This post marks day 67 of an experiment I decided to do for myself. Consider what follows to be my write up of observations throughout the experimentation process. Instead of trying to convince you to do the same, I’ll tell you my story, the outcome and progress, and let you decide for yourself.
Pages of Investigation
Sometimes we get overwhelmed with what’s on the to-do list. This happened to me at some point in the last 6-8 months, and it felt stronger than normal. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I noticed. After re-reading The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin earlier this year (part of my 2021 reading list as well) while on vacation, I was reminded of the concept of morning pages. This time I decided to do more research. Might this be something that could help me worry a little less, focus a little more, and not feel so overwhelmed? After initial research (reading a few articles – skip to the end of this post for links), I decided to give it a shot despite still feeling a bit overwhelmed with stuff to do. And if you’re questioning why I would add one more thing on top of an already full plate, I did too. But I did it anyway.
Simply put, the idea of morning pages is to write 3 pages per day. The 3 pages can be about whatever happens to be on your mind. It can be about hopes, dreams, worries, social pressures, stress, spiritual things (a prayer, a thought)…anything is fair game. The pages must be hand written, honest, and are for your eyes only (helps with the honesty part). This daily practice is about writing just to write, and in the writing there is an iterative process that has potential to make you more creative in whatever you do. Let’s follow that with Seth Godin’s quote I took down from The Practice:
Morning pages, for example, is a way to convince your brain that you are capable of doing the work on demand. We promise to ship (our creative work, whatever that is in our field) but don’t promise a result. It doesn’t matter if the work is good at first. The first steps help the creator understand it can be done.
I write this post after reaching day 67 of morning pages. There were 3 or 4 days when I did not get all 3 pages written, but I wrote something every day (including one day when I was sick). I prefer to do them first thing in the morning before I’ve checked work e-mail. I did not always get the chance to do them at that time, but I made a concerted effort to do them daily, even if at the end of the day. And it doesn’t matter if the writing is good. It matters that you write the pages.
Experimental Insights from the Pages
So what does one learn during an experiment like this? When I reflect back on what happened as a result, here’s what comes to mind:
- You will easily see what is occupying your thoughts. We don’t often take stock of the things that occupy our headspace, eating away at energy and brain power needed for other things (the mental calorie burn Evan Oldford speaks about in this podcast episode). By writing down these items, it is an exercise of sorts, a way to release it from your brain for a while and allow yourself to focus on other things. If you want to let your anxiety spin on something, do it. Get it all out on paper. After 3 pages, continue with your day.
- It is not hard to fill 3 pages once you have a pen in your hand. At first I thought it would be a challenge to get 3 pages written each day. Rarely did I even need to stop and think about where to go and what to write next. It just kept coming in a flow from mind to pen in the quiet setting of my office alongside a cup of coffee. The process is meant to be a total stream of consciousness (or was for me). Maybe Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway in stream of consciousness narration wasn’t so crazy.
- The act of daily writing creates a routine and helps form a habit. Make no mistake here, however. This routine is for self-care. By taking the time to write the pages, you are caring for yourself and your mental wellbeing. There is comfort in following a process. Thinking is replaced with doing. It becomes something you do and something you miss when you don’t do it. On days when it was late and the pages had yet to be written, I needed to write them anyway. And I did…because I missed it.
- Honest writing produces insight. In writing something down you may figure out a problem that has been troubling you or the real reason you feel a certain way. Maybe you hate your job. Have you ever explored why that is? The writing process is like talking it out on paper, asking and answering questions. The answer to the question may be on the tip of your pen. Let the paper be the sounding board.
- Self-honesty can produce accountability we don’t have. Maybe you aren’t holding yourself accountable for something. It may come out in your writing. Perhaps you can also stop hiding from what the truth really is.
- There will be patterns if you look back through the things written. If you continue to write about the same stressor, maybe that is the one which requires immediate action. Maybe it requires a change in behavior. Maybe you really are completely burned out. Maybe there is something you should stop or start doing to improve matters. Maybe there’s something you really need and are not getting in an area of your life, and maybe you never realized it. Maybe you just now see the patterns that couldn’t be seen while it was all swirling in your head.
- If you’re writing the pages by hand, you aren’t looking at your phone or your computer. Your attention is 100% focused on something that is not digital. You are not a slave to technology and the alerts that can come with it but focused on enriching the self. If this process takes you 30 minutes, that is 30 minutes less you will spend on a screen. If you want to listen to some sort of instrumental music like I do when I write, go for it. I find the Calm app great for this. But don’t listen to something with lyrics so as not to distract yourself. The process requires your attention. It is an exercise in attention management.
- One caveat here is that ideally you would do all the writing in one sitting. There were times I had 15 minutes and had to stop but finished the rest later. Even that little bit was progress and generally distraction free.
- This is a time for reflection. It may be a reflection you aren’t currently doing. You’ve just created time for it and may remember what your present life is like even better because of it.
- When the pages are complete, your mind is free (or free-er than it was). Its burden has been lifted for a while. You can relax a bit. You can bear down and focus. You have removed the superfluous icing and can get into the cake now. You have created space and distance. Relax a little in that space.
- If you can be present with the pages, you can be present in other areas of life that you might be struggling. Don’t forget that. Maybe you need to add a small bit of brain dump time to a certain part of the day to enable transition to being more present. The pages can help there also.
- A byproduct of this process is better communication. More writing means improved writing. It might improve your communication in ways you can’t readily see.
What the Pages Can Do for You
I’ve shared some specifics on what this process has done for me. Maybe this takes it a level higher for the reader to summarize, and it’s also an attempt at channeling my inner Seth Godin style.
The pages create space.
The pages dare you to explore.
The pages give you the chance to be honest.
The pages represent a practice, a routine, a safe haven.
The pages are yours.
The pages are for you, but they may not always be about you.
The pages stop the cycle while allowing you to ride it out.
The pages give you an outlet.
The pages form a habit.
The pages are therapeutic.
The pages are a form of self-care.
The pages are your detox program.
The pages build mental muscle.
The pages can help you recover.
The pages won’t burn you out.
The pages are a form of craftsmanship.
The pages clear your brain’s cache, allowing time for the data to de-stage to persistent disk.
The pages don’t lie.
The pages need an author.
The pages await.
Does the Experiment Continue?
This experiment helped me see that I was dangerously close to burnout. Recognizing that something seemed off and being mindful of it has been a great help to steer myself away from it. While it may not have decreased my to-do list, I needed the space doing morning pages provided (think of it as time I was not previously taking for myself). Will I continue doing this? Absolutely. I find it therapeutic, and I need to keep going. I don’t feel as overwhelmed when I can get things out of my head like this. It slows things down in a way I find really helpful.
If you don’t choose to do this, I hope you, dear reader, can find something that is better than what you are doing now to create space, make things slower, and detox from digital things for a while (all in an effort to lower stress and anxiety). There’s something to that formula (what I have learned from co-hosting Nerd Journey), and there are stories of burnout to support this idea.
For further reading on what morning pages are and how others have used them, check out these articles. I found them very helpful to understand what morning pages is and is not.
- Definition of morning pages from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- These 3 Pages Might Be Your Key to a Clearer Mind, Better Ideas and Less Anxiety by Chris Winfield
- What are Morning Pages? How One New Habit Changed My Life by Shelby Abrahamsen