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Tag: journaling

Calming a Chaotic Mind with Mess and Morning Pages

I’m typically a tidy person. Not as extreme as some in my family, who keep all surfaces clear at all times (just stuff everything into a cupboard!). But, I’m tidier than most.

Recently, my usually orderly office has descended into chaos.

When it comes to personal space, chaos is a relative term. To some, the above would look ordinary, but it’s a stark contrast to my usual minimalism.

A person’s desk tells you something about them, as much as their wardrobe or their bookshelf. But a single viewing of these things might not be reflective of their full self, or their steady state. We all know that our wardrobe will reflect the fact that we’re going through a bit of a phase, so why wouldn’t your workspace?

Right now, I’m out of equlibrium. It’s not a crisis, but it is a time of change. I’m looking for jobs, we’re thinking of buying a house, a chapter of our lives is closing.

My desk reflects both the disorder in my mind, and my attempts to process it and take action. I make notes, I write in my diary, I doodle. I write random scenes from stories I’ll probably never finish, and scribble a lot of lists. It all contributes to a resolution.

Update on Morning Pages

Part of that process is Morning Pages, the famed technique from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I spoke about it and the rest of my journaling process in an earlier post.

I plan to use this blog as some kind of meta-journal on how my process of journaling changes over time. So, an update on how my morning pages have changed recently:

Only a few months ago, I was writing several full pages per day, just after I woke up. I was fizzing with ideas and consuming a lot of content. If anything, the morning pages barely let off the excess steam.

Now, I write a few sentences at best, in big hand, sprawled over several leaves of the notebook. It’s a purge of the disjointed things rattling around in my head. I’m consuming far less, chewing on what I’ve taken in this year, and on some big decisions.

Soon, it’ll probably change again. That’s part of the point of keeping the journal: besides the content, the form of the pages are a very clear indication of my shifting states of mind.

Mid-Year (ish) 2021 Review

Mid-year has been and gone, but I’ve been busy with completing my thesis and defending it. Having finished feels like a good enough milestone for a mid-year (ish) review of 2021.

Sunset at St Agnes, Cornwall
Post-PhD decompression: Sunset at St Agnes, Cornwall.

If I had to describe the year in a single word, that word would be precipice. The edge before big changes. For the first time in a long time, I don’t know what comes next. Thankfully, after being stuck inside for most of 2020, even being able to walk outside is a revelatory experience. So there’s not much of a bar to beat.

The year to August has been full of small changes, and some big ones:

  • Completing my doctorate. After 4 year of research, I passed the final oral exam separating me from PhD status. Needless to say, this is the big milestone. A major lifegoal achieved.

  • Ran my first 6k. I’m almost as pleased about this as the PhD. Just under two years ago, I was told I had a fissured meniscus in my knee from an injury around 4 years before. My knee had grown progressively worse, so that I couldn’t squat my own bodyweight or run at all. Even walking was getting hard. Doctors were telling me I would soon get arthritis and surgery might help, but probably not. However, some great physiotherapy and a simple piece of equipment banished it in under three months. Last week I ran 6k, which would have seemed totally unfeasible before. My aim is 10k by the end of the year.

  • Restarted this blog. I’ve written in blogs on and off for about 16 years (nothing remains of them except backups on old hard drives). My last one dried up about six years ago, when my degree started to take over my life. Now that I’ve graduated, one of the best things about life is writing this blog — mostly for my future self.
  • Ran a beta-reading club for a book. It’s a truly lucky thing to know people whom you trust to take the time to read a book you’ve written, and give some tough love in their feedback. Scary but rewarding. It’s totally different to a beta-reading group composed of strangers, because people who know you can infer more subtle things about what you’re trying to do.

  • Developed a journaling habit. I spoke about this in an earlier post. I’m still finessing a system that works for me, but I’ve made good progress so far. I can’t overstate the value of having a habit that gets thoughts out of my head and into some physical format. I would have said it was a hobbyist’s thing before I tried it; now, I couldn’t go without it.

  • Consistent meditation and yoga/stretching. I injured my back twice during lockdown, and even months later my muscles were like taut wires. I always thought, in an absent sort of way, that yoga was something that felt nice and technically counted as moving, but didn’t do much for your body. Obviously, I was hopelessly wrong. Twenty minutes of stretching or yoga every morning has totally changed my relationship with exercise — and it’s a similar story with meditation and mental flexibility/strength. Turns out the solution to almost everything is sitting quietly, breathing, stretching and recording thoughts.

Learning through Reflective Journaling

I read a lot. I like learning and I like problems. But my biggest problem, and the lesson I’ve constently failed to learn, is that I forget almost everything. I’ve read whole shelves of books I couldn’t tell you a single thing about.

I don’t have the best memory in the world, but as memories go I think mine is pretty good. Yet I have this problem just like many other people. Simple aptitude for recall isn’t the problem. The problem is forgetting to think about your future self. It’s not being mindful of the fact that you are, despite your lofty estimations of yourself, an ape. You might be holding a macchiato, but you’re still an ape.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is actually benefit to forgetting most of everything you experience. Only a handful of things are worth keeping, namely those that might increase your chances of staying alive. As Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep, this process of pruning out the unimportant stuff is one of the crucial operations carried out when you sleep.

Using How Memory Works to Your Advantage

Despite every pop-sci documentary I’ve ever seen, human memory does not function like a computer hard drive. On a hard drive you can dump anything you like, in any format you like, with as much or little organisation as you choose, and the drive will faithfully store it all with equal fidelity.
Our brains aren’t like that at all. If you put crap in, you don’t even get crap out. You get nothing out at all. Because the human brain is an expert at filtering out crap – except advertising jingles, of course.

As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, retaining semantic knowledge (facts and arguments and philosophies) requires structure. That means at least some form of processing of that information, and recitation. Turning it into a story that means something to you is a powerful tool used by champions of memory contests (they had a good section on it on the Memory episode of Netflix’s The Mind Explained).

You need more than the willpower to remember something. You also need to avoid overestimating your faculties. Countless times I’ve failed to consolidate my understanding of a concept, because it seemed so ridiculous that I would just forget something so important and useful. I would then promptly forget it, left with only the vague impression of having had known it.

My Reflective Journaling Setup
My Reflective Journaling Setup

My Note-Taking System

So I’ve decided to start fixing that. Finally.

I’ve adopted a method that incorporates two aids to good retention: recitation and storymaking. Inspired by David Sedaris, Austin Kleon and Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s Make Time, I’ve committed to a combination of stream-of-consciousness and reflective journaling:

  • A book of lists. I make a new list each day, in the style of Make Time: split into my daily highlight, my must-do tasks, and my might-do tasks.
  • Keeping a reflective logbook of noteworthy things from the previous day. They don’t have to be “important”, just noteworthy to me. Graduating my PhD program and having some great pancakes are both on the list.
  • Each morning I make an entry in a journal. This is the big one for me. I’ll do a full post on this separately, but it’s another thing I pinched from various other people (I came across it via Austin Kleon, but the concept is covered extensively by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages. It’s just a page a day.
  • I still keep a standard diary for stream of consciousness outlet, which I leave to whenever I feel the need.

Progress So Far

I’ve built this system over the last few months. I take no credit for it, it’s a mongrel of other people’s excellent ideas. It’s just my take on it. I do it all longhand, in different books that I keep close to hand. I also keep index cards on my desk to jot down fragments as they occur to me, to be written up in full the next day.

From all this, I can collate some ideas of what I want to work on creatively, and what I write on here. It’s not a comprehensive personal Wiki, but a system of highlights and triggers, to activate the right neural pathways that reinforce a memory. This means I can summon what I’ve been thinking about and learning recently and combine it in new ways.

I’ll also be using the system to generate my recommendations that will feature in my newsletter, once I get it off the ground.

The Power of Revision

The aspect that is easiest to overlook is the importance of revisiting what you’ve written. No tool will give you the ability to write something down once and then file it away forever, and still give you the benefit of better recall. The whole point is to generate a resource that you can continually immerse yourself in, like Sherlock Holmes’ Mind Palace, only… well, really it’s just a big pile of actual filing cabinets full of paper.

The point is that you’re extending your mind beyond the scope of the neurons inside your skull. I would argue that it’s not a second brain. This kind of note-taking system isn’t a knowledge bank itself, but rather a way of capturing proccessing-in-progress, in paper (or digital) form, rather than relying on your crap short-term memory.

I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll maintain, or how effective it is. But it’s at least a bit effective – this post wouldn’t be here otherwise.