The cliché bumper sticker slogan that begins “I’d rather be…” is one way to describe my brain activity 5 out of 7 days of the week. Focus comes and goes unless I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum and completely obsessed with a task. So, I went and did just that. I got obsessed with tweaking my focus.
The Distraction Engine
How many thoughts does the average person have per day? There are loads of estimates, some as high as 70,000. However, what defines a thought? As I typed the last sentence I was wondering if I have a fever, curious about the noise outside and debating if I should turn some music on. All these inquiries were based on my environment. So were they one flowing thought or multiple thoughts? We can further confuse the issue with counting things at the subconscious level, but the point is we have a lot of distractions.
Maintaining focus in that swamp of thoughts can be difficult. There are times when I am tempted away from writing this article by other pressing needs. My father-in-law’s birthday is coming up. I should probably take a second to order him a gift now before I forget! Yet, the real diversions are the thoughts themselves. It can be challenging to write this very sentence when my mind is wandering through my music catalog in order to find something to “help” me focus. This is the problem I set out to address and how I stumbled onto Morning Pages.
Clear Your Head
“Free your mind and the rest will follow.” That’s how En Vogue feels about prejudice and how Morning Pages work for me. I added the 3 page free write to my routine almost a year ago and I’ve been much more productive and focused.
Writing the Morning Pages allows me to dump my anxieties and reduce the distracting thoughts down to a dull hum. Common advice when you encounter a difficult problem is to “talk about it” with someone. Saying the words out loud is moderately therapeutic even if it doesn’t solve the problem. Writing these pages before you start your day works in the same way. I clear my mind of the issues that I don’t have control over. For example, I can’t control the weather or other people. So I spit those worries out on the page and clear my head.
The Morning Pages also unlock some useful ideas and show me concerns that I should focus on. Dispensing my stream of conscious on the paper last week gave me an idea for a story to share at the local story slam. On another day, I had a ridiculous idea for a web comic that I passed along to more talented friends. Free writing each morning has also allowed me to put a spotlight on the changes I want to make in my life. If every morning begins with a page about my frustration with my finances, maybe it’s time to find some better paying gigs.
Morning Pages were so beneficial to me I couldn’t believe I would maintain it. Instead of struggling with the assignments that I didn’t want to do, I knocked them out fast enough to complete other projects. Three weeks in and I was starting to manage more time to pursue other projects that were filed away to “someday.” If you have focus problems, I encourage you to try Morning Pages for a week and see if it works for you.
How It Works
“The rules are…there ain’t no rules!” I feel gross for quoting Grease, but Morning Pages are supposed to be 3 pages of your stream of conscious. I’m hungry. It’s so dark in the morning. What will I have for breakfast? Will this Morning Pages thing work or is it a stupid waste of time?
The second thing to keep in mind is the first & second rule of Fight Club, “You do not talk about Fight Club!” That is, these pages are a dumping of your distracting thoughts. Put them on paper and forget about them. Don’t go back and read the pages. If you come up with a good idea during the exercise, copy it down somewhere else after you finish the 3 pages.
The final suggestion is write the 3 pages. Don’t be tempted to type them into Evernote or a Google Doc. If you’ve ever tried to free write on a computer, you’ve probably noticed that it is very difficult because we’re so used to editing as we go. You can’t connect to your thoughts and emotions, if you’re hitting the delete key and reformatting the last sentence. I can type fast and maybe even keep up with my reflections, but writing gives me a moment to exam the thought further. In that way, your writing will eventually evolve from the simple subjects like what the weather’s like outside to some of your deeper concerns. It sounds as new age as the idea of Morning Pages, but handwriting versus typing allows you to get at the reasons for some of these thoughts.
Less Anxiety & More Focus
This addition to my routine has been mind-blowing. Pun intended. Admittedly, I’m sure it hasn’t worked every single day. Recently, I’ve had a lot of deadlines and the stress didn’t magically disappear because of the pages. Though, my productivity on many other days has greatly increased. It’s a foreign feeling for me, someone with anxiety issues, to find myself with additional time that I don’t know what to do with. Again, I encourage you to try it for a single week.
Speaking of time, you’re thinking 3 pages is going to take a while to fill, right? I find myself doing them in 20-30 minutes. I’m not worried about grammar, structure or writing something legible. I tend to write them as I eat breakfast in the morning instead of reading emails or surfing the web. Both of those previous habits lead to distraction instead of focus.
I found this technique over at Chris Winfield’s site and he has a very informative post on how and why he writes Morning Pages. I like his suggestion of using the last page to visualize my day and write about everything I’d like to accomplish. If you’d like to learn even more you can check out Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Winfield credits Cameron as the source for his habit of Morning Pages. However, don’t overthink it. As I stated above, there are no rules. The goal is to silence all the distracting deliberation in your head and zero in on the tasks of the day.