Three pages a day

Of all the self-help tools I've tested through the years, one has proved more enduring than the rest: Morning Pages. Each day, I rise at 6am sharp, brew a piping-hot cup of my favourite single-estate Brazilian coffee, leave all parental responsibilities to my partner, and… just kidding! Ever since our son came along, my morning routine has been that I basically don't have one. And yet, about four mornings out of seven, I do still manage 4o minutes of freewriting in a fancy notebook, even if they're often interrupted by several episodes of Sarah and Duck.

 

The technique famously originates with the creativity teacher Julia Cameron, and I recommend her short book The Miracle of Morning Pages if you'd like to know more. But my practice is easy to summarise: I write, by hand, until I've filled three sides of an A5 notebook with words no-one else will ever see. The length requirement is fixed, but apart from that, anything goes. The rule is to keep the pen moving (and if you can't think of anything to write about, just write about that). Simple.

 

Almost too simple, actually. For people like me and maybe you, accustomed to relying on our intellects to steer us through life, there's something disconcerting about how little there is to these instructions. No intricate steps to follow, no outcomes to aim for, no clear standards of success or failure, nothing to grasp hold of. And this, I've slowly come to realise, is why the habit's so worthwhile.

 

For example, take the extraordinary efficacy of Morning Pages when it comes to generating ideas – work ideas, ideas for addressing personal issues, and so on. Since the only fixed demand is that you fill three pages, Morning Pages demonstrates the principle that quality is often a function of quantity: there's no time or incentive to judge each idea, to get it right before getting it down, and the result is that ideas flow more freely, unimpeded by the clenched grip of perfectionism. There are far more of them, and sometimes a few of them are good. 

 

Besides, there's something transformative about achieving a third-person perspective on the contents of your mind by externalizing them on paper. You know how it's often easy to see what someone else needs to do about their problems? Externalising your thoughts can trigger similar insights on your own behalf. And even when it doesn't, the shift in perspective is liberating in itself. That's why I think Morning Pages get to count not just as a form of self-therapy, but a form of meditation – a way of disidentifying from mental content, seeing your thoughts and emotions for the fleeting, insubstantial things they really are.

 

Whether or not this has you rushing for the nearest notebook, there's a general attitude here that's well worth cultivating – a healthy scepticism toward the part of your brain that's so enthusiastic about controlling how things unfold. You just do the pages, and something else does the rest. 

 

The psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp once wrote that his job, metaphorically speaking, was to stand at the open door of his consulting room as a new patient rushed toward him, eager to fling himself into Kopp's arms, to have his problems solved – and then to stand aside, so the patient would crash onto the welcome mat, and then be obliged to pick himself up by drawing on internal resources he hadn't known he possessed. The patient had a whole plan for sorting his life out, and for co-opting Kopp into the scheme. But what he really needed was to have that plan forcibly put on hold. 

 

Morning Pages is another tactic for getting out of your own way like this – a ritual, in a deep sense of that word, because what's key is the observance, not harnessing that observance for some particular outcome. Everyone should have one or two such rituals, if you ask me, to help unclench one's agitated grip on the world and to encounter reality as it is.

 

But in hinting that Morning Pages might improve your life, I've already said too much: now there's a risk you'll try them in order to achieve that goal. Whereas their real value seems to come from putting that whole control-focused, goal-achieving mental machine to one side for a bit. So ultimately I don't think I can say, by means of a persuasive intellectual argument, why you ought to try Morning Pages. Perhaps a bit confusingly, though, that's part of the reason you should.

To receive posts as soon as they're available, subscribe to my email The Imperfectionist.