Gratitude journaling "done right"
How to use retrospection in favour of your brain
Sam, a very busy team manager, was pretty new in my individual coaching sessions for leaders. Even though he was fairly new in his role, he did already very well with living servant leadership and being a mentor-coach for his team.
Each time when we were working together, he had no problem seeing all these achievements and acknowledging them. In a coaching session, he was absolutely at ease to pause a moment and to celebrate how far he had already come.
However in the busy day-to-day work he quickly felt exhausted and as-if “nothing really worked” and “nothing had truly been achieved”.
What did I actually *do* today?
That is a classic problem I see very often, especially when former individual contributors are developing their careers towards management or “just” a bit more “people stuff”. For example, when software developers are growing into a role with more modern leadership responsibilities (and less immediate feedback) like being a Product Manager, Software Architect, Team Leader, Release Train Engineer, Scrum Master or Staff/Principal Developer.
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Sam told me that a while ago - in an attempt to solve his perceived problem - he already tried a form of gratitude journaling: he started writing down three things which he was grateful for each evening.
Yet it felt hard and the things in his journal appeared to be all-too-common for him, so he stopped after just one week.
Just enough guidance for Gratitude Journaling
I asked Sam if he would be willing to start his gratitude journaling habit anew - with a bit more guidance. He was.
Offering a bit of background context on how our brains work, I invited him to:
Write down 3 things about your (work) day that you are grateful for.
Do it every work day, at least. Aim for the whole week.
Promise yourself to do it at least for 3 weeks in a row.
No matter how “small” or how “common” a thing may seem: Write it down!
If your brain starts labelling things as “small” or “common” it’s a good indicator to WRITE them DOWN immediately. Why is that?
Our brains (still) want to save our lives
From an evolutionary perspective, looking for the good parts didn’t contribute as much to our survival as humankind than to watch out more for the negative parts, e.g. to look for possible life-threats (see also  and ).
Sam's role as a software development team lead in a global IT company (almost) 100% of the time isn’t about life and death.
He understood that it is a well-invested effort to retrain “the thinking machine up there” and to support his brain in spotting all the good parts of (work) life more often.
And: to KEEP them in mind - as a solid ground to stand on in more stressful times.
Make the good parts “sticky” for your brain
Besides writing down three good things at the end of each (work) day, here are two more possibilities to digest and make the good parts stick to your brain even better:
Do a mini-retrospective at the end of each (work-)week. Use a couple of colourful markers to quickly mark the remarkable things for you in your Business Journal.
Take a look at yesterday’s things to be grateful for, before starting into a new day (and eventually doing a mini-planning for it).
Close your eyes for a moment, take two conscious breaths and let all the positive bits from the day before sink into your brain’s neural networks.
What is it that YOU are doing to help your brain spot the positive bits?
All the bits that refuel you with energy on tough days. All the bits that help you withstand stressful situations at work, we all face from time to time.
Share with others in the comments.
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