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.)
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 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:
- 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.
- 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?
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:
- Replicate What You’re Great At in Early Retirement
- The End of the Perks // Preparing to Say Goodbye to the Upside of Work
- Don’t Check Out Early // Staying Engaged in the Home Stretch to Early Retirement
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.
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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Categories: we've learned