Time for another experiment. This one I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. The idea behind it has made the rounds for a few years now and I’m not the first to do it, but I think the concept is fascinating and brimming with potential.
One day Will Bowen, a mild-mannered Missouri Reverend, challenged his congregation to develop their habit of gratitude by going 21 consecutive days without complaining or criticizing.
His method was quite simple and ingenious:
1) Put a silicone bracelet on either wrist.
2) If you did not complain at all yesterday, you go on to the next day. After day zero is day one, then day two, and so on.
3) Whenever you catch yourself complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, switch the bracelet to the other wrist and begin again at day zero.
4) When you’ve completed your 21st day, you can take your bracelet off if you want.
The act of switching the bracelet over reminds you of your intention to quit complaining altogether, and the sting of starting again should harden your resolve to drop the complaining habit for good.
It doesn’t matter how far you got, one complaint and you’re back to zero. Even if you are on day nineteen and you snap and say “You know, this lavender ice cream really blows,” then you are back at day zero.
Reverend Bowen’s experiment has since become a movement called “A Complaint Free World.” The idea is that non-complaining is contagious, and if enough people take up the challenge, complaining will go out of style. Bowen and his movement are now quite well known, featuring on Oprah and other A-list media spots.
Why do this at all?
Complaining makes for a crap state of mind. It keeps a person concerned with what he would like the world to be, while it steadfastly continues to be whatever the hell it pleases. Complaining triggers negative emotions that aren’t really fun to experience (resentment, craving, angst) and blinds a person to the parts of the moment that are perfectly fine. Gratitude is a subtler emotion than derision, so it gets overrun easily by even the slightest complaint. Less complaining equals more happiness. Few things are as simple.
If you’ve ever known somebody who complains constantly, you know that they carry their misery wherever they go. Most of us complain on an occasional basis, but almost certainly more than daily and probably more than we think. If nothing else, this experiment will show me how much I really do complain.
Like all bad habits, it does have a dubious benefit: it defends one from the responsibilities of either accepting or changing life as it already is, and this provides a bit of an ego boost to the complainer.
When you get into the mindset of how this moment is flawed, you’ve forfeited any chance at gratitude or happiness in that moment in favor of an uninvited analysis of how things “should” be. Some people derive a steady but dim joy from identifying what is wrong with everything, but I think you and I can do better than that.
I want to sharpen my ability to be grateful, and stop wasting any time wishing life was different than it already is. I also want to crush the “this sucks” reflex complelely, and leave an “Ok, let’s see what I can do with this” reflex in its wake.
Overcoming the complaint reflex is a path to becoming less uptight, less fearful and less prone to being overwhelmed, as well becoming more pleasant to be around, more resilient to adversity, and a better problem solver. Complaining is ducking responsibility for your experience, and responsibility is power. I want to take full responsibility for what happens to me, and the complaint reflex gets in the way.
I do share Bowen’s belief that non-complaining improves the moods and dispositions of people around the non-complainer. having said that, I tend to be suspicious of notions of an anything-free world, or any other mentalities focused on eradicating something. That debate aside, right now I am only looking to reprogram my own bad habits and unleash new and helpful good habits on an unsuspecting public. “The best sermon is a good example,” says celebrated quote-machine Ben Franklin.
So for now, I make no attempt to change the world here, I’ll just see what happens to myself. Any world-changing that does occur is purely coincidental.
Why didn’t I do this before?
Like many important decisions in life, it was a matter of color co-ordination. I bought Will Bowen’s book last year, along with four silicone bracelets. For some bizarre reason, the official bracelets are an awful purple color, which has probably hindered the Complaint Free World cause more than anything else.
Still, I wore one of them for a while to get into the complaint-monitoring habit, but I found myself trying to slip the loud purple bracelet beneath the cuff of my sleeves.
Third-party, non-purple bracelets might have worked, except that it needs to be easy to take off and put on again. Most of the time, my wrist-switching occured while I was still interacting with people and I didn’t want it to be a particularly conspicuous action.
Nor did I want to explain my experiment to everyone, so suddenly showing up in my regular social circles with an uncharacteristic purple bracelet, I had to do that a lot.
I had intended to order custom silicone bracelets online, but never got around to it before I left home and now I have no mailing address.
Luckily, there are substitutes for the bracelet, though I didn’t think of it at the time. For now, I’m going to keep a seashell or some other trinket in one pocket and switch it to the other instead of switching a bracelet between wrists. Once I’ve got an address again I’ll order custom (black!) bracelets.
What constitutes a complaint?
This is a matter of opinion, and I think it’s important for anyone attempting this to make sure they define complaining to themselves before they start. If it is ambiguous, you’ll eventually get frustrated with the effort and get nowhere.
Bowen defines complaining as “to express grief, pain, or discontent.” This is pretty good, but doesn’t quite do it for me. After all, there are times when you are actually attempting to change the situation by speaking up, rather than merely lamenting it. Filing a noise complaint to your landlord might be a perfectly sensible action in some circumstances, and doesn’t necessarily mean you are whining or pouting. I think the impulse-driven, emotional outburst is what creates the real problem. The typical complaint is of a compulsive, reactive nature that hijacks the mood without warning and accomplishes nothing. It is possible to express discontent tactfully and for perfectly good reasons.
Lifestyle design pioneer Tim Ferriss, self-described as a fan of constructive criticism, settled on this definition when he did the experiment:
“Describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem. “
That works for me, though I don’t think there is necessarily a problem to fix every time I feel the impulse to complain. But the aimless negativity is indeed what I want to stop, so this will be my de facto definition of complaining for this experiment.
Ferriss also discovered an unexpected benefit from his refined definition. It conditioned his reflex for problem-solving, getting him immediately thinking about what to actually do about every complaint-inducing event that popped up, rather than what to wish for.
One question that always comes up is whether to count complaints that only occur in your head. Bowen says not to count them, because you will overcome the habit of complaining internally once you are out of the habit of articulating your complaints.
Most of my complaining does happen inside my head and I still think it is destructive, but for now I will take his word for it and begin without counting internal complaints. I’ll see if they cease naturally as I continue to call myself on the external ones. If not, I’ll make the necessary adjustments.
Any vocalization counts though, even grumbles, audible sighs, or “pfffts.” These little noises voice protest just like any articulated complaint, and I want to knock out these reflexes too. Nobody else has to hear it, it just has to come out of my mouth. Eye rolls will be interpreted as a stern warning but won’t require restarting unless I do it so forcefully that it makes a noise.
There are bound to be trickier instances as well. For example, what if I post a critical comment as my Facebook status with the aim of making people laugh, is it still a complaint? This will be part of the learning process, and I can’t predict every contingency. I’ll have to make up policies as I go. I’ll talk about these in the experiment log.
This one could take a while. It takes most people six to eight months to get up to that three-week mark.
The experiment will commence Monday, February 8th, 2010. I will keep an experiment log (to be launched Monday as well) in the Experiments section of Raptitude. Updates will not be daily, but will be fairly regular. I’m going to aim for less than a week between updates.
I encourage you to do this too. Probably best not to bother unless you are serious about making this pointed behavior change though. Most of Bowen’s congregation quit fairly quickly, effectively resigning themselves to a lifetime of compulsive complaining. I wanted to wait until I was ready before I did this experiment, and I wanted to do it publicly so you can help hold me accountable.
If you do want to do it with me, please drop me a note or leave comments in the experiment log. It’s always nice to have companions.
You may have recognized that this bracelet technique could work just as well with any compulsive habit. If I make strides here, I just might bring it to bear on all kinds of other terrible things I still do.
View David’s experiment log here. You can also publish your own updates there if you are doing the experiment too.
Photo by gf8
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