Forming a new habit seems to be one of life’s greatest pains in the ass.
Flossing. 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Morning meditation.
Yuck. Blah. Shit.
As someone who rarely succeeds in forming a new habit, I’m both proud and confounded to say I’ve somehow managed to start a daily ritual and keep up with it for the past eight months.
That ritual is called Morning Pages, and it has become part of my morning routine into the Escape School in London:
Wake up. Shower. Make a 3-egg and veg scramble. Walk to the Tube. Step onto the District line. Sit down. Pull out my notebook. Start writing.
My task is to write three pages, longhand. If I don’t hit three pages on my Tube ride (which I normally don’t), I duck into a coffeeshop to finish the rest.
So, what are these “Morning Pages” and why do I care so much about them?
An Introduction to Morning Pages
Morning Pages is a practice introduced by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, a book designed to help blocked creatives get unblocked.
Although it’s disguised as a book for “artists” — it’s really a guide for anyone who’s feeling stuck, unfulfilled in their work, or believe that their best music is left unsung (even if they don’t know what song they’re meant to be singing).
It’s a book to help people deal with that sonofabitch Steven Pressfield calls out by name in The War of Art: “The Resistance”
“Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”
Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is meant for anyone who wants to tap back into their creative selves. Which frankly could be any of us. Because, if we’re honest, we’re all creative. Even if we’ve managed to forget that somewhere along the way.
There are two bedrock practices that Cameron swears by and implores her readers to undertake in The Artist’s Way. The first is Morning Pages. (The second is the Artist Date, which is an equally amazing practice, and which I’ll write about another time).
The practice of Morning Pages is simple: write three pages, long-hand, upon (or nearly upon) waking. No thinking, no analyzing, no stressing. Just write. Put pen to paper and squiggle it around until it forms words. What you write matters little. What matters is just that you write. Get whatever is at the forefront of your mind out of your mind and place it onto the page. Do not hold back. Do not judge. And do not stop until you’ve hit three pages.
This is not meant to be high art. The output of Morning Pages is not for public consumption. Cameron suggests they’re not even for private consumption:
“Do not reread these pages or allow anyone else to read them. Ideally, stick them in a large manila envelope, or hide them somewhere.”
I’ve come to love my morning pages. Which is unlike my love/hate relationship with writing publicly (my soul seems to require it, but damnit the process feels like wrestling with the Hulk). I love my morning pages because there is no heaviness in the outcome of the pages. It’s a form of unnecessary creation — just writing for the sake of writing. There may be heaviness in trying to form the habit of writing itself (more on this below), but once you crack that, it’s all lightness. It’s a lightness that lives in caring about the process itself, not in the outcome of that process.
Sometimes my morning pages are a streaming conscious-like flow of questions with half-assed answers. Sometimes they recount a day or a night or a moment. Other times they explore a philosophy, an idea, an obstacle or an opportunity. Sometimes they feel profound. Mostly they feel like bitching, and if read out loud, would resemble cracked-out crazy-person talk.
Which I suppose is the point. So much of our mind, if we’re paying attention, is cluttered and a’flutter with unhelpful, cracked-out thoughts. It’s this kind of muck that blocks us from doing the work we truly aspire to be doing; it’s the junk that hold us back from becoming the person we hope to become.
Whether it’s Morning Pages or some other ritual, it seems that people who create things that resonate or live storybook-like lives have some sort of daily practice. Entire books are even dedicated to the daily routines of accomplished people.
Whatever the routine, it seems that one purpose of these daily rituals is to get the noisy crazies out of the way to leave space for some magic to enter. If it chooses to enter. Or rather, put both the crazy and magic together on the same page so at least you can view them as peers and have a better shot at telling them apart.
Morning Pages is a sifter for the mind. Like meditation or running, it’s one more tool used to separate and disarm those unhelpful thoughts and help those introverted golden thoughts to shine through. Because there are gold in dem hills. Sometimes we just need a practice and a tool to help extract it.
“Morning pages bring our hopes, dreams, fears, and confusions into focus. They point us toward areas that need attention. While some people may use the pages to face an addiction, others may find the pages leading them toward dreams they had never articulated. As we come into focus, our size and shape are often surprisingly large.”
Morning Pages have the potential to be cathartic, helpful and light. If there is a heaviness, it doesn’t exist in the ritual itself, but on the road toward the ritual.
How I Started a Daily Ritual and Stuck With It
I’m certainly no expert on building habits or rituals. (For that, I suggest checking out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my newfound dedication to Morning Pages, it’s that there are ways to encourage a habit to stick.
1. It starts with a craving.
Writing and becoming a better writer is something that drives me. It’s a strong craving I fell into when I started this blog. It’s something I can’t seem to shake.
For the habit you hope to create — what is your burning why behind it all? Why bother with this habit at all?
Sometimes the craving can come from a pain that’s too tough to bear.
Craving or pain, try to articulate and harness a strong emotion and align it with the why behind the habit. Find it and hold it tightly. Tie it to the new habit you hope to form. Use it as fuel. Give it a purpose. Your habit depends on it.
2. It continues by piggybacking it onto a current routine.
My Morning Pages has a friend — my already established daily routine.
When I sit down on the Tube, the act of pulling out my notebook has become a knee-jerk reaction. It happens almost without me thinking.
My Morning Pages also has a kryptonite — the absence of my routine.
When I do not take the Tube in the morning, when I am rushing to a meeting, when my morning routine is shaken up — my habit crumbles. My Morning Pages live and die by my ability to keep a routine.
Ideally, if the habit has sustained long enough, it will become its own ingrained habit like eating breakfast or brushing teeth. Which is a ritual’s goal: to become a routine itself so that another new ritual can piggyback on top of it.
3. It sustains with a reward.
What’s my reward for having done morning pages? For one, it’s the satisfaction of achieving a little sliver of clarity and comfort that the Pages tend to deliver. It doesn’t always come. But the times that it does makes it worth the daily habit.
There’s also the reward of having written and documented my thoughts. It’s being able to look at my stack of weathered notebooks and know that I’ve created something, just for the sake of it. For the sake of remembering that I am a human and therefore can create. And that when faced with the choice to either create or not create — I went forth and created.
And finally, as someone who sways toward introversion, I’ve noticed it takes dedication, care and patience to make myself heard. Even if it’s only to myself.
Like the simple truth Bertie learns leading up to his final battle with the mic in The King’s Speech, Morning Pages helps to remind me: “I have a voice.”
And if that isn’t reward enough, I’m not sure what is.