they will provide some inspiration to getting started:
Guidelines for building your magic hour
(1) Decide what your Magic Hour is for. Magic hour is for your most important, most sacred goal. Pick ONE goal or ONE pursuit that you want to make time for everyday. Do not pick more than one— it would defeat the purpose! Some goals that would be conducive to magic hour:
——-building a sustainable daily writing practice
——-becoming an accomplished classical guitarist
——-creating a blog
——-building a micro-business
——-becoming fluent in German
——-learning how to do X
(2) Write specific rules for what you’ll be doing during magic hour. Define what kinds of tasks you’ll be doing during magic hour, and what kinds of tasks don’t count or are banned from taking place during this time. For example, planning is just a form of procrastination for me, so I make a rule not to do it. My magic hour goal is writing. Here’s my chart of what I can and can’t do during magic hour.
(3) Start with just 1 hour a day. Even if you would like to be working on your goal for 10, 20 hours a week, start with just 1 hour a day. If you accomplish that one hour a day of intense, focused activity, consider that success. This revelation was freeing for me, because it displaces the anxiety that whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. It got me to stop thinking about my inadequacies, and just do the work.
(4) Schedule it for the exact same time every day. If you have the luxury of setting your own schedule, schedule it for when your brain is the most fresh, and your energy levels are the most conducive to your activity. I do my magic hour between 7:30–8:30am.
(5) Set an alarm 10 minutes before magic hour needs to start. Consider it your most important appointment of the day- with yourself! Which is why I would recommend scheduling it for the morning, before all the debris of the day comes in.
(6) Create a starting ritual. This is what you do in those ten minutes after your alarm rings. It’s a series of actions you do to signal the beginning of an hour of focus. Around 7:20 I’ll clear my desk, make a cup of tea, hide my phone in my dresser, open my computer, turn off my notifications, turn off my wifi, open Spotify, listen to one song of Chopin, and open my word document. I do all of these things without thinking.
(7) Eliminate all distractions. This is crucial. You can’t create your life’s work while your mind is bumping around in the internet. Hide your phone and put it on airplane mode. Turn off your wifi, or disconnect your modem. Make sure anyone living with you is aware that you are 100% unavailable during that one hour. Turn off your computer’s notifications. Exit out of all programs except the one you’re using.
(8) Keep a notepad to park any distracting thoughts. Thoughts unrelated to your project at hand will pop up. These thoughts will be underlying fears and anxieties (what if I’m not good enough to do this) in disguise as distractions and tasks. Thoughts that frequently come up for me: work, my potted plants needing new pots, tango, Netflix shows I’m watching, books I need to buy, groceries I’m out of, friends who never responded to my texts, etc. So here’s what I do: I get a little square notepad and mark the date on top. Each time a distracting thought comes up, I’ll acknowledge it mentally, and I’ll write it down in 1–3 words. Then, I’ll take a deep breath, and return my attention to the task at hand. It works great.
(9) Keep a “ship’s log” to record daily progress. It’s crucial to be able to visually see what you’ve accomplished. It will help motivate you to keep chipping away at it. This is an idea I learned from “The Art of Slow Writing,” by Louise DeSalvo but it can be applied to any form of work. I create a spreadsheet that looks like this.
The most important category is “what happened today, what went well & what i could work on ” Record also times when you worked on your goal outside of magic hour.
(10) Reward yourself. If you are feeling a lot of inertia one day, it can help to always follow magic hour with something pleasurable and nourishing. I usually follow my 7:30–8:30 writing with yoga from 8:30–9:00am. Then I go to work. The yoga feels like a treat to me. You could pick whatever (small) pleasure that you can consistently follow it up with. Consider picking a larger reward for yourself at the end of a week’s worth of completed magic hours.
(11) Attune yourself to weekend rhythms. I don’t follow my magic hour schedule on the weekends, but I still do it. Instead of starting at 7:30, I start at 9:30, or 10:30, or 11:30am. For me, starting on the half-hour is a little detail that helps me stay consistent. (And it feels like catching a train).
(12) Don’t miss a day unless it’s an emergency. Sometimes you may have to shift the time of your magic hour, or you may not make it to a full hour. That’s okay. The goal is to carve out time and attention to one thing – your most important thing, your life’s work— for one hour of the day.
(13) Last, but not least, be flexible and adaptable. Here’s where your ship’s log will help. Record what’s working for you and what isn’t working for you after each magic hour, and review it every once in a while. If you spend a few sessions doing unproductive tasks or getting distracted, don’t panic. Just note it in the log, and use that as momentum to teach you how to work more effectively the next morning.
For me, magic hour has been one of the most life-changing productivity concepts I’ve discovered in the past year. I spent nearly a year struggling with writing, feeling crappy about myself for not writing, drowning in guilt, getting consumed by my various creative hangups and insecurities. Magic hour allows me to treat my work as a sacred ritual. It is a solid practice that calms the voices in my head, and reminds me that all I have to do is sit down, and do the damn thing. Easier said than done. Which brings to one of my favorite quotes by Ray Bradbury:
WORK RELAX DON’T THINK.