by Susan McCarthy
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Back in the beginning of summer, I was talking with a friend who felt stuck in her life, and I suggested Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity as a program that might help her break through her mental blocks and clear her thoughts. I’d worked through the book a few times, but not for years, so I told her that if she were game, we could go through the 12-week program together.
I didn’t remember most of the details of Cameron’s Way, just my favorite part that I’ve done on and off for 20-25 years, something Cameron calls Morning Pages. These are three, handwritten, stream-of-consciousness pages done, as the name suggests, first thing in the morning.
Morning Pages don’t have to be about anything important. They aren’t supposed to be pretty with perfect grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Your handwriting can be messy. Your thoughts can be discombobulated, drifting from one thought to the next between one sentence and the next.
Some days, my Morning Pages start off with a list of tasks I want to get done during the day. Other days, I spill my frustration over the pages. Sometimes, I draft an article or talk through an idea with pencil or pen while my hand skims across the page. My Pages might be whiny or hopeful or a trail of distracted thoughts.
So, why do I bother? Sometimes I have paragraphs filled with, “I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to write.” Or “and and and and and and and.” I keep going until my brain sends me onto a new topic.
Cameron refers to the Morning Pages as a “brain drain” because that’s the function of the Pages. By doing them first thing in the morning, I feel as if I’m sweeping through my jumble of morning thoughts, decluttering the space inside my skull, readying it for the day.
Morning Pages aren’t something to be done only by writers or artists. They aren’t supposed to be read by anyone other than you. And you shouldn’t even review them all that often. I use a spiral notebook for my Pages and the top margin is often filled with tasks for the day that come to mind while I my hand moves across the page.
What You Need to Clear Your Thoughts
You need something to write with and something to write on. The brain connects with handwriting your thoughts in a different way than it would with typing words. Go for the deeper connection and write by hand. Even if you’re bemoaning your messy handwriting, remember, no one will read these pages, not even you if you choose not to.
I like writing in a spiral notebook because they're inexpensive and unintimidating. You can certainly write in a pretty, hardbound journal. However, if you can’t bring yourself to mar those pages with anything other than your most brilliant thoughts, get a cheap notebook from a dollar store.
Select a pen that writes smoothly across the page. I prefer a gel pen over a ballpoint pen but lately I’ve been writing in pencil after clearing through some supplies I used to use for kid art classes. (Because of Covid-19, I don’t plan on doing in-person classes for a couple of years, if I return to them in the future.)
The only other thing you need, is time first thing in the morning.
How to Make Writing in the Morning a Habit
Find Your Motivation. One of the more intimidating parts of Morning Pages is that Cameron suggests writing three pages. That’s a lot of writing, particularly if you aren’t in the habit of writing much – or your mornings are already busy.
The first thing to consider is, is this something you really want to do? Just because I think doing a brain drain first thing in the morning is a great way to declutter my thoughts, doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump in and make writing three stream-of-consciousness pages a new habit tomorrow morning. You may be rolling your eyes at the mere idea of having enough time to do this.
Even if you’re interested in trying to write Morning Pages, the scope of the task may be too intimidating. (Keep reading, I cover this below in Make this Habit Manageable.)
If you aren’t interested in trying this habit – maybe it reminds you of the journal you had to keep for a high school English class, don’t bother to try. Perhaps one of the most important things to realize about forming habits is that if you aren’t interested in actually doing the habit, then don’t bother trying, you aren’t motivated and why frustrate yourself trying to do something you feel lukewarm or cool toward?
Decide When You’ll Write Your Pages and Clear Your Thoughts. You could set a specific time to write your pages, say, 8 a.m., but that would require your mornings to run like clockwork. A better technique is to link this habit to something you already do. For example, I turn on the coffeemaker and then sit down to wait for the coffee to brew. After I sit down, I open my notebook, write the date, and then start my brain drain.
I know that I’m going to sit down after starting the coffeemaker, so this is a clear prompt for me to start writing.
Make this Habit Easy to Do. I keep my notebook in my bedroom, on my desk which is at the foot of my bed. Each night, when I tidy my desk, I make certain to put this notebook and my pen or pencil on top of any other folders. Since I often wake before my husband, I don’t want to turn on a light or start scrabbling for my notebook. To make writing my Morning Pages easy to do, I actually set up the habit the night before.
The first thing you want to do is to make certain you have the notebook or journal and the pen you plan to use. Not to be obvious, but it’s difficult to engage in a habit if you don’t have the basic supplies. And knowing that you have them handy means that you won’t spend your first session looking for the notebook you were certain was in that drawer.
The next thing to do is decide where you’ll keep this notebook and pen. Do you want to keep it where you’ll write your pages or someplace else that will be handy? If it’s a hassle to get your notebook – it’s at the bottom of a pile of papers or you don’t walk past it in the morning, you might skip writing.
If you find that the location you’ve chosen to keep your notebook doesn’t work for you, change it. Same thing goes for the action meant to prompt you into writing – tweak it if it doesn’t work for you.
Make this Habit Manageable. Even for someone who writes, jumping into a habit that asks you do a brain drain for three pages is intimidating. Break this down into something that seems easy to do. And, no, there’s no set answer to that question. To figure out what would be a tiny version of three pages, ask yourself some questions, dividing the action in half with each question.
Pay attention to your reaction – if you feel your shoulders or chest tense, your answer is, “no, let’s think smaller.” If you find yourself laughing or rolling your eyes at a task that is ridiculously small and so of course you could do that; well, you’ve found your habit.
At what point in this sequence did you sense the green light – yes, I could do that every morning! Start there. If you struggle, lower your expectation, and see if you’re more successful. And, if on some days you want to write more, go for it, just keep your expectations for the daily habit small.
Are Morning Pages Right for You?
Are you intrigued by the idea of starting your day by decluttering your thoughts? Do you like the idea of sitting down with a notebook and doing stream-of-consciousness writing with no expectation that what you write will be perfect or even useful in any obvious way?
If you feel motivated to try this active meditation and clear your thoughts, select a morning activity that will prompt you into sitting down with your notebook. Make certain that your notebook and writing utensil are handy so you’re ready to do your writing. And finally, select the tiniest, simplest version of this habit – a version that you could do even on a busy day. Remember, you can always spend more time with this habit on the days you’re inclined to do so.
And enjoy the sense of well-being you experience by draining your distracting thoughts first thing in the morning.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, pursues learning, practicing, and sharing information about the everyday habits that can lead to living a better life.