Will I consume or create?
This is one of the most important questions you can answer each day.
Thanks to social media, chat apps, and streaming content, it’s so easy to consume — and it gets easier all the time.
But if you want to build a business or write a book, if you want to launch a product, disrupt an industry, or do anything that matters, you have to create.
You have to tune out the distractions and channel your own voice.
Unfortunately, that’s difficult — and it gets harder all the time.
We all face this challenge, but there’s one tool that consistently helps me to create:
Julia Cameron first coined the term in her classic book, The Artist’s Way. You might also call it brain dumping, free writing or expressive writing.
Here’s how it works. Before the day overloads your brain, sit down and write three, stream-of-consciousness pages.
Cameron recommends putting pen to paper, but I can’t physically write that much anymore without my hands cramping up. Typing feels better.
These pages are not art or even “writing” with a capital W.
Instead, they’re a way to work past the mental junk that stands between you and your creativity, clarity, and purpose.
As Cameron says:
“Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included. The morning pages are not supposed to sound smart — although sometimes they might.”
This practice has also helped me significantly in my solo-founder journey. Growing JotForm to 4.1 million users without any outside funding could otherwise have been much more challenging.
I first shared my writing habit in “Why waking up at 6am won’t make you successful.”
But I want to show you, step-by-step, how these daily pages can encourage you to consistently choose creating over consuming.
“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
– Joan Didion
How to make morning pages work for you
1. The words come first
In a perfect world, we’d all get out of bed and start writing, but I know that’s not always possible. We get kids ready for school. We commute or make breakfast or meditate. That’s fine.
But when it’s time to work, the pages come first. It’s important to release your subconscious mind before the to-do list takes over.
And whether you’re just complaining on the page or you’re working through a problem, science shows that you’re more likely to make creative connections before your brain hits full speed.
In a study of 428 college undergrads, researchers Rose Zacks and Mareike Wieth found that morning people are actually at their creative peak in the evening, while night owls come up with more insights in the morning — when they’re in a sleepy fog.
“Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. You’re more likely to achieve that Aha! revelatory moment when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering.”
My mind is too drained at night, but if you’re a natural morning person, doing “evening pages” might be worth a try.
The key is to write without censoring yourself.
Just transcribe whatever is in your head.
2. Find a quiet, private space
Ideally, you want to get into flow and write for at least 30 minutes, so it’s important not to rush.
Privacy is also critical. I do my pages at work, where there’s a wall behind my back. Morning pages demand full honesty, so you don’t want to feel like someone is lurking around, looking over your shoulder.
Now, open a fresh document. Every morning, I launch a blank iA Writer page to do my brain dump. I write in Night Mode with white text on a black background. It’s easier on my eyes and the full-screen crowds out other tasks.
3. Just start — and write past the garbage
Don’t think about what to say. Just write anything that comes to mind — and don’t censor yourself. Don’t hit “delete” and try not to stop. Keep your fingers moving.
The first words are typically meaningless. I usually repeat myself and vent about petty stuff. But you have to keep going.
The magic typically begins after a couple paragraphs, when your brain moves past the garbage and offers up something meatier.
Soon, you may find your fingers flying across the keys (or the page). Try not to stop until you exhaust that flow. I keep going until I’m writing the same thing over and over again, or I’ve formulated a plan.
That’s the funny thing about this process. It often ends with a new strategy or even a to-do list. But sometimes, I’m just left with a mess. That’s okay, too.
4. Copy out any good stuff
Now, highlight and copy anything you want to remember. Maybe you had a marketing idea or wrote the beginning of a presentation. Transfer that out of the document and into a safe place, because the next step is to…
5. Hit DELETE
That’s right. Delete the file. Morning pages are inherently private, and most people can’t be honest if they save their words — and someone could eventually read them. You have to be free to express anything that’s on your mind.
Try making this a daily practice. Free writing not only helps to clear mental clutter, but you’ll be amazed by what your mind has been processing.
Morning pages shine a spotlight into the darkness so you can see hidden connections, generate fresh ideas, understand your own emotions, and confront issues you might be suppressing.
When morning pages can be most effective
Just like exercise, meditation, any other practice, the more you do these pages, the better they will work for you. But they can also help in several specific situations. Here are five that have worked for me.
1. Before an interview, meeting or presentation
Free writing can uncover a clearer, more authentic message — whether you’re prepping for a speech, a job interview, or a difficult conversation.
Often, your best ideas are buried below surface thoughts. Morning pages can release those ideas and focus your intention.
Every Friday, we have Demo Days, where our team shares what they learned or built throughout the week. I also give a short presentation.
I try to do morning pages on Demo Days, because sometimes I’m not sure what to share with our team. Once I start writing, it almost always becomes clear.
2. To cope with stress, anxiety, and difficult emotions
In a recent study, Dr. James W. Pennebaker studied the power of expressive writing with a group of healthy college students. Participants wrote about either trivial topics or their most traumatic life events for 15 minutes on several consecutive days.
Even six months after the study, the students who wrote about hard experiences took fewer pain relievers and had fewer campus health center visits than those who wrote about trivial issues.
According to Dr. Pennebaker, “writing helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience.”
Researchers also believe that writing can help us break free of rumination — the endless mental cycling about a problem or experience.
3. When you want to generate fresh ideas
Feeling stuck or confused? Wrestling with a creative challenge? Open a fresh page and start writing.
Or pose an open-ended question and answer with as many possibilities as you can. There is no wrong way to do morning pages — and if you use them as a brainstorming tool, they can work at any time of day.
4. To overcome inertia
I love how author James Clear explains the human tendency toward procrastination: we all have a Present Self, which wants instant gratification, and a Future Self, which values long-term rewards.
The Future Self can set goals, but only the Present Self can act.
That’s why procrastination might feel like self-sabotage. Your Present Self overrules your Future Self in order to get what it wants — right now. The procrastination spiral begins.
Morning pages can help you get down to business, because action breeds more action.
Unleashing your thoughts can also release any fears or worries that are blocking your path. And once you’ve uncovered an important task or idea, it’s easier to move forward.
5. If you’re struggling to make a tough decision
Free writing is, essentially, a way to talk to yourself. Expressing murky thoughts can provide clarity.
Most importantly, you’re giving yourself the time and space to explore how you truly feel.
Try this practice when you’re struggling to choose. Open the page, write until you’re drained, and see what emerges. If you write honestly without editing yourself, the decision (or at least the next step) usually comes forward.
Here’s a final bit of encouragement. Morning pages might not always feel good, but that’s not a reason to stop. As Cameron says:
“… hating the morning pages is a very good sign. Loving them is a good sign, too, if you keep writing even when you suddenly don’t. A neutral attitude is the third position, but it’s really just a defensive strategy that may mask boredom.”
Whatever you feel, I encourage you to give free writing a try.
After all, uncovering new ideas and tapping into your own genius is more than a trick or productivity hack; it’s a powerful way to choose creating over consuming, each and every day.