As the joke goes, given how many responsibilities and distractions you have, your brain can seem a bit like a computer browser with a gazillion separate tabs open. (You win bonus points if you can identify which ones are playing random music at you.) But just as leaving all those tabs open can slow your software, a buzzing mind can be paralyzing, and keep you from getting the rest you need to perform at your peak.

In her bestselling book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron recommended writing morning pages. These are just a few pieces of paper where, essentially, you do a brain dump, writing whatever comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness style. There are no judgments. No corrections. Punctuation doesn't matter. And in her Finer Minds article, Bridgette Hernandez notes some basic ways to make this process a little more effective.

Using morning pages is a fantastic way to get control over or connect with your emotions, some of which might not be clear to you until you analyze what you've written for a minute. But the practice has another huge benefit--prioritization.

Once you've taken five minutes to write your morning pages, go back and note:

  • which topics you've written the most about;
  • which topics (or even specific words) you feel especially drawn to; 
  • which topics (or words) don't seem to connect to anything, or look random.

You can make these notations mentally, highlight each category, or find another method, such as transferring the writing into a three column chart or a brainstorm/mind map. The main thing is just to look at what you've produced objectively and get a sense of what the content actually holds.

Items you've explored the most in your writing are generally the ones about which you have the most clarity, excitement, or information. But they also can be the nagging issues or concepts you're most concerned about.

Topics or words you're drawn to don't always have a lot of space on the page. But your attraction to them means the topics truly are in need of more attention, or that you have an interest in them that perhaps you're not fully acknowledging.

Points on your pages that don't really "fit" reveal subconscious connections your brain has made between ideas. They can identify both biases and clues about what you do or don't want to do.

Now you can take the organized, analyzed writing, and prioritize the contents. Since the first category is more fleshed out or easier to verbalize, tackle it first. Pick just one or two items to handle, and identify steps you can take to facilitate them, whether that's making a call, researching, allowing a few more minutes to meditate and "let go," or finding a creative way to change a specific behavior. Put your plan into action as soon as you can, with the goal of eliminating the point from the morning pages as "done."

For the second category, again pick just one or two items to tackle. Your job here is simply to be honest with yourself about what might be pulling you to those items. Resist the urge to dismiss the points as unimportant, because your strong emotional reaction to those points is happening for a reason, even if that reason is confusing or difficult to face. Once you've done this introspective work, you'll have a better sense of who you are and what path you should be on.

Discovering the meaning behind the points in the third category is a true journey, and you might not figure out why some of it cropped up. That's OK! Since these are subconscious connections you probably wouldn't have given much thought or time to anyway, just come back to them when you can and be open to exploring and learning. You can treat this list as a potential source of creative inspiration, even as you recognize that some of the connections will challenge you to be a better person.

Now, even though Cameron calls these "morning pages," don't let that limit you. You can do it any time you feel overwhelmed or like you need your brain to shut up a little. Even waiting until you go to bed is no big deal, as it can help you feel like you've sorted yourself out a bit and let you relax. Just get the writing done when it works for you and use it to visualize what your mind is doing in a controlled way. With your thoughts sorted and a deliberate choice of what to focus on, you'll likely feel far less stressed, and happier.