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The Power of a Complaint Ban

Ugh, my job is so stressful.

I hate that I have to go to work tomorrow.

My job is so boring!

Ninety percent of my job is completely pointless.

Most of us have expressed some version of one or more of these sentiments at some point. I’m for sure guilty! Because work today is demonstrably more stressful and all-consuming than in the past. (Some may also say more demanding, but some past jobs — like manufacturing before there were workplace safety rules or labor standards — seem incredibly hard, so I’ll not go there.)

It is no wonder that a great many of us aspire to retire early, or at least to become financially independent to give ourselves more options. That was absolutely true for me and Mark, beyond my personal health reasons for wanting to retire early. Our work was full-time-and-then-some. Like phone-in-arm’s-reach at every waking moment. Like no such thing as a full 24 hours off with no work at all. (Sidebar: I visited the Slowly Sipping Coffee household during my last year of work, and Mr. SSC didn’t even know where his phone was for the duration of my visit. It blew my mind. Like, I couldn’t even imagine being well-paid and not having to be reachable every second. But maybe that says more about the pressure my job put on me to be reachable at all times than it does about his job. His cushy, comfy, amazing unicorn job.)

So even though we loved a lot about our jobs, we also knew we couldn’t keep going at that pace forever. We’d burn out. Or worse. (It feels like just a matter of time before the U.S. starts experiencing more “working to death” mortality, which the Japanese call karoshi.)

Knowing that helped get us on the path to early retirement, but as anyone who’s been saving for more than five seconds knows, impatience can set in quickly. Especially in those middle saving years.

And at the end of those long days of work, especially when we were feeling impatient with our savings progress, we’d complain to each other. All of it normal and within the bounds of what nearly everyone who complains about work says. It felt like venting. Like if we let off a little steam about our work frustrations, we’d feel better, and we’d have an easier time continuing on.

But you know what? We almost never actually felt better after complaining. Instead, we almost always felt worse. Maybe not right away, and not always consciously, but the more we complained, the more unhappy we felt and the farther away our FI destination seemed.

That’s why, back in 2015, we decided we weren’t going to complain about work anymore. Let’s look at how we did, and what impact it had on our journey.

The Power of a Work Complaint Ban // OurNextLife.com -- early retirement, financial independence, happiness, adventure

The Rules of the Complaint Ban

I’m a huge believer that you are what you think. If you focus on the negative of situations, you’re going to see more negatives. Like that expression that if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. If, instead, you make it a habit to practice gratitude, it’s amazing how much more positive the same situations feel. And words matter, too. A few years ago, I made the conscious choice to banish the words “busy” and “fat” from my vocabulary, and doing so actually made me feel less busy and improved my body image. (If you think that sounds nuts, try it, using whatever word is your mental or verbal crutch. The hardest part is getting in the habit of recognizing when you’re using the offending words and reminding yourself to replace them with something more positive.)

Related post: Why We’re Not Going to Complain About Work Anymore

So the idea behind the complaint ban was similar: maybe, by letting ourselves complain, we were focusing our minds too much on the negatives of work and either underfocusing on the positives, or missing them altogether. We wanted to know if removing work complaints from our lives would make work better, make us happier and make the journey feel like it was progressing more quickly.

So we made rules for ourselves:

  1. We could fill each other in on the details of our work as much as we wanted, and we could talk about negative things that were outside the range of normal. But we couldn’t keep talking about the same subject over multiple conversations.
  2. We weren’t allowed to complain about anything that’s just a normal part of work. No complaining about the fact that we had to work. No complaining about Sunday Blues. No complaining about normal work drama that would happen in any workplace. No complaining that we had to do tasks that were, in fact, our job. No complaining about the bad behavior of colleagues or clients that wasn’t completely, shockingly outrageous. No complaining that we had to travel. (Though usual air travel delay tales were fine.) 

Though I meant it when I wrote that post two and a half years ago, that we weren’t going to complain anymore, I also wasn’t entirely sure if we could truly banish complaining altogether.

Sticking to the Ban

So did we actually abide by the complaint ban?

We did!

Perhaps the biggest surprise how easy it was to make the switch. But it wasn’t unlike the shift that a lot of us who’ve learned about financial independence make overnight as soon as we see what’s possible. One day you buy that latte without a second thought, and the next day you can’t imagine how you ever did that. Once we made up our minds not to complain anymore, it was easy not to complain.

And it stayed easy all the way until the end of our careers. It got easier, in fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a sec.

The Power of a Complaint Ban

We started our complaint ban at the end of 2015, about two years before the end of our careers. And the ban didn’t completely transform work for us or make us different people. 2016 was perhaps my hardest work year ever, and at the time we were still anonymous and I couldn’t share that much of that was because of the election and the peak grossness of politics in the current era. But I’m convinced that 2016 would have been much, much harder if I’d given myself permission to dwell on the negatives, especially the “normal negatives.” And the complaint ban didn’t erase all of our impatience — I was pretty much ready to be done at the end of 2016 — but it did make it much more manageable. And in that last year of work, we really felt the effects of the complaint ban:

Less focus on our financial progress and less impatience: If you know you’re working toward an exit from work, then the work complaint itself rarely stands alone. It’s more likely to be a two-parter like, “Work was awful today. How long until I can quit?!” Then you look at or think about your progress and do the same thing that the complaining itself does: you focus on the negative of how far you still have left to go instead of the positive of how far you’ve already come. By removing the complaint, we removed the follow-up thought, and the end result was less focus overall on our financial progress. And that meant less triggering our impatience and more feelings of magic when we did look at our numbers.

More appreciation for the positives of work: Perhaps the best effect of the complaint ban was that it forced us to see work differently. When you know you can’t complain about something, you stop focusing on it, so we suddenly had all this extra capacity to notice more about our work, specifically the good parts. It’s that wider view that inspired me to write posts like these:

And it’s not an exaggeration to say that cutting out the complaints actually helped me like work more, which made the journey feel like it was passing so much more quickly. I even said crazy things in 2017, our last year of work, like, “This year can slow down and that would be okay with me.” Focusing on the positive helped me see what parts of work I loved most and was best at, which helped me figure out what kinds of things I want to be doing in early retirement (hint: you’re looking at one of them). And it made me more reflective about my whole career, rather than just focusing on the day-to-day annoyances that everyone experiences.

More gratitude: Best of all, focusing on the positives instead of complaining made us feel much more appreciate for essentially everything. Instead of the usual, “Poor me! I have to suffer the indignity of work!” we began appreciating more how lucky we were to be in jobs that didn’t subject us to bodily harm or abuse, like so many do, jobs that let us shine occasionally, and jobs that let us feel like we were contributing something, even in small ways, to society. We became more grateful that we were even in a position to contemplate early retirement to begin with, which most people can’t say. And we understood how lucky we were to be on the same page financially from almost day one, something we appreciated with all new vigor.

Having now lived through those final years of our career, I have to say: when you’re grateful and focusing on the positive, it’s awfully hard to feel impatient.

Verdict: the complaint ban was totally worth it, and if we had it all to do over again, I’d institute it even sooner.

Weigh In!

Would you consider a work complaint ban? Why or why not? Have you tried a complaint ban? Share whatever you learned in the comments!

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48 replies »

  1. We plan to retire on Dec. 31, 2019, after moving that goalpost closer from 2021 and 2021…and a “complaint ban” sounds like a wonderful idea, as I’m mired in impatience and aswirl in endless complaints these days despite knowing we have so very much to be grateful for.

    Tanya, thanks for the light you shine in the world. I always enjoy opening your emails on my way to work!!!

  2. Attitude is everything. My parents were both world-class complainers so they kind of instilled it in me and my brother, but it’s a trait that I’ve been trying to shed my whole life. I’ve done well but always have room for improvement.

  3. I love this! I’ve kind of always tried to not be a complainer, but more so in the last four years or so. I just got to a place where I realized that complaining did more mental harm than good for me. Gratitude is absolutely key when replacing a complaining habit. It helps to put things into perspective and helps you realize how fortunate you are to have the life you do.

  4. Hmm now that I’m thinking about it I can’t think of the last time my partner or I openly complained about work. Our situation is so cushy right now (great bosses, both working from home, no travel, great pay, semi flexible hours etc) that when we did complain we actually felt silly. It sounded like sarcasm strangely. So I guess we stopped. I haven’t noticed it until now. Thank you for the great post (as always) and helping me reflect! We seem to have accidentally instituted a complaint ban.

  5. Wow Mark looks like a model here…maybe a 2nd career for him? :) ;)

    Complaint ban is a great idea, it’s something I’m doing more and more, especially with work. However, people to compliant at work and that’s a way to get rid of their frustrations. Often I just listen and nod.

    By focusing more on the positive, you get more positive outlooks in life. This is something both my wife and I are doing.

    • That’s what I keep telling him! “Don’t worry, babe. If we run out of money, you can always model.” ;-)

      That’s great you are both focusing on being positive. Some complaints are valid and merit being aired, but the normal day-to-day stuff ultimately serves no beneficial purpose.

  6. Hi Tanja!

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter (not a word, but you know what I mean).

    I’m at a point in my career (summer between my first and second year of public policy grad school after 4 years of full-time work in the public policy field) where I can make a decision about what path I want to go down. It’s likely I’ll have the opportunity to decide between a high-paying (90k when I was making 66k before grad school which was already more than all my friends in this field) position or a lower-paying (maybe 75k) position. The high-paying position would be more stressful and challenging, which I expect could lead to both frustration and a lot of personal growth. The lower-paying position would still represent momentum in the right direction, and would likely offer really good opportunities as well with less frustration. The one $ negative of the high-paying position is that the 401k match/vesting is abysmal. The lower-paying offer is hypothetical at this point so I’m not sure what benefits would go along with that.

    Given your experience in a high-paying but stressful role, what are things you would suggest I think about when making this decision? You made it to early retirement in part because of your stressful position, but you also were motivated by early retirement because of that stress. Looking back now, what would you have told yourself when you were closer to the start of your career path?

    Many thanks in advance!
    ~Emily

    • Hi Emily, having made similar decisions a few times in my career, I have a few thoughts. Generally, the advice I would give my younger self is to worry about what’s in front of me. I see two immediate implications:

      1. Is this actually a decision? You mention that the lower paying job is hypothetical, which suggests to me that it’s not an option yet. If it will imminently become an option, will your higher paying option remain open that long? If it won’t, are you wasting unnecessary energy thinking about it? All you can do is to make the best choice at the time you’re making it.
      2. Assuming that you have these two options, I would only worry about the two options rather than what’s down the road. Which of those jobs would you prefer to do? Stress isn’t a bad thing by itself and it’s not uncommon to find yourself more fulfilled in a more stressful job. If the stress gets too much, you can leave. These don’t need to be forever decisions.

      I would tell myself to enjoy the career path and pursue options I would find fulfilling now instead of trying to mortgage my present for my future.

      Paul

    • In blogland, commenter is absolutely a word. ;-) Congrats on having two great choices (potentially, of course)! If I had my career to do over again, I wouldn’t change it, because even though my work was stressful, it was also impactful in the world and meaningful to me. And it let me do things I’m good at, which made me feel great on a regular basis. So for me, stressful and purposeful went hand-in-hand. As for your choice, while the money has to be part of the decision, the big question is how do you want to spend half of all your waking hours for the next many years? (Not that your decision is permanent, of course.) That’s time you’ll never get back, so you should spend it in the way that feels best to you. Hope that helps. Let me know what you decide! :-)

  7. The crazy part is how much some ELSE’S complaints can impact you. I worked with someone until very recently who was always SO negative (and I have a pretty darn good job) and they brought down the whole office for it, to an extent beyond we had ever realized until they were no longer around. It was like a weight had lifted off of all of us.

  8. Tim definitely wants a complaint ban from me. It stresses him out. On the other hand, I work customer service. I *need* to vent about the (admittedly rare) dickish customer. So when I get too down about my job I just have to remind myself that 98% of our customers are polite and nice. Another 1.5% grumble a bit but are easily ameliorated. So it’s really just the 0.5% that can make work seem onerous. And that’s really not so bad, when you think about it.

    • Perfect example of the negativity bias in action — how we focus on the few outlier negative experiences instead of the overwhelming majority of positive ones. Fortunately, that means you’re normal. ;-) I think if you can remind yourself to separate the .5% from the everyday-type complaints, it’s all good.

  9. >I’m a huge believer that you are what you think.

    SAME. I’ve started listening to a podcast based on the premise that our thoughts shape our experience of the world – so we need to do some thought-work and rewiring, basically. It’s not a radical idea, so much, but it’s often overlooked, and we allow our negative thoughts to flourish and replicate without ever challenging them. For me, I’m pumping the breaks, assessing whether or not my thoughts add value to my life, and going from there.

    I’d love to do a complaint ban on a broader scale. My family and friends looove a good, meaty rant about bad drivers, people with no common sense, poor restaurant service, etc. It stresses me out… Can only control myself, though.

    • I’m 100% a believer in rewiring your thoughts. Given that your social circles stress you out with their complaints, maybe your next project is to focus on changing how you react to that. In my last year of work, I made the conscious choice to view travel delays, unreasonable client requests and misbehaving coworkers as “comedy of errors,” and it made a HUGE difference. I laughed a lot more and things that used to get me worked up just rolled right off.

  10. Oh daaaaaang, this is a good one. It’s so timely, too. Mr. Picky Pincher has been trying to stay more positive about work. I’m trying as well, but it’s been a challenge not to vent (cough complain cough) to him without realizing I’m being the Negative Nelly.

  11. Such an interesting observation that instead of complaining making us feel better, it actually does the opposite! So true!

    I love this idea. I might have to fire up a complaint ban for myself.

  12. I too would like to say thank you for your inspiration and positive message here. It is so easy to get caught up in the negative, when in reality there is a lot to be thankful for!

    I am still trying hard to figure things out, but after reading the first post from you, to now, I think about early retirement.

    Perhaps I also think about how I dont enjoy work and haven’t figured out what to do yet instead…believing that if only I were able to quit work I’d be happier.

    I apologize for the length here!! Thanks again!!

    Respectfully,

    Philip

    • You’re so welcome, Philip! Glad it spoke to you. (And not to worry — your comment wasn’t too long at all!) I think sometimes thinking about early retirement too much can make us think we hate work when we actually don’t, and focusing on gratitude can help you figure out whether what you’re feeling is a result of that, or is a genuine desire from your soul to do something else.

  13. What a coincidence! I was literally just telling my boyfriend on Tuesday night about my similar philosophy. That I used to have a much worse temper, but (particularly since dating him and seeing someone with a really great and equanimous attitude in the face of frustrations) now I let things go much more. And it’s because complaining doesn’t help. Venting doesn’t really vent – I rarely feel the release of anger or frustration when I vent. I’m much more likely to feel that I’m stoking the fire by doing so and making the problems loom larger in my life. In fact, as well as seeing a good model in my boyfriend, I read some research that said venting made things worse a few years ago (a quick google today shows *many* results about research in this area, like this: https://www.fastcompany.com/3032351/why-venting-about-work-actually-makes-you-angrier). And wonder of wonders, in the face of evidence that contradicted my prior beliefs, I changed my mind and changed my behavior! I do think I’m objectively angry and frustrated a little bit less of the time. More importantly, the time I spend with my boyfriend is not wasted on (so much) complaining, which I think fosters a better relationship over all. And, last but not least, as someone who lets things go more easily, I like myself better – which is the biggest win!

  14. for a year or two awhile back mrs. me was having a little rough patch at her work. i was working a far shittier manufacturing job beneath my qualifications. i would give her a 2-3 minute vent period and shut it down with “if i start telling you every crappy thing i endured this week you’ll be ready for a drain-o cocktail.” i could win every complaint contest and she knew so it almost all went away. 2 minutes and no reiterating.

    • I don’t know that I’d advocate enforcing a complaint ban on others, lest they feel unheard or invalidated, but it’s certainly something that a couple could decide to do together. Like I could imagine saying to Mark, “please cut me off if I complain for more than two minutes.” But if we hadn’t agreed that and he said that to me, I think I’d be less than thrilled about that. ;-)

  15. I love this so much. I consciously stopped complaining about work, and it went from something I hated to something I quite enjoy. I’ve had multiple students comment that I seem so happy all the time (which is an awesome compliment!). I’m never “busy”, at worse I’m “productive”- it’s funny how the brain can trick itself. My husband and I also started doing a check in revolving around 3 questions in the evening: What are you most grateful for today professionally? personally/socially? What are you most looking forward to tomorrow? and it has had a really positive impact on our lives. Awesome post (also I just recently discovered your blog and really like it!).

  16. I tried to go 21 days straight without complaining based upon the book “A complaint free world.” I echo your sentiments about it helping me to be more positive. I was not successful, though, in going 21 days straight without complaining despite sticking with it for several months. The book says it takes on average 4-8 months for people to do it.

  17. This is a powerful article, and I fully agree with your premise, “you are what you think.” It’s strange because I feel like I’m an extremely positive person overall, except for my job (luckily I’m putting in my 2-weeks notice to pull nearly a 180 toward a career path I believe I’m better suited for).
    You mentioned gratitude in your article, I’ve made that a primary component of my nightly routine. I started using an app Zest, I have it setup to give me a notification at 9:00 PM every night, and I have a rule that I cant clear the notification until I write my 3 gratitude for the day, I can even add a picture if something was especially memorable. This little habit has allowed me to focus on the good things in my life rather than ever present negativity.

  18. Thank-you for reminding me to get my mindset back on track, focus on gratitude. Realign with the mindfulness that I have defined as my guiding mantra, thanks Tanja. Well done on your efforts to work towards the complaint ban. :)

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