Reviving the Handwritten Thank-You Note: Tips, Tools, and a 4-Sentence Template

I’m pretty sure you already think handwriting thank-you notes is a good move. So why don’t you more often? Does it seem old-fashioned? Too much work? Overly time-consuming? Not sure what to say? Do you associate it with obligatory notes to Aunt Martha, thanking her for your itchy birthday socks?

Those are the same reasons I had for not writing more notes. But here’s the thing: These excuses keep everyone else from writing thank-you notes, too. If you overcome these and start to pen your thanks, you’ll be a gratitude rockstar.

Recently, I’ve taken my personal habit of writing thank-you notes to work. It’s improved my mood, bolstered important relationships, and unearthed new opportunities.

Here, I’ll share some tips, a four-sentence template, examples, and a tracking tool. Together, they can help you make 2019 your most grateful year yet.

Step 1: Motivate

In case you still question the merit of writing thank-yous, here are some reasons to adopt the practice in your professional life:

  • Online communication is easy and immediate—which cheapens correspondence. A handwritten note in the mail elevates the message above the digital fray.
  • During difficult times, it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong. Writing thank-you notes shows you what’s going right. It spreads positivity by helping you notice and encourage the behaviors you appreciate around you.
  • It’s a perfect multi-tasking activity. Writing a good thank-you note takes about five minutes. You can write them when you’re on hold, while listening to a podcast, or during your train ride.
  • A thank-you note is never the wrong move. I used to worry people would find me strange for sending an unexpected thank-you note. They don’t; they love it.
  • People like considerate people. Showing gratitude builds your brand. I wrote all of my interviewers a handwritten note after several Atoms took the time to interview me here at Atomic. One colleague still has the note, three years later.
  • Snail-mail begets snail-mail. When you send someone a letter, they have your address to write back.

Step 2: Gear Up (The Fun Part)

My high school English teacher told me that if you want to write, you’d better find a pen and journal that inspire you. I find the same is true with thank-you notes. For me, the ideal pen has a fine tip, and I like splurging on handmade notecards at my local paper shop. But that doesn’t mean thank-you cards need to be pricey.

Trader Joe’s sells $1 thank-you cards. Target sells 200 colorful, blank note cards and envelopes for $15. If you want to get really into it, you can start designing your own cards as a stress-relieving and money-saving hobby (come travel down the linocut rabbit hole with me).

The only other thing you need is also fun to buy: stamps. The post office has been on a roll with some awesome “forever” stamp designs lately. They cost as much as the generic flag stamps, and they bring me so much joy. Plus, they’ll never be cheaper than they are now, so you might as well buy a collection. During the eclipse last year, they released these amazing heat-sensitive solar eclipse stamps:

I realize all of this is more expensive than shooting off an email. But don’t compare it to email. Compare it to buying someone flowers, because that’s more on-par with the emotional impact. Viewed that way, sending a note is about the most cost-effective way to make someone’s day.

Because half of the work of gratitude-by-mail is finding the supplies, I recommend storing your kit in a shoe box. Once you decide to pen some notes, all your tools will be in the same place.

Step 3: Prep Work

With your inspired writing kit in hand, spend an hour setting yourself up for success. Before setting pen to paper, I recommend brainstorming a list of recipients and compiling their addresses. Breaking up the work helps segment the context-switching and makes writing notes easier. Finding someone’s address requires a different headspace from coming up with a sincere message of thanks, so time box the jobs.

When I started trying to be more intentional about writing thank-you notes at work, I stumbled at first. “No one’s given me any gifts lately…I’m not sure who to thank right now.” I remembered the way my dad motivates himself to ride his bike during the cold winter months. He says it’s all about adopting the mindset of looking for reasons to bike. This is the difference between, “It’s a little cold out, so I’ll skip today,” and, “Hey the sun is out, and I’d love to see the sparkling frozen river on my ride.”

Spark your brainstorm by finding an excuse to write. Try the prompt, “Something that made me happy this week was…” Chances are, there’s a thank-you note recipient on the other end of that thought. From there, you’ll likely remember others who deserve thanks. I went from being stumped to coming up with ten names of people I wanted to thank.

Your rationale for writing doesn’t need to be weighty. Yes, you could write your boss an effusive note to thank her for hiring you, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. The most satisfying notes thank recipients for small kindnesses. Consider:

  • Podcast hosts, authors, or prominent people who have helped you evolve as a professional
  • The colleague who helped you out in a pinch, whose sense of humor improves your day, who makes your life easier, or who you know could use a lift
  • Your office manager who sets out healthy snacks for you
  • The mentor who always takes his time to get lunch with you
  • Friends who listen to you vent about your current project
  • The postal worker who always remembers your name

Once you spend five or so minutes brainstorming a list of people you’d like to thank, find their addresses. Business addresses are easy to find online, and you can ask people for their home addresses via text. I used to avoid writing people if I didn’t know their home addresses, because I thought asking them was awkward. It’s not.

To keep things organized in this stage, I created a Google Sheets template you can copy to store your gratitude list and addresses.

Step 4: Rock the Four-Sentence Formula

Now you’re ready to write. This is the part where people get nervous. No one wants to sound stupid. Something about scrawling out a note is more intimidating than typing an email. When I’m intimidated, I tend to write with a stilted, old-fashioned voice to match the medium (“To whom it may concern…”).

But there’s no need to shed your normal voice when you’re communicating on paper—just write like you speak. Once you get comfortable in your voice, you’re ready to structure your note. I’ve laid out my four-sentence formula below:

The winning four-sentence thank-you formula

  • Introduction: Greeting (Hi/Dear/Hello [Name])
  • Sentence 1: Open with a personal reference that shows you’re tuned into your reader.
  • Sentence 2: Explain why you’re writing the note.
  • Sentence 3: Let them know the practical impact of what they did for you.
  • Sentence 4: Express earnest gratitude; show emotional impact.
  • Sign off: Close with a future-looking statement.

Example #1

[Introduction] Hi, Mentor Steve,

[Sentence 1] It was so great seeing you at the meetup last week—your question about the customer lifetime value was great!

[Sentence 2] I want to thank you for the time you spent talking through salary negotiations with me last Thursday.

[Sentence 3] After we talked, I researched some negotiation tactics and practiced in front of the mirror as you suggested—and it helped me feel more confident when the time came.

[Sentence 4] You’re a busy professional, and I know you have a lot on your plate, so taking the time to mentor me means so much.

[Sign Off] Looking forward to seeing you at next month’s meetup,


Example #2

[Introduction] Dear Podcast Host Jane,

[Sentence 1] I’ve listened to your show for 10 years—the latest episode on Radical Candor was one of my favorites.

[Sentence 2] I’m writing to thank you for putting all the work you do into your weekly show.

[Sentence 3] Your show keeps me company on my walk to work every day, and all the research you put into your episodes fills my brain with new ideas each week.

[Sentence 4] Creating a show as well-crafted as yours must take a lot of work, and I want to let you know how valuable it is to listeners like me.

[Sign Off] Can’t wait to tune in next week—keep up the great work,


Step 5: Track the Good Vibes

I track my gratitude project using the sheet I mentioned earlier, including the recipients of my notes, their mailing address, why I’ve thanked them, when I send my notes, and what people’s reactions were.

There are a few reasons I like to measure my work with the Gratitude Tracker sheet I shared. First, it helps me remember whom I’ve thanked. My memory isn’t great, and I like a way to prevent thanking the same person for the same thing more than once, or realizing that I’ve missed one I should have sent. Tracking the “Address” column builds up a makeshift address book by the end of the year.

I also like to track people’s responses in the “Reactions” column. I do this to give myself a boost if I’m feeling down. It’s meaningful to see the value of how much a handwritten thank-you note can brighten someone’s day, if I’m feeling uninspired.

A Resolution You Can Keep

Try out a resolution this year to write two thank-you notes a week for the next three weeks. If you’re like me, you’ll get hooked on the practice. You’ll develop a gratitude reflex when you notice things you’re grateful for in your life at work.