Real Mind Control: The 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment

480 Comments

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The thought-awareness bracelet and the latest straw that broke the camel’s back.

“This $@#&ing Mac will be the death of me. Intuitive, my ass.”

It just slipped out, and I don’t think I can be blamed. I was ready to leave the PC behind and take my mac overseas for the first time when I couldn’t figure out how to resize photos. On a friggin’ mac? I felt swindled. I also now had to move the bracelet.

For the last four months, I’ve been experimenting with a few types of thought experiments. The two most notable are Radical Honesty, which is 100% guaranteed to get you slapped or worse, and anti-complaining, which I’ll explain here. The latter started in my book agent’s office, where I spotted a pile of purple bracelets on his desk…

“What are these?” I grabbed one and it was inscribed with ‘acomplaintfreeworld.org.’

“Another author of mine. Interesting story, actually.”

And it was. The author was Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who had recognized — as I have in a previous post — that word choice determines thought choice, which determines emotions and actions. It’s not enough to just decide you’ll stop using certain words, though. It requires conditioning.

Will designed a solution in the form of a simple purple bracelet, which he offered to his congregation with a challenge: go 21 days without complaining. Each time one of them complained, they had to switch the bracelet to their other wrist and start again from day 0. It was simple but effective metacognitive awareness training.

The effects were immediate and life-changing.

The bracelets spread like wildfire as others observed these transformations, and, to date, more than 5,900,000 people have requested the little devices.

“Can I have one?” I asked my agent.

It all made perfect sense. Fix the words and you fix the thoughts. I’m not a negative person, but I wanted to cut out the commiserating most of us use for 30-40% of all conversation (if you don’t believe me, keep track of how many people start conversations with you in the next 24 hours that center on a complaint or criticism).

I made it 11 days on the first attempt, then I slipped. Back to zero. Then it was two or three days at a time for about a month. Once I cleared 21 days at around month 3, I no longer needed the bracelet. I’m using the bracelet again now because I’m preparing for some large projects I expect to be challenging enough for Cornholio-style meltdowns.

But what is a complaint?

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.

Following the above definition, both of the following would require a wrist switch:

“Man, I went into the post office and had to stand behind this rude jerk for 30 minutes. What a waste of time.”

or

“John can be such an a**hole. Totally uncalled for.”

The following variations would not:

“Man, I went into the post office and had to stand behind this rude guy for 30 minutes. It was a waste of time. From now on, I’ll go in the mornings before 10am to avoid the crowd.”

“John was a bit of muppet in there, wasn’t he? I suppose I’ll just send the e-mails directly to Mary in engineering for the next two weeks to get buy-in, then he’ll have to agree.”

Here are a few of the changes I noticed then and am noticing again now:

1) My lazier thinking evolved from counterproductive commiserating to reflexive systems thinking. Each description of a problem forced me to ask and answer: What policy can I create to avoid this in the future?

2) I was able to turn off negative events because the tentative solution had be offered instead of giving them indefinite mental shelf-life (and “open loop” in GTD parlance), resulting in better sleep and more pleasant conversations with both friends and business partners.

3) People want to be around action-oriented problem solvers. Training yourself to offer solutions on-the-spot attracts people and resources.

###

For those interested in the more sophisticated applications and results of the the no-complaint thought experiment, I recommend you order a copy of A Complaint-Free World. I received an advanced copy and finished it in one afternoon, ending up with two pages of notes.

Want to take the 21-day no-complaint challenge for a test drive now?

Last a friend checked, the bracelets had a 3-5-month waiting period, but a rubber band or other bracelet will suffice. If you want the real deal, I have four bracelets that I will mail (might take a bit, as I’m leaving the country Friday) to the best four commenters below who answer the question:

What other behavior, besides complaining, do you think people should stop? How could train themselves to stop?

Posted on: September 18, 2007.

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Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

480 comments on “Real Mind Control: The 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment

  1. People should stop thinking pessimistically in order to circumvent trying something. You know the type of person that goes “Oh, that’ll never work.” or “We don’t have a chance.”

    I call them C3POs – remember Star Wars? We are doomed. We are doomed. That’s the kind of “Let’s just give up” attitude that people should stop immediately.

    VIP Party: What season? Is it an indoors or outdoors party?

    Like

    • @A.E.Acar – LOL yeah, I have something similar where I call people ‘Eeyores’. The little blue donkey from Winnie the Pooh? He’s always saying stuff like, “Oh woe is me.” and “It’ll never happen…”.

      Like

  2. addition:
    …that people should stop immediately by adding UNLESS at the end of a sentence:

    “I don’t think this will work UNLESS we…”

    By adding that simple word, you force yourself to think of solutions instead of indulging in despair.

    Like

  3. What other behavior, besides complaining, do you think people should stop? How could train themselves to stop?
    -Swearing, every time you swear give a dollar to charity, start doubling if needed.
    -Smoking, there’s a lot of ways for this…

    Bonus: If you were holding a party for 100 VIPs in SF or NYC and had no budget (or no more than $1,000, whichever you prefer), what would you do to make the event memorable and fun?

    How about an awesome game of capture the flag at a park or beach. Winner gets a prize.

    Like

  4. Another excellent post.

    I have played with the idea of using a wristband as a reminder of our mortality(“Life is Not A Dress Rehearsal” on my blog) but this idea is more action orientated. I like it.

    Keep up the life experiments – they benefit us all!

    A

    Like

  5. To resize a photo in iPhoto go to File->Export, set the file type (Kind), then choose “Custom” from the size drop-down. Otherwise iPhoto includes several predefined sizes as well. If you’re looking for a utility to batch resize a search at http://osx.iusethis.com for the word “resize” yields numerous results, the top four of which are freeware. Another good source is http://www.macupdate.com.

    Like

  6. wristband ideas: remove self-critical thinking, negative thoughts about ourselves, old tapes someone left behind in our head;

    I like to think about the “other side” of ideas and projects – to make my mind work a little harder and be more challenged…so, what about the reverse process: goal would be to switch wristband everyday I complete a task, or habit I’m working towards ex: each time I do something I’m afraid to do; each time I get the “big” project done first thing in the day; everytime I wait to get to my email; refused to allow someone or something to interrupt my goal, get my “two” big things done in the day..etc. I like this idea and I’m going to go find one of those wristbands and do it! Have a great trip! Thanks for an AWESOME life-styling book!

    Like

  7. Tim,

    Tim,

    Great post.

    The other behavior that people should stop is negative self talk. Instead, train the mind to see successful outcomes. As you mentioned, thoughts are the seeds of actions.

    As for your party question, give everyone the bracelet that you mentioned above and find a way to keep score. During the party this will surely spark conversation. I am sure people will leave the party thinking about the experience. Also, since they are VIPs a few of them may even spread the ideas to their organizations.

    Keep the posts coming. I really enjoy your insights.

    Like

    • Great posts. Just reading the book again after referring to it for years without reading it cover to cover. Tim, I now have bought both new and old versions.

      What about switching the bracelet every time you tell someone something which you do not believe or mean and/or have said/done only because you felt some sort of internal obligation? Everyone knows when this happens. It is when you call your wife out of obligation only to have a short meaningless conversation or when you comment to an employee on how cute their son is when you don’t mean it. I think doing this wastes everyones time. And if you didn’t do it, they wouldn’t miss it. You would also avoid only listening enough to people to make an empty comment rather than truly listening to them. I think richer conversations would ensue.

      Perhaps don’t move the bracelet in front of the person as that will likely prompt a need to explain. Not good.

      As for the VIPs. I am Canadian so I am going to use Toronto as an example instead. Most VIPs tell me that they fly allot and visit allot of cities but never really get to see them. Take them on a walking tour (it isn’t always snowing here) through the downtown, the different cultural areas, up the CN Tower and along the lake. Have each person take pictures with their cell phones and the best 3 pictures, decided by the group, win priority placment on a shared drive with a quick link. Load all the pictures into the link and give everyone the link so they can go see the pictures for themselves and vote. Everyone would know more about the city and country, would get away from work and many, because people are both nastalgic and self absorbed or sometimes both, would go the site and see the pictures: some to see theirs, others to remember the trip. Best part – all this cost me a day in the city and an hour to upload the pictures and now I have near a grand in my pocket. Not to mention allot of emails and contact information for some VIPs!

      Like

  8. I am generally positive, but I’ll bet I find that I complain more than I think.

    On the topic of another behavior to change: it would be great to see people treat service industry workers with the same respect they afford doctors and other ‘professionals’.

    It isn’t hard, but it is amazing how many times I’ve seen travelers treat airline employees horribly for delays that weren’t their fault. How many times do they complain to their doctor for excess waits?

    Like

  9. Do you switch wrists for negative self defeating thoughts as well? There are a lot of “complaining” thoughts that never get verbalized. “Stinkin Thinkin” as Zig would say; can ruin your whole day!

    We should make the choice to see and think positive thoughts in what seems like a negative situation. Take every thought captive to avoid letting our mind get lazy and slide into “Stinkin Thinkin” which leads to complaining and even more.

    I’m curious; how is being “brutally honest” is going for you? It sound like it would make from some great story’s down the road!

    With a budget of $1,000 I would rent one of those guys that peddle a type of music cart/box around with a monkey playing a little instrument. I don’t know what they are called or if they even have a name but they are certainly unique! That would definitely stand out in my mind.

    Pretty much anything from a different culture that we haven’t already Americanized would be memorable to me.

    Like

  10. The One Minute Millionaire book suggests the use a wrist band for conditioning.

    They suggest you use the band to condition yourself against using the expression “yeah, but”, or more fundamentally that way of thinking. It helps you avoid that whole process of rationalising yourself out of taking action on something you instinctively know is worth a try. For lots of people I think that’s the first negativity they need to address, certainly is for me!

    In their approach however they suggest you ‘snap’ the band against your wrist rather than swap it from arm to arm. It’s surprisingly effective, although I think I prefer the accumulated progress of the 21 day ladder!

    Like

  11. Constructive criticism has been a bit of a grey area for thousands of years. When you criticize someone, you make them vulnerable, and break them down in sorts. So it’s important to know that you can’t just leave it at that. You have no right to criticize someone if you aren’t planning on being there for the aftermath and recovery of your comment.

    Another behavior that people should stop is nail biting. As crude as this system is, I think slapping yourself in the face each time you bite your nails will get your to stop pretty quickly. Associate enough pain with a behavior, and just like a rat, you will find an alternative.

    With a $1000 budget you would have to think outside the box. First, have a dress code of either all pink shirts, polka dots, or something else just as random and casual. Not wearing a suit will get people comfortable, less judgmental, not expecting gourmet Hors D’oeuvres, and just being more fun. Who is going to forget the polka dot party???

    Like

  12. “What other behavior, besides complaining, do you think people should stop? How could train themselves to stop?”

    Compulsive worrying, without a doubt. It inevitably leads to complaining anyway.

    How to stop it? Start placing large cash bets on your so called “worst case scenarios” occurring and see how long it takes you to go broke. Or just use a bracelet. I suppose that would work as well.

    As to the bonus question, I would probably scare the living daylights out of these people with a Lynchian, Sawesque, elaborate, but cheap practical joke. They’re not going to forget that.

    Like

  13. Hi,

    Just read your book. I swear I wrote it ;)

    Not knowing what to tell people that you do, making what you used to make in a year in a month etc. I live this. Checkout my blog if you have a second. The latest post particularly where my mother wishes me a happy birthday and says that she hopes I’ll always live my life the way I do.

    Shoot me an email next time you are in Thailand, we should grab a beer.

    Cheers

    Bill

    Like

  14. Blaming others for current frustrations or challenges tops my list of a thought pattern to change. Naturally, if the resposiblity or “fix” needs an other, that should be determined and assistance sought. But I mean losing the taste for that yummy feeling of “poor me” that is so devitalizing and counterproductive.

    The VIP’s would be treated to the best most unique foods, musicians and spa treatments I could arrange through networking with new start-up superstar companies in my area who appreciate the value of this kind of exposure. I would use the $1000, if needed, to fill any holes in the experience (decorations, invitations…)but I can’t imagine a service or product, except maybe postage, that can’t be arranged through connecting.

    Like

  15. I’ve done a similar experiment in the past relying on a Bible verse (which one I can’t remember) that said to do everything as if you’re doing it for God…and don’t complain. I found that without complaining, tasks that I’d normally found unbearable became much easier and if I really got creative in my thinking I could even find some joy in accomplishing those tasks.

    Like

  16. What other behaviors to track and stop? Easy.

    Getting sidetracked.

    When you end up doing something you didn’t originally intend to do, you’re sidetracked.

    For example, you might get an email from a friend, then click a link, and suddenly start reading up on something interesting. (It could even be the 4 Hour Workweek.) If it’s not what you originally planned to do, you just disrupted your day. It’s not possible to be effective if your day is constantly disrupted.

    “Do It Tomorrow” is a great “time management” (actually self-management book) that explains this well. For best results, we should Think -> Decide -> Act. But if you’re ineffective, you tend to go with Stimulus -> Response.

    There’s no real thinking involved – no real using your brain to get the most out of your time and your day. So getting rid of sidetracking is one of the best things you can do to become more effective.

    Personal experience also shows that it makes you happier and more satisified. I’m not perfect but I’m getting there. :)

    Like

  17. I think one thing to be conscious of is that some times we need a cornholio style breakdown to make real changes. It’s unhealthy to let things go for too long, and setting up action items allows us to deal with problems, but often our solutions to difficult problems are unpleasant themselves. To break through this and make real action rage is sometimes the only solution.

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  18. I actually did something similar to this while I was in high school. I stumbled on it after reading about Ben Franklin and his book which he tracked his negative behaviors. I tried to keep a similar book (using my own list of negative actions) but the book quickly fell to the wayside. So instead I would devote a coincidental 3 weeks to one topic, for me though I successfully went the first 3 weeks without complaining (or maybe without realizing I had complained.)

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  19. What other behavior, besides complaining, do you think people should stop? How could train themselves to stop?

    I think that one of the most bothersome traits that some people have is centered around cursing. I went to visit family this past weekend, and my nephew (a freshman in high school) had a reasonably clean mouth for most of the evening. Once he thought that I was asleep and was chatting with his little brother, though, he began sprinkling in 4 letter words so much that his little brother called him on it and told him to clean it up.

    I think that cursing in general, even when it isn’t used as a complaint and especially when it is used as an unnecessary qualifier, would be a great habit to break using a method like this. The quarter jar approach sometimes works, but not usually.

    If you were holding a party for 100 VIPs in SF or NYC and had no budget (or no more than $1,000, whichever you prefer), what would you do to make the event memorable and fun?
    I’d host a group run through Central Park (that being the only runner friendly place I know in NYC since I haven’t spent a lot of time there outside of the marathon when the streets were closed), but that might not appeal to people outside of my usual crowd.

    Like