In May of 2019, I started an experiment: posting entries to a daily gratitude diary. The goal? Make a short post spotlighting something I felt grateful for once a day for thirty days.

Given a busy schedule at home and work, I knew I wouldn’t stick with any daily routine that became a complicated obligation. So I reduced friction to a minimum with a few simple rules.

The Gratitude Diary’s Rules

Titles. Rather than feel pressured to come up with clever titles for each entry, I decided titles would always be a stylized version of the diary entry’s date. (For example: June 30, 2019 would be written as 06-03-2019 SUN.)

Content. Because I knew most posts would be written at the end of the day (when energy would be very low), I decided to keep entries to about fifty words. To eliminate any intimidation caused by facing a blank page, I came up with a simple template (a summary of what I was grateful for, a moment I wanted to remember, and a single photo) to guide and structure my work.

Photos. I wanted the daily photo to be taken, as much as possible, on the day of the post and to come, as often as possible, from my own camera roll — but I didn’t want to force correspondence between the post’s and photo’s content, as that felt like a lot of work.

How Things Went

I started on May 21, 2019, in the midst of a business trip to Cleveland, Ohio.

Keeping a gratitude journal centered me. Stopping to pen an entry and post a photo at the end of each day made for a calming, centering ritual. It also brought back fond memories of the work I did for MadeByMark.com, an online journal I posted to almost daily for fourteen years.

Keeping a gratitude journal made me happier. By the end of the first week, I realized that the gratitude journal was becoming a perceptual filter of sorts. Because I knew that, at the end of each day, I’d need to jot down a note about something I was grateful for, I found myself more attuned to the parts of my day I appreciated, and less attached to the parts of the day that disappointed or worried me.

Keeping a gratitude journal made me more observant. Because I knew I wanted to post one photo daily, I found myself actively looking for photo opportunities … and that, in turn, made me see my world differently. When I’d see a certain slant of light, I’d capture it. When walking to work, I’d pause long enough to get a shot of that man on his bike. With time, I quit worrying about perfectly composed shots and just took pleasure in making very simple snapshots of some moment in my day.

Lessons Learned

When you miss a day, move on. About two weeks in, I was so exhausted one evening that I forgot to create a post, so I felt an obligation to go back and write a post for the day I missed and the current day. That doubled the work. (It also felt like cheating.) When this happened a second time, I realized the obligation to make up skipped entries was becoming a reason to avoid the project. Instead of back-dating posts, I resolved to just “get back on the horse” and move forward.

Posting to your own journal is better than posting to Facebook. When you post to Facebook, your memories end up in a walled garden, inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a subscriber, and subject to being used in ways you might not approve. When you post to a site you own, your work is freely accessible, indexed by Google, and absolutely yours. When I look back at the gratitude diary entries (or the fourteen years of entries over at MadeByMark.com), I feel a sense of pride and ownership Facebook simply can’t provide.

When I stopped keeping the diary, the quality of my life declined. What I intended to be a thirty-day experiment actually ran from May through July 20 — my birthday. That week proved to be dark and challenging on many fronts, and, after July 20, I neglected the journal for several days. Daunted by the missing entries, I abandoned the project. As a result, the past month has been lived with less awareness and less balance.

I need a gratitude journal in my life. As the days without posts wore on, I found myself so embarrassed by having abandoned the journal that I even neglected to write up this little post summarizing the experiment. I knew, though, that I missed the meditative nature of the posts. I found myself missing the ritual, the feeling of achievement that came with publishing each day’s post, and the simple pleasure of reviewing posts from previous days. I missed being the kind of person who keeps a gratitude journal.

What’s Next?

So: here I am, posting to it again this week for the first time in three weeks. Writing that post felt like reconnecting with an old friend. Even though the coming week will be one of the most intense, most exhausting, and most important weeks of my career as a storyteller — including long days, without home and without Clyde, in a place that’s far from home — I feel good about recommitting to the daily routine of the gratitude journal.

Without feeling pressure … without beating yourself up … without worrying about doing it my way or the right way: try keeping a gratitude journal for thirty days. You might be surprised at how such a simple, daily practice can have a profound impact on your life.

Photo credit:  Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Author

Mark McElroy: lives in Atlanta | is blogging again | is author of a dozen books | works as a professional storyteller | has a husband | is working on a novel | is an engaging public speaker | lost fifty pounds in 2017 | is a little obsessed with pizza.

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