Goals, and progress towards said goals. Those drive us as human beings. Habit tracking and gratitude journaling are mood boosters that allow us to get a sense of progress by keeping track of the small wins.
What makes a lot of people stumble and fall along the way (some would stay down) is having large, stretched goals…that’s pretty demotivating.
Instead, for instance, if our goal is to lose weight, tracking how we, say, eat vegetables every day can serve as a better motivation and give some push. There will be days when we feel like falling off the wagon so mood boosters in the form of habit tracking and gratitude journal can help with persistence.
Small wins add up and they snowball into momentum. It’s much, much easier to get into the groove of things when we aim for, say, 3 at a time instead of 33 at once.
Aim to finish 3 pages first, instead of the whole chapter. 3 push-ups a day first. Sorry, I really like the number 3. Anyway, yeah. Small wins. Many books reference this concept: The Progress Principle and The Slight Edge, for example.
Having tried multiple apps and notebook methods, I wanted something that is very low tech and simple to replicate, even for non-techies. That means no coding! I’m done being the typical programmer who codes up shiny, over-complicated digital non-solutions.
I came up with a requirement: If a time-traveling pervert suddenly showed up through a portal one day and threw me 1000 years to the past into his medieval sex dungeon, I want to still be able to use the method. Maybe using the walls?
One day, I was lying in bed, waiting for the next…purge. Okay, diarrhea. I had diarrhea. That fried rice last night had rotten eggs in it. I knew but ate it anyway. YOLO, right?
Anyway, I looked across my bedroom and saw my whiteboards. Yes, plural. I have 3. I used them to sketch up some UI/UX stuff, flow charts, software architecture, and other beanie-wearer stuff.
Lightbulb moment: What if I just go back to basics and use those whiteboards? That way, I’d always see them, whether I meant to or not. They would act as impromptu visual mood boosters.
For example, when I wake up, one of the first few things I’d see would be my habit tracking and gratitude entries on those whiteboards. When I go to sleep, I’d see them again and be prompted to review my day.
Sorry for the long introduction, by the way. I have to please the search engine gods. Thank you for staying. Now, let’s get to business. I’ve found three proven methods and put my own slight spin.
Remember the Seinfeld method? This is kind of like that, except it doesn’t really put much emphasis on the “streaks” concept.
Aim to write 3 things we’re grateful for, every day. Multiple studies have shown that gratitude journals are great mood boosters. This one, however, uses the whiteboard instead of a notebook.
Stack small wins entries and form a graph out of them. While effective as a mood booster, I feel that it’s pretty cumbersome, really. I doubt people will stick with this, but maybe give it a try?
For all of these, I prefer the rolling weekly format. It will be explained somewhere below, so keep reading!
Specifically, whiteboards that are 24 inches x 35 inches. Since magnetic ones are commonplace it wouldn’t hurt to just get those anyway.
It is far easier to use whiteboard tape to make the tables and boxes whatnot. Whiteboard tape lasts long on the whiteboard but is not permanent, meaning layout mistakes can be fixed quickly.
Dry Erase Markers
Pretty self-explanatory. Get a multicolored set of markers, preferably fine point ones. We will use different colors for color coding – more on that later.
Microfiber Cloth (for erasing)
I prefer microfiber cloth to those whiteboard erasers because they just seem to clean better. Better yet, get one of those magnetic, microfiber cloth whiteboard erasers.
This one is pretty straightforward and I think you’ve already seen it before. However, I’m going to give some instructions so that you can save some time. They are not rules, so feel free to modify as you wish.
Use a large, 42-inch whiteboard.
42-inch as in diagonally, like a 42-inch HDTV. The actual measurements are 35 inches by 24 inches. It’s to be hanged on your wall…or not. I just rest mine against a wall beside my bed.
8 three-inch columns, starting from the right.
It’s best to start making the columns first. Shorter distance and shiz. Oh, do make sure that the wall mounts are at the top of the whiteboard, just in case.
Now, let’s put dots every three inches from the right using a dry-erase marker. Do this once at the top of the whiteboard, and once at the bottom of the whiteboard. In the middle too, if you want (I didn’t).
Then, well, you know what to do. Whiteboard tape time! This should be pretty easy. It took me only about 5 minutes to lay the whiteboard tape semi-carefully.
After we’re done, there should be 8 narrow columns on the right, and 1 wide column on the left side. 9 columns! The leftmost column is where we will write our habits. Alright, nicely done!
7 three-inch rows, starting from the bottom
Now the slightly harder part (but still pretty easy). From the bottom, put dots using a dry erase marker every 3 inches. Do this three times: once on the left side, once on the right side, once in the middle.
We can opt to make the rows shorter (such as 2 inches) to get 11 habit rows. However, I have found that this can look quite overwhelming. There are too many habits to track!
If we focus on tracking too many habits, then we will fall off the wagon sooner or later. Honestly, even 7 is more than enough. Your call, though.
Anyway, whiteboard tape, yadda yadda yadda. You know the drill. This should give us 8 rows, with the topmost rows being slightly shorter.
Write down labels and habits
Let’s start with the top row, from left to right.
Now, the habits columns. There is no need to use all 7. Maybe start with 3 habits first, especially if you’re new at habit tracking. Just simple things: exercise, eat fruits/veggies, meditation, cold shower, etc.
Using the Other Boxes
First up, the Total/Weeks boxes. I thought it was self-explanatory, but a friend didn’t understand it at first so I thought I should explain it here.
Simply put, the “Total” is the sum of the number of times (or other units) the particular habit is done. The “Weeks” is how many weeks have passed. For example, if you checkmark a habit every day for a week, the “Total” is 7 and the “Weeks” is 1. Simple, right?
Moving on to the daily boxes. The most obvious way to use them is to just mark each day with a checkmark. Pretty straightforward. There are, however, other ways to use them. That’s why I mentioned “other units” above.
For example, let’s say we want to track our habit of cold showering, right? Personally, I go back-and-forth from 1 to 2 cold showers a day, sometimes 0 (meaning I take warm showers, not…you know, being gross). So instead of a checkmark, I write down the number of times I took cold showers that day.
Another example: the number of words written per day. I have been trying to motivate myself to write more often, and this habit tracking method has been the best solution so far. Just put the number of words written for a particular day. I went from 10 words per day to 700 words per day in just two weeks.
We can also use time (minutes/seconds) as a unit. I use it for my meditation habit. Admittedly, I still can’t meditate for more than a couple of minutes at a time, but I’m (very) slowly improving.
Of course, those are just examples – you can use other units that you deem fit for your habit tracking. Now, about that weekly rolling format mentioned somewhere above…
We don’t wipe out all entries once a new week starts. Instead, for instance, only replace last week’s Monday entries when it’s Monday today and so on. We use colors to differentiate weeks.
For marking the daily boxes, alternate between two marker colors for each week (eg green for last week, red for this week, repeat). This ideally keeps the whiteboard(s) full at all times. Full whiteboards = satisfaction = mood boosters!
Remember to update the weekly date range using the corresponding color for the week, too. For example, if last week’s date range was written in green, write the current week’s date range in red.
Finally, update the total over weeks boxes (let’s just call them ToW). Add up the previous week’s totals (according to your chosen units). Put the sum over the number of weeks passed, like so:
Again, use alternating colors. Use the same colors as above: green for last week, if we’re using red for this week. Only write the totals of the previous week! We should only update the ToW boxes once a week – on the night of the last day of the week.
That’s why I made ToW as the second column, instead of the first day of the week – the ToW boxes are supposed to act as simple checkpoints. Looking at past totals acts as – you guessed it – a mood booster.
This differentiates between the habits done for each week. Makes sense, right? Plus, this should help preserve the feeling of momentum.
…and that’s how we use the weekly rolling format. Hope that’s easy to understand.
Optional – Take Pictures
On the last night of every week, take some photos and put them in Dropbox or something. This would be great for reviewing later. However, I don’t think people will regularly review past weeks’ photos…so yeah, this is optional but recommended.
(Optional) Make Different Tables For Different Rooms
For example, if you have a home office, use the habit tracking board for things that you can do in there. Usually, they are computer-related activities like writing, coding, designing, etc. You can even use the habit tracking whiteboard to track your side projects.
Another example: If you’re trying to get more serious at working out, use the habit tracking whiteboard as a workout log. Put it where you pass by every day, or maybe in the kitchen. Use each habit row for exercise names: bench presses, calf raises, running, etc.
End of Method 1
And, that’s pretty much it for the “Habit Tracking Table” mood booster method. There are still 2 whiteboard mood boosters. Thank you again for sticking with me this far. Let’s move on.
You might have heard of the gratitude journal concept. Yes, it’s kind of…uh…Oprah. But gratitude journals have been scientifically-proven to act as mood boosters. Just Google around and you’ll see multiple research studies in reputable journals.
Personally, I’ve developed the daily habit of gratitude journaling without any problem. There wasn’t really any need for habit tracking of gratitude journaling, because it’s already ingrained in me.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to forget reviewing gratitude journal entries, isn’t it? That’s why I recommend having a gratitude journal table on a whiteboard. The aim is to write three gratitude journal entries per day…ideally. We’re probably gonna come up short some days, and that’s okay.
It’s set up so that we accidentally review the entries, whether we consciously want to or not. I don’t know about other people, but reading past gratitude journal entries has never failed as a mood booster.
It goes without saying that you do it in any way you want, but I highly recommend using the gratitude journal whiteboard in portrait orientation. You know, like how we normally hold our smartphones.
Similar to the habit tracking table above, we would need a 24 x 35-inch whiteboard, whiteboard tape, and dry erase markers. The gratitude journal table layout is much simpler and uses a similar rolling weekly format as the habit tracking table method above.
[In Landscape] Vertical lines 5 inches apart
Place the whiteboard in landscape orientation. Then, using a measuring tape, put dots every 5 inches. Do this three times: once along the bottom, once along the side, and once along the middle(-ish).
Having three points of reference per line helps reduce mildly irritating bendy lines…hopefully. Now, whiteboard tape. You know what to do. This shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. Once done, it should look like this:
[In Portrait] Vertical lines 7 inches apart, starting from the right
Now flip the whiteboard to portrait orientation. Using the now horizontal whiteboard tape lines as guides, put dots every 7 inches from the right. Try to put dots close to every other line to lessen bends.
Whiteboard tape, yadda yadda yadda. As you can see, there are 7 rows and 4 columns when viewed in portrait mode. The leftmost column is slightly narrower – we will use these boxes for labeling.
Write the labels
First, the days. Leftmost column, from top to bottom. Again, write the days however you want (“Mo”, “M”, “Monday”, etc). And start the week with whichever day you want – I prefer starting with Sunday. Remember the alternating color code in the habit tracking method above? Use that.
Now, the date range. Put the starting date below the label of the first day (eg Monday), and the ending date below the label of the last day (eg Sunday). Like so:
You might be wondering where the total-over-weeks boxes are. I have found that other layouts just don’t look as neat as the 4 by 7 format, so the ToW is broken up. Put the total (as in “Total Entries:”) underneath the label of the 3rd day (eg Wednesday). It should look like something like this:
For the week count, put it under the label of the 5th day (eg Friday). Something like “Weeks Passed” should do. Do it however you want. The same principles apply, update the total and the weeks on the last night of every week, with corresponding alternate color (red for last week, for instance).
Writing The Entries
This needs some time, but aim to write at least one entry daily in the beginning. Gratitude journaling seems to be a skill to be developed and I myself am still learning the ropes. Try to stick with it for at least a month or two.
Similar to the habit tracking method above, use alternating colors to differentiate last week’s and this week’s entries. Maybe red for the entries last week, and green for the entries this week.
Again, we’re using the rolling format, so leave last Wednesday’s entry on the whiteboard if it’s not Wednesday yet. Only replace last Tuesday’s entry when today is Tuesday. You get the drift.
Sorry for repeating the rules of the rolling weekly format again, by the way. Hopefully, I don’t come across as condescending!
Try to set a specific time of the day to reflect. After waking up, maybe. Or at night, before going to bed. Even if you don’t have a schedule, what matters most is that you consistently add gratitude journal entries every single day.
Just write short entries no matter how stupid you think they are. Some examples would be “The Chinese food was good today” or “I still have my all limbs” or “I have a bed to rest in” – just simple stuff.
We need to exercise the gratitude journal muscles, so just keep at it. It’s not a competition, there’s no need for perfection.
Remember to update the total entries and weeks passed on the last night of every week! Those act as mood boosters to help with our consistency to the gratitude journal method.
End of Method 2
Personally, in the 10 weeks of practicing this gratitude journaling method on the whiteboard, I’ve noticed gradual improvements in my mood. The positive effects are more noticeable than my previous gratitude journal method, which was similar but uses a notebook. Then again, my whiteboard vs notebook experience is just anecdotal.
This one requires a bit more effort daily. I doubt people will actually use this method. Due to that, I was initially hesitant to include this here but I thought, hey, why not.
Anyway, the idea is to write small wins entries every day and stack them. Since every day the stacked entries usually have different heights, it gives the illusion of a graph…and, well, we can plot graphs based on the height. Here’s a simplified drawing of it:
Among all the mood boosters I used above, this method seems to be the most effective…at mood-boosting, that is. However, more effort is required day-by-day compared with the other two methods. As a result, I simply stopped one day and only focused on the other two methods from thereon out.
Perhaps you would like to try it, though? The layout’s pretty simple: 7 columns, 1 for each day of the week. That’s it. Since we’re using a 24 x 35-inch whiteboard, just make 5-inch boxes horizontally in landscape orientation, like the gratitude journal method above.
Honestly, I’m not really into it, so I’m just gonna write briefly. Write the first entry on the bottom of each column, according to the day. Stack the next entries on top of the next, forming word towers or something (can you sense my lack of enthusiasm?)
Maybe there are 3 small-win entries on Monday, 6 on Tuesday, 3 on Wednesday, yadda yadda. After 3 days, we can start plotting a graph using the peaks. Continue plotting for the rest of the week. Voila, it would look something like this:
Then, for the next week, repeat the word towers thing. However, do NOT wipe out last week’s graph. This allows us to compare and keep the feeling of momentum. Mood boosters, blah blah blah. For your reference, here’s a roughly sketched example:
End of Method 3
The small wins graph method needs work. I stopped using it a while ago. It was only included in this article because…well, maybe (just maybe) it would work for a small number of people.
It was a great mood booster in the beginning but became more and more cumbersome as the weeks pass. You are welcome to try it, though. If you manage to find some improvements, do email me, yeah?
I highly recommend using both methods 1 (habit tracking whiteboard) and 2 (gratitude journal whiteboard). By that, I mean both at the same time. Get two 24 x 35-inch whiteboards. More, if you want to use the habit tracking method more thoroughly.
Those two methods are proven mood boosters. We really need anything we can get in this day and age with FOMO and too-high standards and global warming and whatnot. Hopefully, these mood boosters can help you as much as they helped me.
There are notebooks, digital apps, calendars, and whatnot. They worked for me in the past, but not anymore (speaking for myself here). If they work for you, great!
For me, the problem was consciously starting over and over again. Need a little pick me up, read past entries? Open the notebook, open the app. I needed a little push on some days.
Yes, it’s small, but over time it adds up until one day a seemingly inconsequential piece of fine straw breaks the camel’s back. Therein lies the catch-22 of habit tracking: you have to form the habit of tracking habits to track habits.
Let’s go back to basic chemistry. I am grossly oversimplifying it of course, but in order for a chemical reaction to occur, there are certain thresholds of energy that need to be surpassed. This threshold of energy required is called activation energy.
Getting the reaction to occur is the hard part. After that, the graph goes way down. The hard part is starting with conscious effort over and over again. Get my drift? On some days, that’s pretty much impossible. Lose the streak and you fall off the tracks again…and again.
I have only recently recovered from a years-long burnout phase that was caused by overwork at my old software consultancy business and startups. My early/mid 20’s were spent working a bit too hard.
After some reflection, I realized something: over-ambitiousness and the thirst for approval have turned myself into a mere husk. I keep a…lively comedic facade, but inside I’m pretty much dead.
There were so many things I’ve tried (medications included) for so long but it seems that a low baseline of mood is pretty much part of my personality at this point. I have grown to accept that.
But perhaps, I thought, instead of aiming to be “happy” (whatever that is), I just want to at least feel…peaceful. See, small moments of happiness have been plenty but they were fleeting and I would soon after find myself sinking back into the grump hole.
So, habit tracking and gratitude journaling. I’ve been using these mood boosters for a long time in bullet journals. I have also tried multiple digital apps over the years. I even made a gamified web app which was featured in Lifehacker.
Unfortunately, they just don’t work for me (speaking for myself only) anymore. Fortunately though, going back to basics with these whiteboard methods somehow just works.