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My 21 Day No Complaint Challenge

What's uncool to do, a burden to hear, and common everywhere? (Hint: it's in the title.)

Given the fact that no one likes a complainer, I figured I should try to be someone that I like, and that means I need to complain less! Although I don't verbally complain very much, I still complain about people and things in my head. And guess who feels bad holding these negative emotions? (Hint: it's not them).

Coincidentally, one of my friends was struggling with some workplace drama, and we discussed how to reframe negative situations positively. Rather than wanting people or circumstances to be different, why not ask ourselves to be stronger and more able to deal with any situation thrown at us? The former is outside our control, while the later is completely inside our control.

Hence, I proposed that we do the 21-Day No-Complaint Challenge, which I heard about from Tim Ferriss's blog: Real Mind Control: The 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment.

Basically, for 21 days, we must be extra vigilant towards our thoughts and speech. If we think or say a complaint, then we need to propose a solution immediately or reframe it in a positive light. This way, it is not a complaint, it is simply stating a problem and then attempting to find a solution.

Examples of complaints:

  1. "Why is traffic so horrible today!"

  2. "Why is that person so unreasonable?"

  3. "Ow! I just hit my foot on the table leg! Damn it!"

Examples of non-complaints:

  1. "Why is traffic so horrible today! OK I cannot change the traffic, but I can listen to a good podcast to help me make productive and enjoyable use of this time."

  2. "Why is that person so unreasonable? OK calm down, there are always going to be unreasonable people in this world, and being able to work well with them is an important ability. They are training my character. I need to be able to stay calm and kind regardless of how others treat me. If I can do that, then I will be invincible."

  3. "Ow! I just hit my foot on the table leg! OK, I have no one to blame except for myself. This is reminding me to be less rushed and to keep a calm mind throughout the day."

You might be wondering, why 21 days? That's because 21 days is a good amount of time to form or change a habit. Since I am sure I complain about similar things as most people, I'll share my experience in hopes that you may benefit from them and maybe even do your own 21-Day No Complaint Challenge!

My Experience

Every day in my journal, I wrote down at least one incident that I reframed. At the end of each week, I reviewed my reframes and found patterns in them. I often complain in these situations:

  1. When I am in the middle of doing something and then get interrupted.

  2. When others misunderstand me and assume I am being stupid or unreasonable, but they never checked with me if their assumption is correct.

  3. When others behave illogically or unreasonably.

1: Getting Interrupted

This one happened the most frequently. Pretty much every day, I get interrupted by others. Maybe I am in the middle of studying, and then a family member comes to talk to me. Or a neighbor rings the doorbell. Or I am in the middle of talking, and then the other person cuts in and talks for a while. There was even once, I was in the middle of working and then the electricity went out! Sometimes, these interruptions only take a few minutes, other times they take up to an hour or more!

Before, I would think, "Really? Why now of all times! Why couldn't you just wait a little longer until I am finished first?"

But during the challenge, I reminded myself, "OK, there is no way life will go according to my every desire. Getting interrupted is a normal part of life, and I do not need to get so annoyed by it. Why not just view it as a short break from your work? You have to take a break eventually anyway, so this interruption can serve as two birds one stone. Furthermore, they are not purposefully trying to annoy me, so I shouldn't treat them with annoyance. If I want to have a happy life and happy relationships, I need to train my patience and kindness."

At the beginning, I had to give myself this pep talk a lot, but after a few times, I got used to it. I viewed interruptions as a normal thing, and I was more easily able to respond with a calm and kind heart.

2: Being Misunderstood

This one happened a couple times, and it is a big deal for me. I've always hated being wrongfully accused of a crime I did not commit or at least did not intentionally commit.

For example, one day my mother came home from the grocery store, and it just happened to be the 15 minute break time during my online class. I saw her bring some groceries into the house, so I asked her if there were more things in the car. She said, "Yes, but don't worry about it. Just leave it in the car."

I thought maybe she did not want me to bring it in because I was wearing work clothes and only had a short break. But I wanted to help out, so I still brought the stuff in. Later, she criticized me and said, "Why didn't you listen? I told you to not bring them in! I originally placed them in a specific order, and now you mixed them all up!"

My first thought was, "Seriously?! I was just trying to help! When we bought stuff before, you never ordered stuff in any particular way in the car. How would I know today you did that? And why do you have to assume negative intentions from me?"

But since I was being vigilant about my thoughts, I first shut my mouth to not say anything negative. Then I tried to reframe the situation. I reminded myself of a quote that Confucius said,

"To not get upset when others misunderstand you, is this not the mark of a superior person?"

I want to be a superior person, not an inferior person, so I must not get upset right now.

Then I thought of another quote by Emperor Tang Taizong:

"If I make others feel bad for criticizing me, then who would be willing to give me advice in the future?"

Hence, I calmed down and said, "OK, I am sorry I did not listen. Next time I will check with you first." Later on in the day, my mother apologized and said she was feeling very rushed and flustered in the morning, so maybe that's why she unfairly criticized me.

From that incident, I experienced first-hand how being humble and yielding leads to harmony very quickly, whereas arguing and trying to prove yourself right would surely lead to prolonged suffering for everyone.

3: Others Behaving Unreasonably

This one is also something that bothers me a lot, and it happens somewhat often. I am a teacher, and sometimes my students behave unreasonably.

For example, one student tends to rush his quizzes. I asked him, "I see you usually get 50% on your quizzes, and you usually do them very fast. How do you think you can do better on your quizzes?" He said, "I can check my quizzes and do them slower." Hence, I reminded him many times before the start of quizzes to not rush. What happens? He still rushes.

Another student has trouble submitting her homework on the school website. I told her, "If you cannot open the school website, please send me a message before class starts to show that you at least tried to submit the homework. This way, you show your respect towards the teacher and class." I also guided her to reflect on the importance of being respectful in our relationships and career success. What happens? She will remember the next day, but then the day after she forgets again.

Yet another student said she wanted to get a good grade in this course at the start of the semester, but then she stopped coming to class after a couple weeks, and then in the last week, she messages me to ask if she can make up all her missed work in the next week.

In the past, I would definitely complain about these people acting illogically and insincerely. But during the 21-Day Challenge, I reminded myself, "How others behave is outside my control. How I behave is what's important. If I treat reasonable people with patience and kindness, that's nothing special. If I can treat unreasonable people with patience and kindness, then that is the sign of a true philosopher. Don't look down on them. They are all examiners, testing your virtues. The moment you behave arrogantly towards them, you've failed, and misfortune will be around the corner."

I also reflected that everyone has their bad habits, and habits are very hard to break. They aren't intentionally trying to annoy me, they are just unconscious slaves to their habits. If I get annoyed at them, then I am also being an unconscious slave to my bad habit of complaining. If I have a bad habit, I want others to treat me with kindness and patience. I would not want others to demand me to change in the snap of a finger. Hence, I should treat others the way I want to be treated. I am still working on this one, but I have certainly improved over the 21 days.


Getting upset and complaining hurts ourselves the most, and it also creates collateral damage to those around us. Although we all want to avoid hurting ourselves and others, complaining is usually a habit. If we want to change a habit, we need to go through a period of conscious training, and that's why I recommend the 21-Day No-Complaint Challenge.

Personally, I know that my complaining habit is not completely fixed yet, so the training continues for me. However, it is an enjoyable training! As Socrates said,

"Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day."

I hope you took away something useful from my experience, and if you do this challenge too, I'd be happy to hear your learnings!


Weekly Wisdom #211

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