How to Rubber Duck Debug Your Life
We get blocked in life, and not only when trying to write. We get blocked when there is something that needs to be made conscious and expressed that is held inside and not allowed out. When we’re blocked like this, trying to do anything will fail. We try to push through but the thing that really needs to be expressed will be getting in the way unconsciously.
You want to write an article about gun control, but part of you is really perseverating on the grief of your child’s recent death in a mass shooting. You really need to write about your grief. You really need to write about your child. What we should do and what we must do are often totally different things. Find the thing you must to and just let yourself do it.
So, how do I get unblocked? I use a technique called morning pages, which I learned from my wife, who learned it from a book, and an associated course, called The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. To start with morning pages, you don’t need to read the book. I will explain the technique, and my approach to it, below.
Each morning, first thing in the morning, for at least a few weeks, free-write on paper using a pen, either for a fixed amount of time or covering a fixed amount of space. I like to take a letter sized sheet of printer paper, fold it in half, and then write on two of the sides of the little booklet that is created. When I first started doing morning pages, I did this every day for six months, covering all the surface on both sides of a sheet of letter sized paper every two days. More recently, I write in a notebook for twenty minutes.
The question I am asked most often is, “what should I write about?” This is both the simplest part of the technique and also, perhaps, the hardest to grasp. You write about whatever is coming up. You express your stream of consciousness no matter what is there. This means that you will create for the pre-decided time, because even if you get stuck you will write about getting stuck. I’ll generate some example output for you right here:
This is the morning. I don’t know what to write. I feel silly doing this. My handwriting is so messy. I need to remember to feed the cat. Hm. Ah, what junk this is. Wow, I’m really self-critical this morning. I’m self-critical every morning. Ugh, my head hurts. I need to feed the cat. You already wrote that dummy. Dummy? Who are you calling dummy?
As you can see, it’s impossible to get stuck, and it’s a process that reflects on itself. Over time, you will start to see recurring patterns, and you’ll become more familiar with things like:
- What your stream of consciousness looks like.
- What it feels like to be “stuck”.
- What it feels like to engage with the stuckness.
- Emotions or experiences below the threshold of consciousness that you have been ignoring or pushing down.
- The experience of satisfaction of creatively producing every day, no matter what.
- An ability to trust that you are capable of generating content consistently.
- Flow-like states in your creative process that lead to increasingly engaging, high quality, and unique creative output.
After six months of doing morning pages, I started writing on Medium. I attribute the unblocking of morning pages to my subsequent success as a writer. I’m grateful to Julia Cameron for providing that book and to my wife for reading it :-)
This process of slowing down (handwriting makes you slow down), expressing, and reflecting on my stream of consciousness seems to have not only unblocked my writing but also my life in general. It provides a form of what’s called “rubber duck” debugging in the world of software engineering.
In rubber duck debugging, you speak to a rubber duck about the problem you’re trying to solve, and in that process you get clarity about the solution. As an engineer, I don’t own a debugging rubber duck, but I have written long and carefully crafted emails to colleagues asking for help. Before sending those emails, I have often suddenly realized the solution to the problem for which I had originally been seeking help.
Doing morning pages is like rubber duck debugging your life, every single day. You will end up writing about all of the things that bother you. You will ask the page for solutions. You will signal to your unconscious mind, viscerally, that you’re ready to dive in and engage with these issues that have been getting in the way of so called “progress.” You will get back on track, in the grove, and in harmony with the natural and effortless unfolding of your life.
Get started on morning pages right now, even if it’s not the morning when you’re reading this. Let me know how you get on.