The 21-Day No Complaint Experiment

“Look! My hip has a weird, reptilian scab from this backpack’s belt.”
“Pumping water from these plastic bags takes SO LONG.”
“Dude. I hate marmots.”

We’ve all been that person – the one with the sweat dripping into our eye sockets or the wrong shoes on when it starts to rain. It’s inevitable, it’s annoying, and, usually, it really fucking sucks. The more I go outdoors, the more I become aware of the myriad of weird discomforts and things that can go wrong while tramping through the woods with your house on your back. I’ve also noticed that some people seem to be significantly better at keeping their troubled assertions to themselves and making light of the situation instead, laughing off blisters like some sort of high-octane mutants. I call them Bodacious Backpackers, and they are the superhero mind-ninjas that everyone wants on their thru-hike or climbing expedition. I wanted to become one of them.

A few weeks ago, half stuck in LA traffic and half listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast, a piece of a sentence floated through my eardrums and stuck to the inside of my brain. “Launch a 21-day no complaint experiment,” a voice echoed from the dusty speakers of my Toyota. I stopped cold. What was it? A religion? A cult? A new form of active meditation? I had no idea what the details of the experiment were, but it sounded perfect. 21 days was just enough time for a thought pattern to make a permanent shift, yet not so long as to seem daunting. With this meager idea and no formal plan, I committed instantly.

Apparently, there’s a very popular version of this making its way around the world right now that involves a Kansas City minister named Will Bowen and a purple bracelet. While the version I invented for myself is similar, I unintentionally loosened a few of the rules, which opened a fascinating new window to shift subtle feelings of self-shaming when I didn’t perfectly comply with the standards I set for myself.

Armed with a fierce desire to get started and almost zero information, I set the rules of the game as follows:

  1. No complaining, sarcasm, or negative thoughts about people, weather, inanimate objects, or abstract circumstances.
  2. I wrote the number of each day on my left wrist in black ink, washing it off and reapplying the next one in succession. If people asked about the numbers, I cheerfully told them about the experiment to increase “complaint-free” awareness and to help hold myself accountable.
  3. When a negative thought or sentence happened to bubble to the surface or fall out of my mouth, I aimed to immediately correct it by offering a constructive solution, rather than letting an open-ended dark thought clutter my mind.

I was already the sort of person who tries not to complain and believes in “not justifying any poor choice with having lived a hard life.” I thought the experiment would be easy. But, the more I shifted my awareness to the hundreds of tiny verbal paper cuts we sling every day, the more I recognized how crucial this experience was as a meditative practice. I was determined to become Buddha-like in my bodaciousness.

Mutual commiseration is endemic. If you don’t believe me, pay attention for one day and note how many conversations are started with a sarcastic joke, a comment about not liking the weather, or a complaint about how slow the line at the post office is. Because speech affects thought and thoughts affect stress/mood/action, learning to control the language we use and the solutions offered therein is essential.

Here are a few of the most fascinating things I noticed over the course of my 21-day no complaint experiment:

  • I found myself giving people the benefit of the doubt in creative ways, rather than immediately judging them, putting them down in my mind, or labeling them. If someone was slow, I assumed their kid woke them up in the middle of the night. If someone was rude, I imagined that they forgot to eat breakfast or got yelled at by their boss. I refused to perpetuate the cycle of negativity.
  • When adding small caveats to my frustrations, my focus began to shift onto what I could do about a problem, rather than fixating on the problem itself. For example, “I suck so hard at at biking up hills” became “I suck so hard at biking up hills. If I take deep breaths and continue patiently training, I’ll get better.”
  • It opened a door that helped me pattern-interrupt some pretty intense self-shame spirals. Because I didn’t use a bracelet and make myself start over at day one every time I messed up and had a measly little negative hiccup (a la Will Bowen), I opened up a space of greater awareness about how I treat myself after a mistake. I would take a deep breath, quietly note how I could change the reaction in the future, and then go about my day. The same process could be applied to many types of self-shaming or harmful personal thoughts.
  • I became more innovative about how I started conversations with strangers and coworkers. Imagine walking into a room and making someone’s face light up because you asked them about their custom shoelaces or their mutt’s hypothesized breed-mixture. I got to give people the gift of specificity and novel conversation from the heart, two ingredients we don’t see enough of in the urban world.

I highly recommend trying this experiment for yourself. It costs nothing but your attention and will help you shelve old habits and harness your mind towards the creative good of your life. Give it a whirl. You’ve got nothing to lose but your ego.

6 thoughts on “The 21-Day No Complaint Experiment

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      You should do it! I try to be positive as well, but the increased awareness around the issue was fascinating to watch in my mind for 21 days!

  1. Betty Bradford says:

    Sometimes I find myself getting the same message from lots of different angles at the same time. I just listened to a Tedtalk along the same lines and committed to myself to adopt the Socratic test before speaking: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful? I was mostly thinking of trying to clear toxic air at workplace but your writing makes me think of applying it to a much broader area. The one I seem to be the most negative about is myself. I am grateful to be able to tune in to your frequency as you broadcast life lessons!

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      I love the Socratic test! But I do find that it’s a bit stringent and can often lead to us silencing ourselves. Part of the wonderful thing about speech is the sheer expressiveness of it, so “is it useful” isn’t always necessary! As long as you are kind and truthful and (hopefully) not complaining about things you could take into your own hands. 🙂

  2. wherethesunsetslast says:

    I love this idea! I’ve been spiraling into some really unhelpful self-depreciating comments recently and this seems like a great way to undo some of those habits. Seems like a good thing to plug into a bullet journal and keep notes about too.

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      Yes! I wish I had journaled more about it while it was happening. I just decided last night to embark on a new, longer version of this with my relationship. I’m thrilled to watch how it moves through me.

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