It would seem that 40 days isn’t just a superstitious practice that permeates so many cultures, but in fact a period of time that allows transformation…to occur. Rebecca Grainger in The Huffington Post
On November 27th, 2015 I took on a 40-day challenge – not to fast or lose weight or learn yoga – but to write thank you notes – real live, hand-written thank you notes. From the day after Thanksgiving to the first day of the new year, I decided to write a note of gratitude to someone in my life, every day, without fail. I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The challenge was delivered to me by a religious leader speaking to a large audience. Why the emphasis on 40 days all the time? I assumed the exercise was to encourage the practice of gratitude and maybe form a new habit. But I’ve read a ton about habit and the science shows that it really takes about 66 days to form a new habit, so this idea didn’t seem to be about creating a new habit but more about something else. It turns out the significance of the number 40 spans centuries, religions, and cultures. What I learned in my research is that the number 40 – could be 40 days or 40 years – represents the time it takes to make a transition, possibly even a transformation.
I try to practice gratitude daily, well almost daily, so I didn’t think it would be too hard to follow through on this commitment. I thought the hardest part would be finding the time to write a note every day. My big question to myself was whether I would actually do this for the full 40 days. So I went online and bought some note cards and made a short list to get me started. I also told one other person – an accountability partner – to hold me to my promise. Email, texts and phone calls didn’t count. I had to write a handwritten note. I quickly made a list of 15 people who immediately came to mind. Like in most brainstorming, the best ideas can come after a good warm up, so at the time I didn’t worry too much about my list being short. I naively thought that it would be easy to come up with the next 15 and so on.
Warming Up and Slowing Down
The tax-supported organization where I work had just won a mill levy vote so my first notes flowed easily. I started with people at work, each member of our Board of Trustees, and other people in the community who had contributed to the victory in some specific way. At this point, the hardest part was limiting myself to writing only one note per day. I like to check tasks off a list, and the act of writing just one note a day when I had well over a dozen people to thank slowed me down and made me think of new and specific things to thank people for rather than repeating the same sentiment as I might have had I written them all in one sitting. Slowing down was helping with sinking in.
At this point, I was about 2 1/2 weeks into the process. Hmm. Who next? Sometimes when I wrote a note another name would pop into my head and I’d add them to the list. I felt better as my list grew from 17 to 22 to 30. Each day I would look at my list and think about who I wanted to thank next. I noticed that I would skip over certain names, sometimes not sure how to frame my gratitude and sometimes stalling, wondering how my note would land. Would a note out of the blue from me seem slightly stalkerish?
Sticking With It
At about day 30, I kind of hit the wall. I started skipping days here and there and then needed to make up time and write several in a day so as not to get too far behind. The notes started getting harder to write, not because I wasn’t grateful, more because they started to feel like they might be overly personal to people who I was sometimes only loosely connected to, especially as I passed this #30 mark. I started to wonder if I should even finish. How would it feel for someone I don’t connect with often – like a former boss or co-worker – to get a note with specific details about something they said years ago that impacted me? I was tempted to pat myself on the back for my effort and wrap it up. Then I remembered that I had an accountability partner. I visualized myself justifying stopping short of my goal and decided I didn’t want to admit defeat to them or myself.
Pushing through this wall as I worked my way from 32 to 40 notes, and days, started to change the people I put on the list and my approach to how I was thinking about gratitude. I broadened my thinking and took more risks. I sent a note to my best friend and thanked her for some frank criticism she gave me decades earlier that had snapped me out of dysfunctional behavior. I wrote a note to an old acquaintance that I hadn’t worked with in years and thanked her for life and career wisdom she shared with me that helped me grow as a leader. As I stretched myself to think more deeply about gratitude, I stopped worrying so much about what people would think about getting a handwritten note from me and stopped explaining so much – “I’m doing this 40 days of gratitude thing….”I noticed a change in me – I started feel different about people in general – I started to feel more generous. Ah, the transformation. Be grateful. Be generous. The last person I wrote a note to was the religious leader who had recommended this exercise. He didn’t know me, but his words had affected me and I wanted him to know that his challenge to a group of people affected me as an individual.
As the days counted on, a big surprise for me was how many people thanked me for my thank you’s. I truly felt that I was doing this exercise for myself – I wanted to express gratitude and acknowledge certain people for certain things. It was all outflow. But then I started getting notes, texts, emails and calls back from people who I had reached out to. Their message to me was that my note really meant something to them. At first I protested – this was about me. I actually said that to many people – I did this for me! Eventually I realized that I needed to let them tell me what my small acknowledgement had meant to them. Even over a year later I’ve had people come up to me and mention the note – say they kept it and reread it – and thank me again. Maybe it shifted something in them too.
I’ve become a believer in this 40-day challenge. Once I came to accept that it wasn’t about creating a habit of writing thank you notes every day – which I knew I would never do – but about gratitude, generosity and remembering to acknowledge acts big and small, I started to be on the lookout for more opportunities to say thank you at work and at home. I like to think that in some small way this activity transformed me as a person and as a leader. Now I try not to wait so long between someone else’s generous action and my acknowledgement of gratitude.