Morning pages: how to use the life-changing power of journaling

Writing morning pages from our vacation spot in Stoupa, Greece

Every morning I observe a small but life-changing ceremony. First, I grind coffee beans and slowly pour hot water over the grounds to make a flavorful brew. Depending on the season, I then sit by the early light from the window or out on my balcony. I take a deep breath, reach for my fountain pen, open my notebook, and begin to write.

What comes out is a stream of consciousness. I write anything, everything that comes into my head. I record all my thoughts, however fleeting or seemingly insignificant. Most liberating, however, is the knowledge that the words are not destined to be read. I’m not writing for anyone else, not even for myself.

After three pages, I stop. I close the book and put it away, rarely glancing back over what I’ve written. Only then can the day begin. I turn on the news, open my emails, and allow the outside world to flood in. This early ceremony — a mix of self-care, meditation, and therapy — is the foundation on which I build the day.

Known as the morning pages, the tool is taken from the 1992 book The Artist’s Way by author and screenwriter Julia Cameron. The book is designed as a course for creative recovery that allows people to reengage with and recover their inner artist. It has helped millions in all walks of life do just that.

The morning pages are one of the book’s key tools. They are three pages of free-flowing, unplanned text to be written in a strict routine first thing every morning. There is no right or wrong way to do them. This is writing without a reader, without judgement. It is deliberately unstructured, a list of meandering thoughts.

This is not a diary, no painstaking chronicle of life’s events. That idea always put me off writing a traditional journal. Putting pen to paper, without a machine or a reader in the way, it feels much more like a release than a burden. I’ve come to value it as a therapeutic, daily act of self-care. I tried it once and never looked back.

I first came to the practice a few years ago, while recovering from breast cancer. Back then, I was reading a lot about the connection between mind, body and health and I came to realize that before my diagnosis I had no mechanism to release the toxic, negative thoughts that built up and dragged me down day-to-day.

Author Cameron calls this voice the inner censor. It’s the nasty, clever little voice that blocks us, the self-critical negativity that stops us progressing. The morning pages gives this voice a space to express itself, they draw it out so that it can be neutralized and put away, deprived of its power and its menace.

In this way the pages serve as an outlet. Things I regret, people I’m angry at, mistakes I’ve made, anxieties about work, family, the world, all of them go into the notebook. When I close it, they are gone, or at least distanced from my mind, with the volume turned down. I can begin the day confident, in tune, and cleansed.

The benefits don’t stop there. There’s no doubt this journaling has taught me more about myself. Spilling out of bed and straight onto the page, as Cameron puts it, I’ve gained insights into my subconscious, into that wild dream state just after waking. I’m often surprised by the niggling background thoughts released in the process.

By no means is the practice all negative. At times, an inspired idea flows out unexpectedly, some creative insight, solution, or just a turn of phrase. The pages also exercise the writing muscle, making writing later in the day freer and easier. It reminds me daily how writing can flow naturally, without effort, if allowed to.

I always end the pages with a list of things for which I am grateful. This refocuses me on valuing what I have: the wonderful people and experiences in my life, a fulfilling job, my health. The things I might otherwise only notice too late if ever I lost them. No doubt, among the things I treasure most in my life are those precious moments of free writing upon waking.

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.