My whole life, I’ve been chasing goals and looking at the future. Nothing I achieved was enough especially in comparison to everyone else. I imagined others as far happier than I was. I could get 90% but be annoyed I was missing 10%.
Yet I believe happiness is the reality we perceive minus expectations. My expectations were sky-high (and still are) but I also perceived my reality as worse than it really was. I knew I was being irrational and needed to be more kind to myself.
A gratitude practice is thinking about who you are and what you have already rather than focusing on what you lack. UC Berkeley has shown people have stronger immune systems, sleep better, feel less lonely, and are more optimistic.
But who has time to write about their feelings for half an hour every day? I certainly didn’t like being told I was lazy for not making time! We all have our own challenges so I made a practice I knew I could keep.
My simple practice has made me calmer and less likely to worry. Most importantly, I’ve been able to maintain the habit for over a year!
The habit and why it works
Every Sunday, I write down at least 10 things I’m grateful for in the previous week. It’s the first thing I do in the morning when I wake up without leaving my comfort.
The beauty of the practice is in its simplicity. It’s not scary and there’s no reason you can’t keep it up. Pick a time in the week where you have nothing urgent to do. If you have kids it might be the 10 minutes you wait while picking them up from an activity.
Behind the easiness is sound psychology which I exploit on myself. These techniques can help you to form this habit too.
I stole this idea from fitness blogs telling you to sleep in your gym gear. It means one less obstacle when you wake up. One less point of potential failure.
I keep my journal and a pen on my bedside table. Not in the drawer. Morning Amardeep does not want to have to change his position to get leverage and open a drawer. I can reach it without moving so there’s no friction to starting.
I sit up expecting myself to be as lazy as possible instead of unrealistic dreams.
Eat your frogs
Dr. Barbara Oakley, famed for creating an excellent online course about learning, recommends doing a hard task at the start of the day. She uses Mark Twain’s metaphor of eating frogs in the morning.
Let’s think about willpower as a muscle. At the start of the day, your willpower is most rested so it’s easier to will yourself to do something. This is especially important when you feel awkward about journalling. I know if I put journalling off to later in the day, I’ll always find an excuse not to do it.
Many people recommend daily journaling at the end of the day. It’s not your fault you find this hard, it’s neuroscience! Weekend mornings are the perfect time to eat your frogs.
You may be confused here but think about my practice. I sit in bed and write in a journal. Instead, I could be doing several other chores like my laundry. I use journaling as a way to procrastinate these other tasks!
I’m finding an excuse to stay in bed for longer which is exactly what my mind naturally wants to do. This is effective because I’m not fighting my laziness, I’m justifying it by using it for a productive reason.
We aren’t superhuman, we can’t get rid of procrastination completely. When your procrastination gives amazing benefits like gratitude then we still win!
James Clear, the author of bestseller Atomic Habits, introduced me to the habit stacking model. Habits are formed of four parts:
- Cue — What triggers the habit
- Craving — How you feel when you notice the cue
- Response — What you do in response to the craving
- Reward — What you gain from this loop
Habit stacking is hacking a cue in your normal life to build a habit off of it.
In this case, the cue is waking up. If I don’t wake up then my problems are bigger than gratitude! My natural craving is not wanting to leave the bed. Now my habit is my response to this craving and is to journal. My reward is the uplift I get from my reminiscing!
The truth is I, like many of you, already had a habit to procrastinate getting out of bed. Scrolling mindlessly on my phone. To set my new habit I needed to stop the old one.
This was fairly easy. I simply leave my phone in another room overnight. To get my phone I have to leave my bed which as we have established is the last thing I want to do!
A simple way to swap routines is to make the one you want to stop require more effort. Try not to have electronic devices in your room and your options are straightaway limited.
As this habit is only once a week, it’s far less likely I will burnout after initial enthusiasm. If I tried to journal every day, I would come into conflict with other priorities. 10 more extra minutes sleeping or journaling before work. Who do you think would win this battle?
Studies have proven 1–3 times a week is better than daily journaling. It forces our minds to recall information from several days ago and makes it less of an automatic process.
The first thing I do is to put the date and 10 ✔s on the page. I thought maybe I am just easily amused but I am backed by science. The simple act of drawing ✔ is associated with positivity in our minds. We think of marking an answer right in a school test or checking something off our list.
This trick sets our mind on the correct path from the start. You can use other methods such as smiley faces or using a green pen if you prefer as the color green is associated with success. It means we get a little boost before we’ve even written down what we are grateful for!
What to record
We have our page ready but we need to think of what we are grateful for! When you are new to this it can be hard to think of what to write.
- The mundane — Yoga classes make my list every week. Going to class is a habit and always makes me feel good. If you’ve kept a habit and you’re proud of yourself, put it down! It doesn’t need to be out of this world.
- Specific — Don’t be vague. Write down something in particular. Maybe you had a great phonecall or dinner with a friend. I like to look back over what I’ve written so write something which will make you remember this week. The more vivid, the greater the emotion I feel.
- Personal details — No one is going to read this unless you want them to see. Name names and be honest with yourself. If you had a great evening watching a crappy TV show then own it. I always put down social events (if I enjoyed them of course). Sometimes I even send a picture to someone to show they made the list!
- Surprises — Whenever something pleasantly surprises me, I record it. It could be as simple as it being much sunnier than I expected. When someone who I haven’t heard from in a while sends a message then it goes here too!
- Art & food — If you’re reading an interesting book or watching a cool series then write it down too. I’m not much of a chef but when I’ve made something I’m proud of I write it down. It’s more common I’ve eaten someone else’s food and been blown away.
I’ve picked 2 entries at random from my book and one from lockdown in March 2020. I’ve changed the names because it’s personal to me and to protect other’s right to privacy. For fun, I’ve used superhero names in their place.
Remember these are in no particular order!
✔ Won charity pub quiz
✔ Thor & Black Widow came over to watch Game Of Thrones with popcorn
✔ Came top 11% of obstacle course race
✔ The Hulk’s Banana Cake was amazing
✔ Awesome chicken wings with Ant-Man
✔ Managed to get to the gym every morning
✔ Finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz (****)
✔ Captain America had a successful operation
✔ Random catchup with The Wasp
✔ Gamora got a new job!
✔ Started The Mandalorian
✔ Everyone I know has their health
✔ Great weather with windows open in the flat
✔ Virtual ‘drinks’ online with colleagues great laugh
✔ Premature chocolate egg eating
✔ Houseparty with Nebula, Rocket, Groot, and Drax
✔ Binge watched Altered Carbon — cool concept
✔ Published two articles
✔ Crossed 1k followers
✔ 3 online yoga sessions
✔ Doctor Strange made it back safe when borders closing
✔ Started Where the Crawdads Sing — refreshing characters
Two years ago, I was the last person I thought would have a journal but here I am with a year’s worth of entries. If I can do it then anyone can do it. I’ve seen the positive effect it has had on my mental state and I hope it will do the same for you.
Here is the cheat sheet for the practice. See if you can recall what each point means, if not reread otherwise it will not stick in your mind!
- Pre-prepare — Make it the minimum effort possible
- Eat your frogs — Write your journal early in the day while your brain is fresh
- Harness procrastination — Use your journal as a way to avoid other tasks
- Habit stack — Tie your practice to a routine you already have
- Habit replace — Replace a bad habit with this one
- Start small — A small habit you maintain for a year is better than a big one you have for 2 weeks
- Use mental cues — Little tricks such as using a green pen help put us in a positive mood
Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful day!