You stepped in dog poo. Your sandwich is soggy. That essay you’ve been avoiding for weeks? It’s due tomorrow. Ugh.
We all have moments where our lives feel like a chaotic mess. A shemozzle. But in those moments of despair, it’s important to remember that things could be worse. Much, much worse.
Consider this for a moment:
What if you hadn’t been wearing any shoes when you stepped in that dog poo?
What if you forgot to pack your lunch?
Hey, at least you’ve got something to eat!
What if you never learnt to read or write in the first place?
That would make life tough.
What if you were so sick you couldn’t get out of bed and pick up a pen?
Here’s to good health!
You don’t need me to tell you that if you focus on the negative (e.g. the poo on your shoe), you’re going to feel pretty average. But what if you shift your attention to the good stuff (e.g. the fact you can afford to wear comfortable shoes)? I guarantee you’ll start to feel a whole lot better.
But how do you build a rock solid positive mindset?
Easier said than done, right? Research shows our brains respond more strongly to things we perceive as negative than to those that are positive or neutral. In psychology, this is called the Automatic Negativity Bias.
But we also know that every time a negative thought arises, you have an opportunity to cultivate a new perspective. And this is where practicing gratitude can help.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is the mental tool we use to remind ourselves of the good stuff in our lives. An attitude of gratitude is not something you’re born with. It’s something you need to work at and practice.
Can simply thinking of five things you’re grateful for each day make a difference to your life?
Science says yes!
In a study by Emmons and McCollough (2003), participants were split into three groups:
Group 1 had to recall five things they were grateful for each day
Group 2 had to recall five burdens each day
Group 3 had to recall only neutral events
So what did they find?
The participants in group 1 (the gratitude group) experienced lower stress levels, better sleep, reductions in physical pain and enhanced well-being compared to the other two groups. They also spent more time engaging in physical exercise.
Start your daily gratitude practice today
The science is in. The benefits are clear. Gratitude works. It’s a no brainer. Why wouldn’t you practice it?
Because you’re lazy and forgetful. This was the case for me. I’d start. And then I’d stop. And then I’d start again…
Until a friend I studied psychology with told me about this thing called The 5 Minute Journal (5MJ). This was supposed to be the journal for people who don’t journal (that was me).
For the last two months, I’ve been practicing gratitude every morning and evening thanks to this nifty little journal.
What is the 5 Minute Journal (5MJ)?
It’s a gratitude journal that prompts you to reflect on key questions in the morning and evening.
The 5MJ Structure
Here is a sample page from the 5MJ:
Building a daily habit of using the 5MJ
At the beginning of the 5MJ, you are prompted to reflect on how you will make writing in the 5MJ part of your daily routine. You are asked to consider the following:
1. Why is writing in this journal important to you?
2. If you finish 5 days of journal writing, how will you reward yourself?
3. If you don’t finish 5 days of journal writing, what will you promise to do?
4. What things will you do to ensure you use the 5MJ everyday?
5. What are three major obstacles that would stop you from writing the journal (morning/night)? Write two actions you can take per obstacle to make sure you don’t succumb to laziness.
Here are some strategies I implemented after reflecting on those questions:
1. I keep my 5MJ on my bedside table: when I wake up I see it and that’s my cue to fill it in.
2. I’ve attached a pen to my 5MJ
3. I tell myself, “It takes less than 5 minutes to do! That’s nothing!”
How to avoid your gratitude lists becoming boring and predictable
After a week of reflection, you may find you keep coming up with the same old things for what you feel grateful for (e.g. family, friends, and your pet dog). To avoid this happening, Tim Ferriss (author of Tools of Titans) suggests reflecting on the following:
1. An old relationship that really helped you
2. An opportunity you have today
3. Something great that happened yesterday (you experienced it or witnessed it)
4. Something simple that’s near you or within sight.
This list of suggestions helps to keep my lists fresh and interesting!
Extracting valuable lessons from your 5MJ
After 30 days of filling in your journal, make yourself a nice smoothie or hot drink, find yourself a comfortable chair and review all your entries. I like to focus on ‘The Amazing Three’ section (“What are three amazing things happened during your day?”)
As Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas (creators of the 5MJ) state:
“The Amazing Three is your personal collection of the expected and unexpected bounty of wonderful things that you experienced in a day.”
Thirty days worth of ‘Amazing three’ equals 90 amazing things. That’s nine zero! Reviewing them all is like giving your brain a warm bath. It feels really good.
Here is a small sample of some of things I wrote down in my 5MJ:
Made some delicious raw chocolate
Enjoyed working on my new behavior change talk
Enjoyed making (and eating!) a delicious homemade lasagna with my family
Worked hard at the gym with my new exercise program
Reconnected with an old friend (Rob) at the conference
Got the letter from the university saying I’m now a doctor (Woohoo!)
But here’s the most valuable lesson to extract from the 5MJ…
The section “How could I have made today even better?” is where the gold lies.
As I read over my entries for this section, the same key themes kept popping up:
Get more sleep (at least 8 hours)
Implement more little breaks into my day
Avoid eating bad food (salty wedges and chocolate biscuits)
Spend less time on facebook and checking email
Work in 25 minute sprints (use the pomodoro technique)
When feeling overwhelmed, get some exercise
Remind yourself, “Done is better than perfect”
Whatever keeps coming up on your 5MJ pages, write them down on a big piece of paper. Stick that piece of paper to your wall or fridge. Think of these as your life rules. They are a reminder of what you need to do to make your day great.
How much does the 5MJ cost?
I paid $38AUD for my 5MJ.
My first thought? It’s a little pricey.
My second thought? Once you see and understand the basic structure, you can make your own 5MJ for few dollars (like this woman did).
Save yourself $38 and go grab yourself an empty notebook. Write down the prompts on the inside cover. Voila! You’ve got yourself a budget knockoff of the 5MJ.
To sum up
The key is to fill in your 5MJ regularly. Make it part of your daily routine. Consistency is key. Take a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to reflect on your day and course correct. This is time well spent.
Have you ever kept a gratitude journal? If so, did it make a difference? Feel free to share your experience below!