Productivity should be skyrocketing given the wealth of resources we have at our fingertips that claim to organize and optimize our time. Yet, for some reason, there never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish all of our objectives. This has given rise to a proliferation of “life hacks” that are supposed to allow us to step back, reset, and refocus on our goals. However, there is no magic bullet that will allow us to get into the state of flow that is needed to accomplish much of anything. Most people spend their days in a constant juggle of context-switching that’s ironically made far worse by the mobile phones that are supposed to make us productive.
My first line of defense against unproductive days has always been a fairly consistent routine that does not vary much from day to day. Knowing what I will be doing and when I will be doing it has helped me focus. However, getting into a state of flow is still difficult at times, especially if there are lingering unresolved issues on my mind. For this reason, I was intrigued when I read about morning pages, a concept created by Julia Cameron that promises to essentially clear away the cobwebs from one’s mind first thing in the morning.
The concept behind morning pages is simple, so simple that it is tempting to dismiss it as a gimmick out of hand. The only rule is that you are supposed to sit down first thing in the morning immediately after waking up and write three pages of longhand, in a stream-of-consciousness style.
There are no rules regarding what you should write about or how long you should spend writing. When the three pages are written, you simply stop and proceed with the rest of your day.
Why is this valuable and how can it help you to be more productive?
There are a number of benefits that I have noted over the ten months that I have been writing morning pages, but first it is important to mention what morning pages are not intended to be. The journal is not necessarily intended to be read in the future by the writer, and certainly is not intended to be read by anyone else. It is not supposed to form the basis for any specific work product, and it is not primarily meant to be a “daily planner”. It is simply a pure stream of consciousness “brain dump” with no agenda whatsoever. In fact, often when I sit down to write, I have no idea what I will be writing until I start. This is the core foundation of the practice: there is no agenda and no expectation other than to write. With that said, the rest of this article outlines some ways in which I have found the practice particularly useful.
The Subconscious Mind
Any mention of the subconscious tends to be met with skepticism but the fact is that much of who we are and how we respond to the world is built on our subconscious mind which is the product of our life experiences. The study of sleep, particularly REM sleep, is a fascinating topic because it quickly becomes apparent that our minds are not merely at rest when we are unconscious. Whether in a dream state that we recall when we wake up or engaged in activity that we never consciously recall, our minds are active while we are at rest.
The practice of morning pages, if done immediately after waking up, makes it possible to write about topics that simply pop into your mind as you have a pen in hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of you. This sounded bizarre to me when I read about it but quickly made sense after just a few days of practice. My habit is to write the date and time down to get started and then often my pen just keeps going as I start to write about various topics that come to mind. By not having an explicit agenda in mind when you sit down to write, you naturally will begin to write about what simply comes to your mind, and what comes to your mind upon waking up is likely in some way related to things that your mind was burdened with while asleep.
By providing a channel for the subconscious mind, morning pages allow these thoughts to have an outlet rather than clattering about in your mind, often subconsciously, as you go about your day. This might sound “deep”, but often the topics are on the mundane side as well. And sometimes, there isn’t really anything that comes to mind at all. In such cases, I typically either write a recap of the prior day or plan out the coming day. Again, there are no rules and no objectives in mind. You just write until the pages are filled and then you stop.
What Was I Thinking?
Although morning pages are not intended to be reviewed in the future, I have found it quite useful to have the ability to refer to a snapshot of my thoughts as I started days that, in retrospect, proved to be consequential ones from a personal or business perspective. For example, I recently wrote an article about common types of irrational behavior when it comes to taxes. One of the examples I used in that article had to do with a mistake I made early this year when I failed to sell a security that I regarded as overvalued because I did not want to incur a taxable capital gain. It turned out that I had actually mentioned this security in a morning pages entry around that time and I could go back and review my state of mind.
If you choose to keep your morning pages entries rather than destroy them, as some practitioners do, you will have other opportunities to review your waking state of mind on days where you made important decisions. If you look back at a specific day and wonder why you made a mistake, you’ll have the ability to see what you thought as you woke up. Were you in a bad mood? Depressed? Exuberant? Optimistic? Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this exercise. At the same time, it is important to not have this expectation or to make this into a “goal” because we do not want morning pages to become a conscious attempt to document our state of mind. It should always remain a free flowing data dump.
On several occasions, my morning pages entry ended up being an impromptu essay about some topic that I had obviously been thinking about but had not planned to write. In a few cases, this stream of consciousness writing was later adapted for an article on this website. For example, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II led me to read several books earlier this year just based on personal interest. I had no intention of writing about these books on The Rational Walk. Yet, one morning in May after reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, my pen simply started writing an essay that later became the genesis for an article on this website. I did not simply type up my morning pages and post it, of course. But the ideas that came to mind first thing in the morning led me to write that article and to incorporate not only Frankl’s book but William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
In retrospect, why should I be surprised that I chose to write about Frankl’s philosophy or Shirer’s history of Nazi Germany first thing in the morning? After all, I had been reading these books the prior night immediately prior to going to sleep. Did I expect my mind to switch off and no longer think about these haunting topics while I slept? Clearly, these books were being mulled over by my subconscious and, given an outlet, the contents of what I was thinking overnight flowed from my pen to paper. Without morning pages, those thoughts would have been drowned out by the course of the rest of my day.
Take Any Edge You Can Get
The concept of morning pages is extremely simple and costs nothing to try out. If it seems like something you want to pursue, purchasing a high quality notebook is inexpensive and can be aesthetically pleasing. There really isn’t much to lose by sitting down and writing for twenty to thirty minutes every morning.
Some people may be inclined to attempt morning pages on a computer, phone, or tablet instead of paper. This is typically discouraged by morning pages practitioners because part of the goal is to put as little as possible between your thoughts and the written word. If you utilize electronics for morning pages, you risk being immediately distracted by emails, texts, and other notifications before you can even open whatever application you use for writing. Resist the temptation to use electronics.
Morning pages is no panacea. I’ve been following this practice without interruption for ten months and have still experienced plenty of scattered days of poor productivity. However, the percentage of days when I have been able to enter the elusive “flow state” has definitely increased and I would credit morning pages for at least part of that improvement. The fact that I have been able to use morning pages as the basis for a few articles has been an unexpected bonus.