Six Months Later

Man on mountaintop

Keeping it going

In which Mike wonders how to keep it going

Mike checked his watch and looked down at his desk. Nothing urgent in the intray. Just time to turn my phone off and grab a coffee before my review meeting with John. ‘What’s my agenda for this meeting?’ he asked himself. ‘That’s easy, I want to review progress so far but what I really want is to know how to keep this up without the regular appointments to nudge me along. It’s been brilliant, but how to do I keep it going? And this time I’m going to start our chat with an abrupt question!’ He smiled to himself.

“So, John”, he said handing him a coffee. “That stuff about resistance really helped. Really helped. As usual though I have a question for you this time.”

John grinned, he loved it when they started turning the tables, “Go on.”

“So, it’s been really good. I’m much, much better at starting small and to my surprise I’ve started to know which members of my team respond to what do you want and which members respond to what do you want instead. And the other day my brother came over for dinner and I found myself using scales with him and it was so natural that I didn’t even realise I was doing it until he thanked me for being such a good listener. I’ve even started a savings plan for that boat I wanted and I’ve found several options for getting one earlier than I thought was possible. I still have a question though.”

“Let me guess” said John, “you want to know how to keep this going. It’s been a good experience but even now you’re seeing the possibility of it slipping away and want to know how you can keep your focus?”

“That’s not fair” said Mike “I think you should add mind reader to your coaching profile. I can see how useful all this has been and some of it has become a regular habit but I’m worried about the bigger things – will I still be thinking like this next year when I’m not seeing you regularly?”

“It’s a good question” said John “so let me share with you two habits that keep me on track – ubiquitous capture and morning pages. Here, take a look at these…”


Ubiquitous Capture

John pulled a handful of index cards from his pocket and handed them across to Mike. Mike sorted through them. Some had writing on and some were blank. One had CAT FOOD printed in big letters across the middle. He looked at John with a raised eyebrow.

“Somebody once told me that your brain is for having ideas not holding ideas; and that the best way to keep a clear head was to think about things once and once only.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that, this morning, on the way here I remembered that I need to get some cat food. So I whipped out a card and wrote the thought down, cat food. That way I only think about it once.”

“I’m not sure I follow, writing it down will not buy the food?”

“That’s easy, at home I keep a shopping list in the kitchen and when I get home I will take my cards out, sort through them and take any action that’s required. In this case I’ll add cat food to the list. When I next go shopping I take my list with me and tada! Cat food.”

Mike sighed, handing back the cards. “As usual, I’m still not getting it. How does your cat food card help me keep focussed on this work we’ve done together?”

John smiled as he picked up a marker and walked across to the whiteboard. “That’s easy. Let’s look at what happened:

  1. I remember cat food
  2. I write it down
  3. This means I never have that thought again all day
  4. When I get home I process the cards to do whatever the next step is
  5. Because cat food is now on my shopping list I never have to think about it. I only remember when I’m standing in the store looking at my list.
  6. I’ve achieved two things. I’ve remembered to get the cat food AND I’ve kept my head free from the job of holding the reminder about cat food

Now let’s look at what would have happened if I hadn’t captured that first thought:

  • I remember cat food and make a ‘mental note’ to buy some but don’t capture it
  • During my next client meeting cat food pops into my head – my brain is reminding me
  • While I’m waiting on the phone for someone to pick up, cat food floats up unbidden into my head – another reminder
  • On the way home I’m so distracted by my day that I forget all about cat food
  • I’m just about to go to sleep when I remember we have no cat food for the morning!”

“See what’s happening here? All that mental energy and space used up to remember cat food when I could have just jotted it down. Remember the bug list and clearing the decks? Your brain is best used for having ideas, not holding ideas.

He sorted through his cards to find ten empty ones and handed them across to Mike. “Let’s experiment. Here’s ten cards. Write down the ten things that have your attention at the moment – one per card”

Mike thought for a moment, then began to scribble them down. He looked up. “I get it. This is better already but you must get through loads of cards?”

“You can use anything, a dictaphone, a notepad, cigarette papers. All that matters is that you are always able to capture a thought the first time you have it. It will take a while before your brain totally trusts you to capture things but after a while ideas will drop off your awareness once you capture them.”

“So again” Mike insisted “How does this help me stay focussed on what I want?”

“Simple, capture every thought you have. Just capture them all. Wild ideas, strange notions, product insights, comments, quotes from customers, and then stuff that catches your eye or new ideas you come across. Find a capture system for it all. Build ubiquitous capture into your lifestyle. Put a notebook and pen in the car, the toilet, tuck some blank cards in your wallet. Do this so that you can take advantage of every fleeting thought.”

“And then, regularly, perhaps daily if you can manage it or weekly at the very minimum make a decision about everything you capture:

It’s something you need and want to do – put it on an action list

It’s a daft idea you will never do – shred it

It’s something you might do, one day – start a might do, one day list or a wild ideas list

“Build this habit into your life and nothing will ever get past you. And your mind will stay clear so that you can continue to bring your full attention to whatever you are doing right now.”

“OK that’s good. I can do that. What was the other thing you mentioned – morning pages?”


Morning Pages

“Morning Pages” repeated John “This is an exercise made popular by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way and it’s both very simple and very useful at the same time. All you do is start your day by writing down whatever is in your head until you have filled three pages.”


“Yes. This morning I got up at 6am, went downstairs, made a coffee, then sat down with a pad and pen and started writing. I wrote non-stop for three pages and when I’d finished, I walked across to the shredder and destroyed them.”

“That sounds strange” said Mike “what’s the point of that and why did you shred them? I don’t think I’ve written more than a paragraph with a pen since school.”

“Well, think about how a day normally goes. From the second you wake up you are assaulted by words, images, contact with other people, information, demands, feelings etc. In fact, for most people there are only two times in their day when they are alone with themselves, that’s just as they are coming awake and just before they go to sleep. For most, that’s the only time when it’s peaceful enough to bring to mind anything that has been pushed aside by the busyness of the day.”

“Morning pages are a way of deliberately answering the question ‘What has my attention?’ it has lots of benefits but let me go over it one more time to point out a few things and see if I can explain why it might be useful.”

Do Them Early

“First, do it early. When you wake up your mind is clear and you’ve not yet been filled with other people’s words and thoughts. Think about it, the second you turn on the TV/radio or read a newspaper or start yelling at the kids to get up for school you are filled with words, opinions, ideas and demands from others so it’s easy to forget or miss those things that were on your mind. So do it early. Grab paper and pen and simply write down whatever is in your head.”

Total Safety

“Second, because you know you will shred them, you also know that no one is ever going to read what you write. This means you have total freedom to write, unedited and uninhibited. Simply write down the flow of your thoughts. In the morning I’m often grumpy, I need caffeine and I’m moaning – it’s not literature but the freedom that comes with knowing you can write anything, about any subject, about anyone, in any way, is very liberating and it clears all that stuff out of your head. It’s like taking the cork out of the bottle because it clears your mind for the rest of the day.”

Do Them Regularly

“Third, do it regularly. Remember our discussion about mood and desire. Quite often I do not feel like doing my morning pages but now I do them anyway. What you’re really doing is creating a single unique piece of work every morning and once you realise that you can create this kind of thing under any circumstances and in any mood, you realise that your creative abilities are somehow separate from your moods. That’s something that can carry forward into the rest of your day.”

Do Them By Hand

“And lastly, do it by hand. Write fast, not worrying about spelling or punctuation. Follow the stream of your thoughts as they come out. Writing by hand on paper is an act of deliberate physical creation, it’s just like painting a series of very small pictures. Crafting something physical with your hands activates different parts of your mind – especially if you use different colours. The other thing I do is keep some scraps of paper nearby in case I get a reminder or an idea or a todo that I want to keep. Morning pages sometimes stimulate ideas and actions that I don’t want to shred – I jot these down on a scrap of paper so that I can keep them.”

“That sounds OK” said Mike “and I can see why it might be useful for an artist but I’m not an artist so what use is that for my question.”

“The only way to find out is to try it” said John. “Give it a week and you will see what I mean. All I can tell you is that routinely writing down your first thoughts in a safe and regular way causes you to pay attention to what has your attention. You will find that what you really want begins to come through loud and clear.”

Mike sighed. John had got him again. He was going to have to try this or the curiosity about it would drive him nuts. “Give me those instructions again?”

Pay Attention To What Has Your Attention

“Simple, create some time, before the day starts, to write down your first thoughts and keep going until you have filled three pages. Then destroy them. If it helps, start by answering the question ‘What has my attention?’ so that you use your pages to pay attention to what has your attention.”

Find Your Origin

“Knowing your own mind is the key to being original. You have to know the origin. Morning pages help you know your own mind and as a side effect you will become an original thinker – a person with a view, a perspective, someone who knows what they think. This kind of clarity is both rare and attractive.”

“It’s by paying attention to those thoughts hovering at the edge of your awareness that you will stay focussed on understanding what you really want and finding the motivation to go after it.”

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