When it comes to keeping a gratitude journal, I’m kind of like the malcontent sitting at the end of the bar.

Like, I want to keep a gratitude journal, but it just never seems to work out. I get bored, antsy, and I feel like I’m giving in to questionable woo-woo “magic” that will somehow miraculously create peace and abundance in my life.

In the past I’ve tried to keep one … and there actually were a few months-long spells when I was successful at regularly writing in one.

But it never felt quite “right.”

At least not until I implemented a few tweaks in the format, based on ideas I’ve picked up along the way from various sources.

Gratitude Journal Benefits

There are numerous documented and proven reasons to keep a gratitude journal. For instance, studies show:

  • People who keep weekly gratitude journals exercise more, feel better both physically and mentally, and are more optimistic than those who just journal about random life events.
  • Study participants who documented gratitude were more likely to have made progress toward their goals.
  • People who kept daily gratitude reports were more apt to have helped someone else with a personal problem.  (1)

And 20 years ago, even before all those studies reported measurable benefits, Oprah Winfrey was talking about the general awesomeness of gratitude journals.

Back when I watched her shows about them, I was all in. 

Gratitude! Abundance! New notebooks! And pens – lots and lots of inkjet pens. 

I bought all the Sarah Ban Breathnach books. In fact, I still have them in a box somewhere. Talk about abundance: they survived the cut after I decluttered some 300 books (or more!) from my collection. 

Old-School Gratitude Journals

If you’re not familiar, the original idea of a gratitude journal is pretty simple.

Every night you take stock of your life and express gratitude for 3 to 5 things, people, or events in your life. Some people recommend writing for 15 minutes, while others recommend just writing the list.

Even if you’ve had the crappiest day ever, you can still write down something for which you’re grateful: having a bed to sleep in, a blanket to cover you, whatever.

Which is really nice.

But at least for me, there were a few problems with the conventional gratitude journal.

  1. I am tired at night and want to go to sleep. Or rather, my body demands that I go to sleep. Like, I will straight-up nod off. 
  2. After a couple nights, writing the lists seemed like a rote exercise. “I am grateful for the coffee someone brought for me today. I am grateful for a warm house on a freezing night.” The thing is: I was grateful, but … day after day of writing this didn’t seem overly meaningful.
  3. And while I did (and do!) feel grateful after writing these things, as a very goal-oriented person, it felt almost as if the journal was creating a sense of complacency. Like, the underlying message was: things are good enough. “Just be grateful” … not said in a happy sigh, but in an admonishing tone (but that could just be my issue).

Updated Gratitude Journals

Sometimes my reading veers heavily into the “energy medicine” woo woo area (although, as above, even as I’m drawn to it I’m also skeptical of it). As a result, I struggled with the thought I wasn’t able to fully embrace gratitude because of my problems with journaling.

So over the years, I’ve jacked my gratitude journal up a bit, customizing it based on things I’ve read/heard/etc. or what just “feels” right.

And here’s my latest formula, which kind of kicks ass (and yeah, I’m grateful for it).

1. Don’t Write Daily

This one took a huge load off my sleepy shoulders. Studies show that you don’t have to go overboard and write every single day in your gratitude journal in order to get the results mentioned above.

In fact, writing in your gratitude journal weekly is just fine. (2)

If you’re a goal-oriented person who plans out your weeks in advance – through time blocking or some other method – wrapping the gratitude journal into that practice would be a great way to tie it all together.

2. Gratitude, Plus

I still write down the things I’m grateful for – but I add a why.

“I’m grateful for x being in my life because she made me feel special by being so thoughtful. She brought me coffee without me asking her. Not only was it sweet and caring, but also a good lesson.”

“I’m grateful for a warm house on a freezing night because it lets me be comfortable when so many others aren’t. Grateful I was born into a middle-class family I was, in a first world country.”

Again, those studies I mentioned above? They find going deep with your gratitude rather than simply making a list is particularly helpful. (2)

2. What Went Well

Next, I document what’s been going well. Maybe I had a great week of workouts, felt strong, or I’ve made significant progress on something business-related. Or, maybe I kicked my afternoon coffee habit (yay!), or enjoyed time with friends.

Basically, I just take stock of my week and say “attagirl” on stuff that went well.

But that also means noting: 

3. What Didn’t Go Well

So yes, I even document the things that didn’t go as I had hoped. Maybe I let my schedule get out of control and bailed on my planned workouts. Or – as happened last week – I lost an old friend. 

This isn’t about scolding or being “mad” at myself if things don’t go as I expected. Sometimes stuff just happens – but I think it’s valuable to do an assessment because acknowledging problems allows us to see possible solutions.

4. Was This Week Better than Last Week?

Why was it better? Or why wasn’t it?

Again, as above, this isn’t about beating yourself up. And not every week is going to be stellar. For instance, for me, despite not getting in my workouts and taking a break from the friend, I think the week actually did go better than the prior week, because I took some much-needed downtime.

Sometimes when we can see trends of things not working the way we’d hoped, we can make course corrections that help us regain ground.

5. What’s The Intention for this Next Week?

Keeping this simple – maybe even just setting a single priority – is the key here, at least for me. Otherwise, I can get spun out with well-intentioned and overly long to-do lists.

Maybe the intention/priority is to improve a relationship. Or maybe it’s to clean out that living room closet or not eat sugary foods. It’s up to you and what resonates for you and your life.

6. Express Gratitude for the Coming Week

I think it’s important to end on this “gratitude” note – and expressing what you’re grateful for in advance (especially if it’s related to your intention) can be a powerful way to bring it to fruition.

Not because it’s “magic” but because it gets you psyched.

For this coming week, I have two intentions. One of them is to lean into my fitness and nutrition program a little more, and the other is to put the finishing touches on a new program I’m going to be offering.

And I’m really grateful that I’m able to buckle down and focus on my fitness. I have friends going through some health struggles right now and it really drives home the point that, as the Roman poet Virgil said:

“The greatest wealth is health.”

And as my business evolves, I’m so grateful for opportunities that just seem to “happen.” And I’m even more grateful when I wake up enough to see them in front of me. Seriously, I was asking the universe for something and when it showed up, it looked completely different than I expected so I didn’t even recognize it. 

And I’m grateful for (and psyched about) the opportunity.

Daily Thoughts, Weekly Practice

Those are some really practical ways that I tweaked the conventional gratitude journal to make it fit into my life.

There are so many great reasons to keep a gratitude journal that I think it’s worth playing around with ideas to make them work till you find your secret formula.

Still not convinced? Here’s a good article outlining more benefits.

And I think that’s the key to any of these journals/hacks/programs. You try them, see what works for you, discover what doesn’t, do a little self analysis to find out why, and then come up with your own routine.

Do you keep a gratitude journal? I’d love learn more! Leave a comment or inbox me.