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I Hated Keeping A Gratitude Journal–Here’s What Worked Instead

Keeping a gratitude journal is a nice idea, but it can actually backfire and make things worse. Here’s what to do instead.

I Hated Keeping A Gratitude Journal–Here’s What Worked Instead
[Photo: Flickr user Walt Stoneburner]

I profoundly believe in the importance and power of gratitude.

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I love sending “Thinking of You” emails to friends, slowly walking through my neighborhood and appreciating the foliage, and simply saying, “I’m grateful for this” when I eat, work, and play. These little practices help me keep my problems in perspective, keep me grounded, and encourage me to invest in the people I love.

That being said, I noticed earlier this year that my gratitude was primarily limited to my life outside of work. Sure, I was grateful to have a job, but I was lacking the deep appreciation that I thought would encourage me to connect more with my team members, reflect more regularly on my progress, and, most importantly, stop being so hard on myself for mistakes.

Noticing this, I jumped on the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. Unfortunately, it bored me and made me less grateful. Here’s why.

Lack Of Gratitude Wasn’t The Problem

About a week into keeping my journal, gratitude went from something I wanted to feel and instead became an emotion I needed to document. This might be because I did it too often; according to the Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley, writing in your journal once or twice a week is better than writing each day, as burnout is likely to happen.

I also think it’s because while the idea of a gratitude journal appealed to me, it wasn’t the right solution to the problems I was having.

For example, one major challenge I faced was paying attention to my progress, instead of solely focusing on having big wins. While writing in my journal, I didn’t find myself documenting examples of my growth; instead I wrote about people and moments that made me happy or helped me. Not bad, but not quite what I needed.

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I Like Sharing My Gratitude

While keeping the journal, I made notes about whom or what I was grateful for, and then that was it. Whereas before I would simply go tell the person, I focused instead on making sure I wrote about it.

Writing became the key action instead of just one of many kinds of actions I used to reflect and share my gratitude. This could be because of the newness of the experiment, but the impact was fairly severe: I felt good about appreciating others instead of openly appreciating them. Nothing wrong with thinking good thoughts, but demonstration is key.

What I Do Instead

Of course, none of this means that gratitude is not a good idea. It just means that journaling it wasn’t good for me, given my needs. Here’s how I express gratitude at work:

Instead of focusing on the idea of gratitude, I’m much more specific about completing acts that demonstrate gratitude. Am I being patient and helpful? Am I inviting folks out for coffee? Am I letting people know that the work they submitted is fantastic and how they are truly helping me?

Beating myself up and not appreciating my growth are also challenges of mine. To tackle this, I’ve got a completely different approach. I break my goals for the week down into small pieces. At the end of the week, I look back at my goals and note the progress on each. If no progress was made, I note why. And lastly I write down how I feel looking at my work with thoughts like “Not bad!” or “Try a different tactic next time!”

I still have big goals and ideas, but documenting small steps and progress helps build momentum and, oddly enough, gratitude, as very little of what I want to do can be done alone and without daily action.

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About the author

Allison is an editor at Idealist.org where she manages IdealistCareers.org, a community for job seekers who want social impact careers. Outside of Idealist she loves learning about Wordpress and making a mess in her kitchen.

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