A couple years ago, I completed the 21 Day No Complaining Challenge. Since then, a number of friends, family, and coworkers have asked me about it, and I've even helped some of them start and finish it for themselves.
What is the challenge?
The idea is simple: you wear a wristband for 21 days, and during that time, you aren't allowed to complain. If (and when) you do complain, you move the wristband to the opposite wrist, and restart the 21 days.
Why would anyone do this?
Over 11 million people around the world have started the challenge.
One question I often get is: Why is it so popular? What's wrong with complaining?
I read a good point somewhere (can’t find it anymore): “Have you ever been listening to someone complaining and thought: this is a great conversation?”
Problems with Complaining
Looking back, here are the issues I was having with complaining:
First, it generally doesn't help you or lead to solving the problem you're complaining about. In fact, it can even make you worse off: you feel hopeless and less likely to take action to improve your situation. I didn't fully appreciate this until I stopped complaining, and realized I wasn't missing out on anything.
Second, it's kind of like an unhealthy drug: it feels good in the moment, but you feel worse afterwards from the negativity. Neurologically, every time you think about something, it activates adjacent ideas in your mind. If you complain, you focus your mind on things that bother you or cause you pain. You end up thinking about what you don't want rather than what you do.
Finally, "your words create your life": Complaining becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to a host of counterintuitive psychological effects. The above points are two examples. This could easily be a full post, but here are some more:
If you think people are always rude or mean, you might decide there's no point being nice. This might put off otherwise nice people to avoid you, or reciprocate.
If you complain you can't find friends, dates, or work, people might think "well, I was considering you, but if so many others turned you down maybe I should reconsider".
What happens when you stop complaining?
Conversely, things got better off when I stopped complaining:
You start thinking more about solutions. You might not solve every problem you encounter, but you'll solve a lot more than when you weren't thinking about them at all.
You just feel better: happier, lighter, more creative. Magic happens when you're not fruitlessly cycling problems around your mind all the time.
Like Tim Ferris says, “People want to be around action-oriented problem solvers. Training yourself to offer solutions on-the-spot attracts people and resources.”
What exactly is complaining?
Okay, but what about expressing your emotions, or pointing out problems at work? Fair points. What we really need is to define “complaining”.
Will Bowen asks you to switch wrists when you complain (express grief, pain, or discontent), criticize, or gossip. He does make a few exceptions:
Expressing an issue to someone who can fix it, because that's actually useful behavior (as opposed to complaining into the void).
Thinking but not saying a complaint doesn't count. This is fine, because first, it's overly hard to suppress thoughts (e.g. try not to think about an elephant), and second: it's unnecessary. The brain seems to monitor what ideas you say or write down as validation to produce more of them. Simply not expressing the complaint is enough to count as a vote against producing more complaint thoughts in future. It's enough to signal to your brain "these ideas aren't wanted"
Expressing your feelings (this is not about repression). For example, if you feel angry about something, it's okay to say "I feel angry that my car got scratched". Why is this okay? Because your feelings are fact, and by acknowledging that these are your feelings, you take ownership of them, it moves your focus from the external world (which you can't control) to your internal world (which you can you can decide how you react to a given feeling).
Even so, this definition still leaves a lot of gray area and seems overly restrictive. I like Tim Ferriss' modifications:
This is where I disagree with some of the rules set by Will. He asks you to switch wrists whenever you gossip, criticize, or complain, and the definitions can be a bit vague. He also requires you to switch wrists if you inform someone else they are complaining. I think this is counterproductive, as I’m big on constructive criticism.
I defined “complaining” for myself as follows: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem. I later added the usual 4-letter words and other common profanity as complaint qualifiers, which forced me to reword, thus forcing awareness and more precise thinking.
Even with Tim's modifications, I've found there was still enough gray area to trip myself and others up. What if you "complain" but then say it was actually a joke? Doesn't it defeat the point if you just put "I feel angry that..." in front of any complaint? Etc.
Answer: This isn't school, no one is grading you. You can set any rules you like, as long as you're not in the moment with a complaint (otherwise you'd change the rules on the fly). Think about what kind of person you want to be.
For me, here's how I clarified what a complaint is: it's something I say that makes me feel bad without providing concrete, nameable benefits
How long will it take?
It varies by the person. Some people might take a month, some might take 6 or more. I took 2.
Taking longer isn't something to be ashamed of, in fact, it's more impressive, it proves you're even more committed, and it likely means you got a lot more benefit out of it. Don't worry about others, just do what's best for you. This isn't a competition.
How much should I wear the wristband?
As often as you're comfortable with.
I slept with it on, brushed my teeth with it on, etc.
The less you take the wristband off, the less likely you are to forget about it.
Which wristband should I use?
Whatever you want, you can even use a rubber band.
Personally, I used the official wristbands. I think there's something psychologically compelling about going through the ritual of buying and wearing the wristband. The ritual and wristband are a reminder that millions of others have done this, which makes me feel more motivated.
It also helps that the wristband is more durable (won't break), and looks distinct (harder to lose or accidentally throw away). For a challenge like this, falling off is the #1 risk, so I want every advantage, and this is one of them.
Does the effect last?
Yep. By the end of the challenge, not complaining becomes nearly automatic. More importantly, you realize the cost of complaining, and wonder why you ever did it so much in the first place.
For example, when I was arriving on a flight, airport security closed one exit right as I was approaching. Others around me just stood and complained fruitlessly about it for several minutes before giving up. Meanwhile, I was already at the next exit before I even thought about it.
Yes, there are times I may still occasionally complain, but maybe only once or twice every few months, and even then I'm not very serious about it.
How do I get started?
You only need to buy or pick out a wristband to use and get started.
I recommend reading Tim Ferriss’ guide.
For more depth, I also recommend checking out A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen (non-affiliate link), or his free YouTube video playlists. Fair warning: his writing and video style feels pretty cheesy to me, and I don’t agree with everything he says. But, he probably has the most experience of anyone guiding people through this, and if you can fight through the cheesiness, I can say that I credit a lot of his ideas (with my own modifications) to completing the challenge successfully (e.g. what to do about friends or family who complain). If anyone knows of a better source, let me know.