A method for practicing the skill you didn’t know was a skill, and why it’s worth learning
Last Tuesday I biked to my co-working space around 11:30am and realized, just as I sat down, that I had forgotten my lunch. Delicious leftovers sat uselessly in the fridge at home, and I had to be on a call in twenty minutes. (Cool story, right?)
When faced with this situation in the past, I would’ve spent at least a minute complaining to myself. The internal monologue might have sounded something like this:
“Shit. Really? Where is my head today? I was just in the kitchen moments ago. Get it together, Remy! This doesn’t bode well for my focus today. Should I bike home and get my lunch? I don’t have time. I’m a life coach, I shouldn’t be rushing like this. Why didn’t I leave the house earlier? I packed food and everything. When will I have time to eat? I can’t believe I’m going to spend $15 on a mediocre sandwich.”
These thoughts are actually pretty normal. The weird thing is that last Tuesday this is not where my brain went. Instead I thought, “I forgot my lunch. I’m hungry and have a call with a client in 20 minutes. I’ll go get some food.”
Without hesitating, I dropped my laptop at my desk, grabbed my wallet and walked down the block to buy a pre-made breakfast burrito at the natural foods co-op. As I walked, I appreciated how great the weather was and how lucky I am to work downtown. I passed a guy playing licks on a saxophone. I noticed the fall leaves and felt grateful that I can buy myself lunch without stressing about money.
As I walked back to the office, burrito in hand, I realized that a few years ago I wouldn’t have responded so matter-of-factly to this minor lunchtime upset. “Even a year ago,” I thought, “I would have wasted at least a little time and energy complaining. Maybe I would’ve still bought the burrito, but if I had I would still be feeling annoyed with myself. It probably would have affected my whole afternoon.”
My simple response to this small lunch forgetting affair felt like a big victory because in that moment I realized I’ve begun to master an under appreciated skill: not complaining.
Not complaining is a skill
I know, people like complaining. Maybe you even like complaining. But do you admire complainers? Are they the people you want to be around? More importantly, does complaining help you accomplish what’s important to you? Do you really get anything from it?
I remember the first time I realized the power of not complaining. I had injured my finger pretty seriously during a high point in my rock climbing career, and the next day I had a phone call with my climbing coach, Steve. The call started like this:
“Steve,” I said, “you won’t believe what happened.” I then proceeded to recount the story of my injury, feeling at least a little bit sorry for myself. When I finished, these were the first words out of Steve’s mouth:
“Let’s see what we can do with this opportunity of an injury.”
In the moment I was surprised, and of course I followed Steve’s lead and made an action plan. But I kept chewing on what he said. What made Steve respond so effectively? And why were our reactions to my injury so different?
It’s all about shifting your attention
It took me about two years — and 18 months of training as a life coach — to fully understand that when Steve responded to my injury he was demonstrating a skill. Anyone can learn to stop complaining, and you’ll probably be happier and more successful if you do.
Here’s what I now see Steve was doing when he shifted our conversation from complaining about my injury to making an action plan:
- Steve had a very clear purpose in his role as my climbing coach: to make me a better rock climber.
- Lamenting my injury and feeling sorry for myself (even for a moment) were not going to make me a better rock climber.
- What would make me a better rock climber was to skip the complaining, take stock of the situation, and decide what to do next.
Steve wasn’t wasting time. He knew what needed to be done and began doing it. How bad was the injury? When would I see a doctor to find out? What training should I do while it healed? We adjusted my training plan to focus on full-body strength and cardio workouts that would build a strong base for when my finger healed.
As a life coach I eventually learned a method behind the skill that Steve demonstrated so masterfully. The simplest way to boil it down is this: observe and shift.
Observe just means notice what’s going on. Observation has two parts to it: the facts, and the stuff our mind has to say about the facts.
In the case of my climbing injury, the facts were that I had ruptured a tendon in my finger and recovery would require at least 2–6 weeks away from climbing. My mind also had a lot to say about the situation: “I can’t believe this happened to me. My climbing career is over. This is such bad timing. Maybe I should give up on my goals.”
It’s helpful to notice these thoughts but not helpful to engage them. Observation helps us discern the facts from what we think about them, so we can shift our focus to taking authentic action based what’s true.
In the case of my injury, observe and shift sounded like this:
- Observe: I’m injured and can’t climb for a while. My mind has a lot to say about it.
- Shift: Given my injury, how can I most effectively train to reach my goals?
When I forgot my lunch, observe and shift looked like this:
- Observe: I don’t have food with me and I’m hungry. My mind has a lot to say about it.
- Shift: Where can I get food in the twenty minutes before my next meeting?
You’ll notice that “observe and shift” is a method for your thoughts — it happens internally and is all about where you choose to focus your attention. The key when learning to stop complaining is to shift to an action and then go do the next thing that will move you forward. It starts with thoughts but ends with an action. As you get used to this, you’ll find that doing the next thing is a lot more fun than sitting around complaining about the difficulty you encountered.
I challenge you to stop complaining
What would it be like to not complain for a month?
If you try it out, you may be dismayed to realize that many of the interactions you currently have revolve around complaining. Before you get too worried about missing out on the water cooler talk, consider this: the happiest people I know don’t complain. It’s just not part of their repertoire of behaviors.
My friend Sam is a good example. One weekend we had parked his car in a grocery store lot near San Jose so we could carpool to Yosemite Valley. When we got back at 9pm on Sunday his car was gone. After a few phone calls Sam got someone from the towing company on the phone:
“You can get the car tonight,” I heard them say through the phone, “but the bill is $500.”
Sam’s response was amazing: “Great. Where do I pick it up?”
People who don’t complain save so much time and energy. Sam could have gotten upset, argued with the towing company and spent the whole evening angry. Instead he took stock of the facts and decided on the next thing to do.
I know — forgotten lunch, climbing injuries and towed vehicles are relatively minor life challenges. Complaining about them won’t cost you too much. You might waste a few minutes not making progress on something or spend an evening feeling upset. So what?
But consider that the power of not complaining might be cumulative. Think about the hours and days you’d save over a year if you never felt sorry for yourself. Imagine the mental energy you’d conserve if you never wished things were different. If you practiced noticing complaining and shifting to action, how much happier and more relaxed would you be? How much more would you get done?
The benefits of not complaining also show up when we flex this muscle in the face of bigger problems: your company’s stock tanks, a wildfire destroys your town, your marriage falls apart. In those moments we call “not complaining” by a different name: “resilience.” Having this capacity to recover quickly from difficulties is even more valuable in the face of bigger challenges.
If you decide to take my challenge, I encourage you to start small. Notice when you’re complaining and practice shifting your attention to something more interesting and useful. What are the facts? What resources do you have? What would make things better? What’s the next thing to do?
Practicing not complaining is like flexing a muscle: observe and shift, observe and shift, observe and shift. Gradually it gets easier.
Originally published at https://www.remyfranklin.com on November 19, 2019.