Morning pages? Journaling? Or something else? Find your ideal morning writing experience.

Peter David Smith
May 9, 2019 · 9 min read

I started writing in the morning at the beginning of 2016. What began as Morning Pages morphed into journaling and then became something else, something which was neither but served me better. I hope this post serves to clarify the difference between the two and helps you choose the best way to start your day on paper.

Throughout 2016 it seemed everyone was talking about the importance of writing as part of a morning routing, but as the year passed it seemed that there were two main types of morning writing.

  1. The Morning Pages
  2. Journaling

So what is the difference between them and what is the purpose of each?

The Morning Pages

I started with the Morning Pages by religiously following Julie Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

If you want to take on the challenge of following this book, it is a challenge but you will learn your own lessons and awake any dormant creative within you. Doing the Morning Pages is the most important of many tools that Cameron shares in her book.

In short, doing the Morning Pages consists of:

  • Writing 3 pages, longhand first thing every morning. Every morning.

And that’s it! What you write is up to you. You could write retrospectively like a diary or write on the subject of a current project or simply write ‘I cannot think of anything to write about today’, which I did. Often.

Having completed the course (of which, I repeat, the Morning Pages are only one part), my conclusion is that writing the Morning Pages, as Julie Cameron describes them, is better for serious writers, those who write creatively for a living and need to oil the wheels of their craft. With practice, your writing will unfold, ideas will emerge and as a bonus you will gain insights into your own psyche. By admitting your problems and blockages you simultaneously open the doors to solving them.

As for the book, although doing all the end of chapter exercises as well as the 3 pages a day is a lot of work, I would highly recommend everyone try it at least once.

Benefits of Morning Pages

  • A brain dump to get all the negative self-talk out of the way before you get down to business
  • A form of meditation where subconscious thoughts rise to the surface where you can observe them
  • A way of oiling the wheels for the writer
  • A way to keep the pen moving, as when you are blocked you can simply splurge your anxieties onto the page
  • A tool to unlock creativity

Cameron’s Morning Pages may seem simple, but execution is not always as easy. Writing three pages first thing is challenging, since we are often half asleep, craving coffee and at first don’t trust that results will come. Reaching the third page where ‘creative breakthroughs’ are promised is tough.

Although in theory the Morning Pages don’t have rules, they do and those few rules might be enough to deter all but the most dedicated. A very similar but less demanding option is journaling.

Journaling

Creative life coach Jen Harris, who has been journaling for 20 years, describes journaling as “a very broad term (which) cannot be as easily defined as the morning pages. While morning pages are focused entirely on stream-of-consciousness writing, journaling can take many different forms.”

The forms journaling can take include a written form e.g. a diary, lists, brainstorming, writing from prompts, answering questions or simply stream-of-consciousness writing à la Morning Pages.

It can also take an artistic form, where the pages are decorated with photos, drawings, collage or even paint. Here the distinction between journaling and Morning Pages becomes clearer.

“Morning Pages are not art; they are not an outcome — they are part of a process of creative recovery.”

Journaling is meant to be read, enjoyed or used. It has a reader in mind either yourself or someone else when you are dead. This may sound morbid but I’m sure every person who has written a journal has been aware of this possibility!

On the other hand, Morning pages are as Julia Cameron puts it “the primary tool of creative recovery.” A tool. They are much more raw than journals. Anything or nothing could happen in them but the simple act of putting pen to paper every day builds up a certain muscle — the muscle you need to overcome Resistance.

For those who are not looking to tap into hidden levels of creativity but want to express themselves and create something that they can look back on, then journaling might be your thing. It certainly has therapeutic value. Studies have shown there is “a greater reduction of cortisol response while writing emotionally compared with writing non-emotionally.” In other words

“It’s better to express than repress.”

Despite writing a diary for many years and having had the experience of writing the Morning Pages, I still felt there was one element of morning writing that I needed to add — that of setting up my day with focus and motivation.

So I devised my own system which I call ‘Power Journaling’.

Power Journaling

This consists of seven stages; six in the morning and one in the evening

Stage One — Observation

Start by meditating for 10 minutes. If you want to try this for free I would recommend the Headspace App. The first 10 sessions are completely free and probably all you need.

As soon as you finish, write this question and answer it.

How do you feel today?

This gives you an opportunity to reflect on your state of mind, your mood and any physical sensations. During meditation various thoughts will push their way to the surface. If these thoughts are useful, simply note them down and return to meditation.

When you have finished, reflect on the thoughts and feelings that have arisen. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself questions in the form of a written dialogue. For example:

Why do you feel frustrated/agitated/ (fill in emotion of choice)?

Your written dialogue can be as long or as short as you like. Keep asking and answering your own questions until the conversation has reached a natural end. Note down any actions you wish to take as a result of this conversation.

Stage Two — Gratitude

Expressing gratitude has been shown to improve physical and psychological health as well as enhancing empathy and self-esteem.

Write down one or two things that you are grateful for. Read out loud what you have written for greater impact. If you notice you always seem to be grateful for the same things (home, work, partner), delve in to the past for people or experiences that have shaped you. You will soon realise you have a lot to be grateful for!

Stage Three — Goodness

Write this question and answer it.

What good shall I do today?

Yes, straight from Benjamin Franklin’s diary, it’s a great question.

The deeper satisfaction in life comes from your contributions, so each day plan to contribute. Think of three things you can do for others. It could be as simple as doing the washing up, paying a compliment or sharing a great idea with the rest of the world.

Stage Four — Focus

Ask yourself these questions and write down the answers.

What is the number one thing for today?

To achieve anything significant in life requires singular focus on the one thing that will make a massive impact on the rest of your life. Gary Keller calls it The One Thing and it should be consistent with your values and your purpose in life.

Sometimes this is obvious — sometimes it isn’t. But you should always spend your time on your biggest priority ahead of the million and one distractions that are trying to pull you away from it. For extra leverage ask

Why is this important?

And to make sure you TAKE ACTION ask

What is the first step?

Identifying the very first step in any task will reduce any fear based procrastination. Now just take action on the first step.

  • Open that document.
  • Write the first word.
  • Dial the number.
  • Begin. Engage. Complete.

This poetic translation of Goethe says it nicely.

Lose this day loitering — ’twill be the same story
To-morrow–and the next more dilatory;
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute–
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated —
Begin it, and the work will be completed!

John Anster (inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

(For more on getting started see my post The 5 scaffolding tools you need to start anything.)

Stage Five — Plan

Plan your day. With timings and breaks. If you have a long stretch of time available that should be spent on your most important task. Ideally this will be the first thing you do. If necessary set timers to help you keep on track.

Stage Six — Motivate

To wrap up my writing session, I write three to five affirmations that will impact my day and read them aloud.

Here are some of my favourites:

  • I am now in full control of my time and put it to maximum use.
  • I have clear, written, timed goals which motivate me.
  • I take actions which move me rapidly towards my most important goals.
  • Today is going to be the best day ever!

Alternatively, read a quote to give you a boost.

“What price dare I place on the hours ahead? I will make them priceless! I will live this day as if it is my last!”

— Og Mandino

“The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Power Journaling is designed to set yourself up for a productive day.

Each of the six stages offers something unique and important.

There is one final stage which I do at the end of the day which is

Stage Seven — Reflection

Here you complete the cycle by reflecting on the good you have done and the things you have achieved. You could think of it as karma in and karma out. If you like ticking off things done — now is the moment!

Ask yourself one final question

What have I learnt today and what should I do about it?

Every day brings opportunities to learn. You can learn more from mistakes and failure than you can from success, so take advantage and channel what you have learned into an ACTIONABLE step for the future.

Since implementing Power Journaling as a part of my morning routine I have seen my personal productivity skyrocket. It sets me up for the day ahead and launches me into purposeful action.

When I complete a notebook I reread it once, pulling out all the insights from it, reflecting on what I have learned and noting down any further action I wish to take. Then it goes away.

Summary

If you are a serious writer looking to unblock creativity I would recommend the Morning Pages.

If you want to write something more artistic, to be reread but also want the therapeutic benefits of self-expression, try journalling.

And if you want to set up your day for productive work that moves you towards bigger objectives try Power Journaling.


If you have found this post useful feel free to 💖 it and share it. If you have your own writing routine that works for you I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Best wishes

Peter

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