We are now fast approaching 6 weeks of lockdown here in the UK – an unprecedented pause in normal life that is unsettling, uncomfortable and for many people dangerous. It is a million miles away from being a good situation, but there is good to be mined from it. One extractable asset is time to reflect on our normal routines, habits and practices and critically evaluate them to see which are acting as headwinds, which are drag factors on our lives, can we shed them and replace them with better ones? If we can stack up a few of these tactical maneuvers while we are locked down, we can come out the other side of this better, stronger and more effective than we went in. On this blog I’ll post about some of the strategies I’ve introduced during the lockdown – some that I’ve learned during long periods of isolation on expeditions and some that are pure experiments.
The first thing to report on is Morning Pages (MP). This is an idea that my wife introduced me to – she is a novelist and poet and she has often used morning pages as a way to warm up into creative thinking. It is also a technique discussed by performance leaders like Tim Ferris and others. What I’ve learned from reading and listening to other people’s experience of MP is that each person has their own preferred interpretation. Some people see MP as dedicated time to add to a daily journal, which they use for reflection. I was recently a guest on the Not Happening podcast, and the host Jeff described his girlfriend’s practice of journaling in a notebook organised to easily compare writing on the same day of successive years as a way to reminisce, possibly track progress or shifting thought patterns. I thought this was really interesting and I can see the appeal and benefit of this, but it’s not my preferred interpretation. Returning to past writing usually makes me uncomfortable and I tend to find my own past outputs fairly cringeworthy, whether it be science papers, blog posts, journal entries or anything else.
My preferred method of MP is to do it after I’ve worked out but before I’ve started working and to take a more zen approach. I get up at 6am every day and morning pages usually happens around 8am. I set a stopwatch for 15 minutes and either write on a scribble-pad or in an empty text document (if it’s going to be digital I prefer a simple text editor over Word or LibreOffice). I have absolutely no expectations for the content. It can be anywhere from profound to nonsensical, it absolutely does not matter. It is a process of emptying the head onto the page. Some days, the writing will be mostly reflections on some aspect of personal life, sometimes it will bias towards work or some decision that I’m stewing over, other times it will be forward-looking, sometimes strategic, sometimes utterly trivial. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the twenty minutes I read back what I wrote as if it was written by someone else and examine it for any interesting insights. What can I learn about this person? What are their priorities? What are they worried about, what are they scared of? What do they want, or want to avoid? What mood are they in? Then, crucially, I delete it.
The insights from the morning pages give an idea about what thought processes are going to influence my behaviour, my decision-making during the day. They are warnings about behaviours that might need to be moderated. They are indicators of what tasks might be best concentrated on, or avoided today. With this in mind, it is much easier to hash out a day plan that is sensitive to subconsciousness, frame of mind, and preference.
I have found this process to be fairly revelatory, probably because I had a terrible system before where I woke up and just started working on the first thing that came to mind each morning with the minimum of planning or structure. I have always had to-do lists but have often found myself either discarding them in favour of some particular task that I couldn’t help but throw myself into, or rigidly sticking to it and losing out on productivity because I was working on the wrong thing at the wrong time. Now, the morning pages helps me to cut through the morning fuzz and to sit down with a clear and optimized set of tasks to work through. I started this almost precisely at the start of the lockdown, and have been disciplined with doing it every day.
As an experiment, I’ve found this to be very beneficial and intend to make this a permanent part of my daily routine. I also think there are benefits to doing MP outside of productivity and effectiveness, just for self-awareness and introspection. I’ve found MP to be an excellent way to access the subconscious with a very low barrier to entry and small time commitment.
As always comments, suggestions and feedback welcome!