MORNING PAGES

How writing 750 words a day could change your life

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

Every morning, people around the world participate in an almost religious ritual. Shortly after waking, they curl up with a journal and pen or pencil. They start writing, and they don’t stop until they’ve filled at least three hand-written pages—about 750 words.

The routine is called Morning Pages, and people ranging from journalist Oliver Burkeman to entrepreneur Tim Ferriss say it’s changed their lives.

Morning Pages have emerged as a beloved ritual in the years since author Julia Cameron shared the practice in her 1992 book about creativity, The Artist’s Way. Cameron explains that she took up writing each morning after directing a film that was badly received. Filled with self-doubt and creatively blocked, she needed a way to get her artist mojo back. Morning Pages turned out to be it.

Cameron was living in Mexico, recovering from her troubled experience with the movie business and trying to figure out what she might do instead. Writing each morning became her pastime, she says, “something to do instead of staring at the mountain all the time.”

The ritual allowed Cameron to pour out all the thoughts rattling around in her brain–including the most anxious, angry, petty, self-critical, and otherwise unflattering parts of herself. Afterward, according to Cameron, she felt clear-headed and ready to tackle her projects. “Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes,” she writes. “We are more honest with ourselves, more centered, and more spiritually at ease.” In fact, she says, Morning Pages are a form of meditation, giving us fresh insights into ourselves and empowering us to make changes in our lives.

Cameron says there’s no wrong way to do Morning Pages. But there are several basic guidelines for the practice.

Every morning, soon after waking, you must write 750 words—equivalent to about three full pages longhand. The idea is to start while your brain is too bleary to censor itself, so you can write more freely. In general, filling three pages takes about a half hour.

When asked if it’s really necessary to do Morning Pages by hand, Cameron says yes. She says the inconvenience of handwriting compared to typing is worth it because “we get a truer connection—to ourselves and our deepest thoughts—when we actually put pen to page.”

Morning Pages aren’t supposed to be high art, according to Cameron. You write whatever comes to you. You might grumble about the weather, confess to feeling nervous about a party that night or talk about how messy your living room is. Cameron says she wakes up grumpy and tired most days, so that’s how her Morning Pages start. Cameron writes about however she’s feeling, what she sees in front of her—nothing is too banal. And if her pages say “I’m tired and grumpy” when she starts each morning, that’s okay.

But Morning Pages also push you to go beyond the superficial, because three pages is a lot of blank space to fill. According to Cameron, “the second page-and-a-half comes harder, but often contains paydirt.”

Beyond simply clearing your head, Cameron says that Morning Pages “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.” In the process of writing, you might discover what bothered you about a conversation with your partner the day before. You might be rambling about a project you’re working on when you hit upon inspiration. The practice is a kind of therapy—stream-of-consciousness writing for your eyes only.

Cameron is adamant that nobody else read your pages. In fact, she strongly suggests you don’t reread them either–at least at first–so that you can truly let yourself go without worrying about how you’ll feel looking back at them later on. Part of the reason they work so well is because they provide a space for creativity without judgement. Once you’ve learned to turn off your inner critic while writing, you can transfer that talent to other areas of your life too.

Morning Pages have helped many artists, but they can be equally useful for people of all stripes. Entrepreneur Chris Winfield writes about his experience after spending 30 to 40 minutes on Morning Pages for 241 days in a row. He counts numerous benefits from sticking with the practice for so long, including generating new business ideas, working through issues that felt overwhelming, and becoming more in tune with his intuition.

Winfield particularly stresses the importance of sticking to the rule of writing longhand, which he says forces people to slow down. “Writing by computer is more emotionally detached practice,” he writes. “It helps keep our inner critic alive and well since we are so easily able to go back and fix our mistakes.”

That said, it is possible to eschew this rule in favor of the ease of writing Morning Pages with a keyboard. The website 750words.com allows writers to compose their morning pages online, keep them private, and keep track of the days they complete the ritual. The website gives you points for writing your pages every day, and even breaks down statistics about your mood, the kinds of things you write about and how long it takes to hit your quota every day.

However you do your Morning Pages, it’s clear there’s something to the practice. The benefits may simply come from the act of putting your thoughts on the page. Studies have shown that journaling about life experiences improves subjects’ health and well-being. In a classic 1986 study (paywall) published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, for example, college students instructed to write about the most “traumatic or upsetting experiences” of their lives for four days in a row showed marked improvements in physical health four months later. Expressive writing has also been associated with improvements in everything from mood to grades, memory, and athletic performance.

Expressive writing has been found to be particularly helpful for those struggling with conflict or dealing with stressful or traumatic experiences. We can see a parallel here in some of the benefits seen by proponents of Morning Pages. Many say it helps them clarify what’s worrying them, understand what’s most important in their lives, and find a way to move forward. One convert even managed to lose weight, get divorced, and revitalize her career—and she says it’s all due to Morning Pages.

Perhaps Morning Pages is really just a concrete implementation of the expressive writing that studies have shown to be so effective. Regardless, with so much to recommend the practice, it’s surely worth a try.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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