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What it's like to not complain or swear for 21 days

What it's like to not complain or swear for 21 days

I listen to Tim Ferriss' podcast. I’m a little backlogged at the moment, but just absorbed the episode Magic of Mindfulness: Complain Less, Appreciate More, and Live a Better Life, which originally aired Nov. 28., 2015. In it, Ferriss references Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who recognized that “word choice determines thought choice, which determines emotions and actions.”

Bowen coined the 21-Day No Complaining Challenge, which is relatively as self-explanatory as it sounds. Bowen has a couple wonky rules about how he defines a “complaint,” which, like Ferriss, I find trivial.  So, for my challenge, I’m adhering to Ferriss’ parameters about what constitutes a complaint: describing an event or person negatively without indicating next steps to fix the problem.”

And, to complicate the challenge as Ferriss also did, I’m adding all the colorful 4-letter words and other common profanity that have come so easy to sprinkle in as complaint qualifiers. This will force me to reword my complaining into more constructive perspectives, thus forcing awareness and more precise thinking. Eliminating the comfort of being able to automatically shout a single swear word as my response to a frustrating situation or simply for emphasis will further reinforce the positive benefits from harnessing a calm, patient and compassionate mindfulness.

The challenge is to achieve the goal 21 consecutive days, not cumulative. Bowen made purple bracelets (a la Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong campaign), which he distributed to his congregation, to use as a tangible, conscious reminder. The type or color of bracelet or wristband is irrelevant, it’s donning a wearable reminder that’s important, kind of like a self-adorned Scarlett Letter, but with less guilt and shame. My bracelet of choice: a loom bracelet my nephews made for me during a visit home over Christmas ‘14 to match the four colors of the tattoo on my left forearm. I thought it would be dually a positive reminder to be a better role model for them, too. Ultimately, if I complain or swear I have to move the bracelet from my left wrist to my right for the remainder of that day, and the clock starts back at Day 1.

So, this blog post will live and breath until I successfully complete the challenge. I’ll update it daily so you and I can track my progress, as representative and embarrassing as it may be. Here I go...

Day 1, 1.4.16 - Day 1 overall

  • I didn’t start until I got home from work, about 6p, because I wanted to share the challenge with Katherine with the hope that she’d join me. She has.

  • Attempt #1: failed. We were watching the first episode of season 20 of The Bachelor, and I called Lace a bitch. Bracelet moved to right wrist. Damn.

  • While lying in bed, I started reading Peace is Every Breath, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. The book, which is about incorporating mindfulness during one’s otherwise busy life, should help me along this journey.

  • As a further support system, I started a daily 5-minute journal. Since I’m starting at night, my first entry was only half of what it normally will look like. Each day, I’ll free write on the following five prompts - the first three reflected on in the a.m., the last two at night:

1. What I’m grateful for

2. What would make today great

3. Daily affirmations  

4. Something amazing that happened today

5. How I could have made today better

Day 1.2, 1.5.16 - Day 2 overall

  • When I woke up this morning I re-read a page in Hanh’s book that I dog-eared last night. In his own handwritten calligraphy, it says: Every moment is a gift of life.

  • I then recited one of Hanh’s poems that he suggests incorporating into one’s daily rituals, this one in particular as the first thing he does in the morning.

Waking up this morning, I smile:

Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.

I vow to live each moment fully

and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

  • While driving home after work, I was talking on the phone to my buddy J.R. I allowed the conversation to distract me from a different route I had to take than normal for an errand and when I missed my exit I mumbled, “Shit the bed.” Bracelet moved to the right wrist.

Day 1.3, 1.6.16 - Day 3 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • 1st success: I didn’t complain or swear today.

Day 2, 1.7.16 - Day 4 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • No complaining or swearing!

Day 3, 1.8.16 - Day 5 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • I didn’t get to my a.m. journal entry until after lunch at work, but it still felt good to accomplish it

  • No complaining or swearing!

Day 4, 1.9.16 - Day 6 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • No complaining! But… I was eating dinner with Katherine about 8p, and while watching a documentary about drug cartels, I  said “Fuck!” during a police raid of a stash house. I really don’t want to count it because it was more in astonishment rather than associated with a negative connotation. But, it is the F word. I don’t think the F word ever gets a pass.

Day 1.4, 1.10.16 - Day 7 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • I hung out with my buddy Wes today, who helped me tune a new set of drumheads. We have a very natural, totally hetero vibe and an almost identical sense of humor. I told him about the challenge. Bad move. He tried to get me worked up with funny sh!t he knows I like, and openly tried to get me to swear. It was all in good fun, but he didn't get me to break. Sucker.

  • No complaining or swearing! Failing yesterday pissed me off, but staying honorable to the challenge motivated me today.

Day 2, 1.11.16 - Day 8 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • I knew work was going to be difficult today because of an email I shouldn’t have read last night before bed. I had to deal with a major incident with my biggest client, which affected multiple departments. Fortunately, our team pulled together, handled it swiftly, and with their help I remained calm and responded responsibly.

  • Another successful day.

Day 3, 1.12.16 - Day 9 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • I am so not underestimating this challenge, but today was surprisingly manageable. To some degree, again - not getting overly confident here and I may up eating my words, the majority of the day is starting to come more naturally and my effort to not complain feels like less of a struggle. However, not swearing is surprisingly taking much more conscious restraint.

  • Still, I didn’t do either today!

Day 4, 1.13.16 - Day 10 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and recited Hanh’s poem.

  • Katherine and I met with our financial advisor yesterday (I'm writing this in the a.m. Jan. 14). As part of our annual efforts to reevaluate our finances, we wanted to re-up our investing, which we dialed back on a little during the last three years so we could take care of some priorities with our house that we purchased in 2013. During our meeting, our advisor Jesse wanted to know what our current situation was like, what our immediate needs might be and if our long-term goals had changed. We preemptively shared that having kids is now likely off the table. In lieu of, we want to redirect that cost of literal living to traveling. No issues there. 

But, what challenged me was when we started talking about retirement. Two out of the three of our living grandmas are dealing with two different, yet incredibly frustrating situations. Both "have money." One is wasting it away with her stubbornness and fear of being alive. The other, doomed with accelerating dementia, is being taken for everything she has dollar by dollar by lazy care in "one of the best" assisted living facilities in Waterford, MI (I'm talking to you, Cantebury). 

Watching both of our moms exhaust themselves emotionally and physically by trying to navigate the care for their mothers has made me very cynical about our health care system. If all things remain on the path they're currently on, state-assisted care will likely be nonexistent when my mind or body goes (I hope it's my body first) and I require reinforcements. My point is, when I was talking to Jesse last night, my mouth itched with wanting to curse the unpredictability of our financial future, particularly in regard to our health and medical needs. But, with patient mindfulness, I held my tongue, refrained and went to bed relinquishing the worry. 

  • Day four-in-a-row: no complaining or swearing. Onto Day 5 tomorrow, bring it.

Day 5, 1.14.16 - Day 11 overall

  • I smiled when I woke up, thought to myself every moment is a gift of life, and re-read a different passage from Hanh’s book. The chapter Having Space frames "Space represents freedom and ease," and questions "Without freedom, how can we be happy?" The following passage really resonated with me. The last book I read, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown, came waving back with Hanh's peaceful reminder:

Don't get carried away from real life by busyness, troubles, and disappointments. Know how to shake off the worries and live joyfully. This is an art. Practice to let go of unimportant things that don't bring any happiness. When you can let go, you have more space.

So, this morning, I meditated Hanh's recommended poem from this chapter:

Breathing in, I see myself as space.

Breathing out, I feel free.

  • Had a very positive meeting with the owner of a local beer news website. Discussed lots - beer, obviously, the industry and scene, family and just got to know each other. Not to be patted on the back, but found myself naturally almost going to swear words just for color, but proudly didn't.
  • No complaining, no swearing today! Onto Day 6! 

Day 6, 1.15.16 - Day 12 overall

  • I dropped my guard yesterday. In the excitement over hosting JR, I neglected to meditate in the morning in lieu of taking care of some final preparations for his and Nicolette's arrival. I took a half-day at work so JR and I could hang out downtown. We rocked it all day. JR supported my effort to be disciplined. He joked about trying to get me to crack, but he knew I was serious. I got through nearly the entire day. After dinner, Katherine, JR, Nic and I went out for wine at Bar Divani. On our way out of Divani to catch an Uber home, in my excitement screwing around with JR, I fumbled with a "son of a bitch." Back to Day 1, dang it.

Day 1.5 (my 5th attempt at Day 1), 1.16.16 - Day 13 overall

  • The four of us went to brunch at Stella's before JR and Nic had to drive home to Chicago. They laughed with me about last night, and I took it in stride. Falling back to Day 1 reminded me why I'm doing this. 

  • I had a successful fifth Day 1 today. I was even dressed up like an '80s heavy metal rockstar for the hair band themed charity event Juice Ball. Despite what would've been totally acceptable raucous behavior for Tommy Lee, I  avoided it with devil horns in the air.

Day 2, 1.17.16 - Day 14 overall

  • Today was a well needed chill Sunday at home with the wife. Not too much to get worked up about, complain about or swear at. Well, except for watching Netflix's Making a Murderer - I'm having to restrain myself from swearing at all the dirty cops in Manitowoc County, WI. But, I got out clean. Back on track tomorrow for Day 3.

Day 3, 1.18.16 - Day 15 overall

  • Felt like I was getting teased with being under the weather again when I woke up. That kept me pretty sedated at work today, plus the office was quiet. Then, I came home to a really sick wife who's lost her voice. So, complaining and swearing were both almost off the table without too much temptation. Still, I wasn't going to take for granted the lack of potential confrontation today. I put my sick girl to bed, cozied up to her warmed by my reading lamp and re-read the last few chapters of Peace Is Every Breath.

Day 4, 1.19.16 - Day 16 overall

  • Had a Skype session tonight with a consultant from PA who helped me refine some writing objectives. She was friendly, honest and created a safe, casual meeting space that would've made it easy to accentuate some of my writing struggles with the swears. I'm starting to notice a quicker ability to swap them out for less offensive (and sometimes less funny) words. Onto tomorrow!

Day 5, 1.20.16 - Day 17 overall

  • The complaining thing is getting exponentially easier, much to my surprise. The swearing thing still requires more conscious effort. Tonight, I met John Gonzalez and Amy Sherman for beers to discuss Behind the Mitten and pick their brains about what makes a good story. They're super fun to talk to, and gently wild. After a couple beers, it could've otherwise been easy to let a few words fly, but smooth restraint won again.

Day 6, 1.21.16 - Day 18 overall

  • Today was a relatively casual day at work - we cleaned up our shop to host our company Christmas party for tomorrow. We might've had a beer or two from the haul I bought for the party, and while they made cleaning a lot more enjoyable, I didn't get distracted by the social lubricant. 

  • After work, I went grocery shopping for the authentic Mexican dinner I'm going to be preparing on Saturday for an early birthday celebration for Katherine. It ended up taking a lot longer than I estimated because of the uniqueness of some of the ingredients, so I didn't get home and have groceries unpacked until close to 11p. Although tired and knowing I'd have a late night tomorrow, I found myself rather patient during my own unnecessary frustration. Despite getting into bed much later than planned, I was relaxed and calm throughout the evening.

Day 7, 1.22.16 - Day 19 overall

  • My poor Katherine has been so sick. She had to take a pass on going to my work party tonight. Initially, I thought that her absence would be challenging for me because I'd have a little more freedom to be less responsible in my dialogue than I'd normally be in her company - in terms of being able to mingle and engage with everyone. But, I actually used the power of that thought to maintain the standard I've been establishing for myself. It felt like a real win tonight to be partying with people who have come to expect me to be the center of attention and to do so with being mature and with zero inappropriate four-letter words. Katherine would've been proud. 

Day 8, 1.23.16 - Day 20 overall

  • I lived in our kitchen today. Katherine was a beautiful sous chef by my side from 10:30a until I started plating the first course (of 5) about 5:30p. At any time when our island was full of dishes in different stages of preparation, every burner on the stove occupied and the oven roasting vegetables, her help - along with my mom's and her grandma's, I managed the kitchen like a true professional and delivered a meal that was not only impressive because of its culinary difficulty, but because I executed it with calm control.  

Day 9, 1.24.16 - Day 21 overall

  • Well, today would've made twenty-one consecutive days. I failed during my first four attempts, and now I'm totally okay with that. It actually feels good. I don't think I'd appreciate today as much if this was easy from the start.

  • I volunteered this morning to help work load-in for our event production of the MI International Auto Show's annual Charity Spectacular. After an extremely long, surprisingly exhausting day in the kitchen (yeah, first world problems, right?), it wasn't the most fun to have to be downtown at 7:45a to haul and set-up heavy equipment for four hours. But, the extra money for a short window of time was definitely worth it - it'll help fund our Nashville trip next weekend. The challenging part of this morning was having to work side-by-side with the Union at DeVos Place. True blue collar grit with no apologies for their potty mouths. I'm sure I seemed like a weak chump with my pleases and thank yous, but it made for a complaint-free morning.

  • The rest of the day was spent quietly catching up from the otherwise full weekend, excitedly looking forward to hitting double digits tomorrow!

Day 10, 1.25.16 - Day 22 overall

  • Ten in today! And, just one day shy of what would've been a perfect first attempt at twenty-one consecutive days. The high from ten in a row kept my thoughts and mouth focused, positive and productive. Conquered work without trouble.

  • Met a new friend, Pat Evans, for beers after work today. We chatted beer, the industry, writing about both and life in general. Incredibly smart, witty guy who's rather easy to talk to, which made Day 10 a smooth win.

Day 11, 1.26.16 - Day 23 overall

  • I ended today with a beacon of light and opportunity. Steph from Mitten Brew offered me the position of Marketing Manager for the site. It's a part-time pro bono gig contracted for three months that I can do after-hours to help her stay ahead of the curve and tick some major housekeeping tasks off her list. It'll give me some solid experience in the industry, help enhance my Cicerone studying and also allow me to finally write professionally for someone other than myself. I'm incredibly humbled by the opportunity, stoked to be a part of a healthy culture and pretty dang proud of the progress I've been making for myself. Today was a good day.

Day 12, 1.27.16 - Day 24 overall

  • I was surrounded by a ton of swearing today. We were back at the Auto Show at 7:45a to finish setting up production, until I left around 2p. I returned in a suit for the Charity Spectacular at 7p. Then, was back for load-out at 9:30p, until 12:30a. It was a busy, physical day, but I had a cushion surround me all day. The Union are blue collar, not afraid to get dirty and helped us tremendously, but man - they have no filter. The one female they had on their team had the worst potty mouth of 'em all. And, one of their guys went into explicit detail about how much cocaine was snorted in the Kalamazoo rock scene back in the '80s. As you can imagine, there were a few F bombs in that retelling. But, me - no bombs. a

Day 13, 1.28.16 - Day 25 overall

  • Today was my lovely wife's birthday. She brought home takeout from her choice of Amore, and we had a super delicious, peaceful night in at home. And, tomorrow, we road trip to Nashville to celebrate her birthday proper. Absolutely no reason to swear or complain. 

Day 14, 1.29.16 - Day 26 overall

  • We left this morning at 7a for TN. I surprised Katherine a few weeks ago with tickets to O.A.R. so we turned it into a four-day weekend. We left 30° Michigan winter weather and shed a layer of clothing at every pit stop as we got closer to southern sun. We had a smooth drive with clear roads, a funky lunch with a full flight beer sampler with appreciative hospitality at Big Lug Canteen and a safe arrival at Ryan and Alicia's about 5:30p CST. 

  • We started tonight off with local beers at Craft Brewed and then kept it pretty chill with burgers and one more pop at M.L. Rose. We couldn't get ahead of ourselves because I committed to working out tomorrow morning with Ryan at 7a. Going to be bed tonight without breaking the rules, but from what I've heard - the workout tomorrow morning will definitely test me. 

Day 15, 1.30.16 - Day 27 overall

  • If I was ever going to swear during this twenty-one-day attempt, it could've easily been today, and it would've also been my biggest disappointment in myself. When we got back to Ryan and Alicia's last night, relatively early by our standards - by 10p, I think, the girls went to bed as they adorably do. Ryan and I should've followed, but we pushed it by having a few more beers over deep conversation and ping pong in his garage. Then, 6a came...

  • I joined Ryan for his daily morning workout (what he usually does five or six out of seven days a week) with a group of male friends for life. I'll be reflecting more on this morning's grueling yet inspiring workout on my other blog, Dismantle.Repair so please stay tuned as I'll update this here when it's posted.

  • Anyway, trust me when I say these guys pushed me like I've never been challenged before. There were many times when it would have been so easy to swear in frustration, complain about how exhausted I was or simply - just quit. During every rare chance we had to rest for ten seconds, I tried to slow my breathing and center myself against what I was being led to do.

  • At its conclusion, which I survived, the fact that I held it together and stayed positive in my mind, body and spirit, made me stronger than I ever thought possible. 

  • After a seriously needed breakfast to refuel, we headed back home to the wives and tackled the rest of the day as if the wind was at our backs. My three partners in crime helped me taste test fourteen beers from Detroit's Atwater, which we finished sitting outside on their patio in 68° sunny TN weather. We ventured downtown at night for reservations Ryan made for Katherine's belated birthday celebration dinner at Sambuca (shoutout to server Trevor). I could still be sitting in our posh semicircle booth adjacent to the stage and live music, picking at everyone's happy-flavors food and purely satisfied existing over sincere conversation. 

Day 16, 1.31.16 - Day 28 overall

  • Tonight was the reason we visited Nashville, and of course its beautiful hosts made a perfect complement and for an easy decision to make the drive. After being wowed by Mantra's beautifully crafted beer, we had dinner Butchertown Hall - a strong gray brick building with the most bone chilling, smooth warm white vibe and perfectly accented earth tone and plant green decor. That place really had an affect on me. It's places like Butchertown that make going out to eat and drink at unfamiliar gems such an enjoyable experience for me. 

  • While walking up to Marathon Music Works, we had to pass the tour buses. Of course, I split from my gang and walked nonchalantly past the road crew to see if I could drum up a face-to-face with Marc, of O.A.R., for Katherine. As fate would have it, because my wife deserves it, as I turned the corner at the front of the bus I ran into Marc. It was just him (on the phone) and me. I nodded to him that I wouldn't cause a scene, respected his privacy and motioned taking a photo. He acknowledged, and I waved over Katherine, Ryan and Alicia. After Marc hung up, who he said was his wife, he hung out with just us four for a few minutes. He took photos and gave Katherine his time. Truth be told, when we walked away, she smiled with tears in her eyes, thanked me for making that happen and laughed as she confessed: "I really hugged him."

Day 17, 2.1.16 - Day 29 overall

  • I worked out again with Ryan this morning, but a little earlier at 5:45a. I was sore, still aching from Saturday's initiation, but met another two new great guys and endured forty-five more minutes of serious body weight exercise.

  • Alicia had a healthy, nourishing breakfast on the table for me when I got back to their house. After woofing it down and a quick shower, Katherine and I were on the road about 8a. So thankful for Katherine taking on the brunt of the driving so my body could recuperate from this morning's workout. We traded off after we stopped for BBQ at Against the Grain. The rest of the drive was as smooth as the drive down. We made it home safely, and after a wonderfully memorable weekend honoring Katherine and bonding stronger with our friends, I'm surprised and proud of how good it's felt to be mindful and positive in my general daily awareness.

Day 18, 2.2.16 - Day 30 overall

  • The first day back to work after such an enjoyable vacation is never one looked forward to, but the peace I've found over the last thirty days has really made everything better. Work was productive - I had a noticeable sense of focus to catch up front my two days off.

  • I met my buddy Brian after work for a couple beers. He's moving to MN, so we had a couple in his honor. Three more days of good things happening and I'll have conquered this.

Day 19, 2.3.16 - Day 31 overall

  • Wednesdays are usually my day to recalibrate my personal to-do list, and I usually do it while tucked into a dark corner at Logan's Alley. I had a pretty productive three hours, and came home my plate a little less full. Two more days...

Day 20, 2.4.16 - Day 32 overall

  • Today felt like I'm finally there, but it took a quick recovery on autopilot to not botch the last twenty days. On my way out of the house, I spilled my tea on a brand new shirt and pants, staining them brick red. In my vocal frustration, I mumbled loudly, "Gaahhh... DANGIT!" That actually startled me more than spilling the tea. I laughed at myself because of how flimsy my attempt to substitute swearing was. I ran in, cleaned up and got back in my car as if nothing happened.

  • Still dressed up, I met my brother-in-law for lunch at Main Street BBQ. He wanted to share how he's been killing it at work, and we don't hang out together enough. After work, I met my buddy Rob from Atwater at Gravity to sample two of their collab taps with Tapistry, Mitten Backhand East (and West).

  • By now, my days have been easier to accomplish without the conscious pressure to watch my mouth. So proud to lay my head down tonight knowing that tomorrow is the day.

Day 21, 2.5.16 - Day 33 overall

  • I did it! I walked through today without trying to think about it as the last day of this challenge, but rather as the next step in maintaining a positive, considerate outlook on everything with which I'm confronted.

  • I ended today relaxing on the couch with Katherine, after making us dinner. I looked over at her and told her today was Day 21. She gave me the biggest smile and loudest double high-five. She said she was really proud of me, that she's noticed a difference in who and how I've been and that I "should just keep going." And, with that I will certainly try.


  • First and foremost, I'm glad that I stuck with this and didn't just give it a solid try, estimate what the results could've been and rationalized a way to quietly call it.

  • I absolutely do feel like a changed man. This whole website, jasonley.com, and DismantleRepair, were started out of necessity to be a better version of myself. I've had a terribly heavy history of being critical of whatever didn't suit my personal preference, and this challenge tested that. I've come to the conclusion that I can certainly dislike or be unhappy with any given situation that truly doesn't meet the standard of how I choose to live. Rather, it's how I choose to respond to it that will either continue to drag me down with unnecessary burdens that I surely don't have to carry or lift me up because I'm making the choice to take the high road and focus on what I can do to make a positive difference.

  • Being responsible with my words overall has been empowering. Granted, a few times I've been told I sound like a nerd or someone's grandmother because "gosh darn it" just doesn't have quite the same ring to it as [insert your favorite four-letter word here]. And, a few of my friends have given me quick, subtle looks of surprise when I haven't intensified a conversation or joke by swearing. Maybe my jokes haven't been as funny, but my awareness for others around me has been much cleaner.

  • Although swearing has been what's tripped me up throughout these last thirty-three days, not complaining has really been what's made a noticeable impact on me. Coupled by continuing to meditate daily and finishing Hanh's Peace is Every Breath earlier this week, my entire being has felt more full of calm and peace and lighter of stress and unwarranted criticism. That is precisely why I attempted this thing in the first place, and I'm so glad I did. 

  • As I look ahead to new days, I'm curious as to whether I'll be able to maintain the standard of expectations I've set for myself, because I know I'm able to achieve it, or if my grip will loosen if I allow myself to get lazy. In either case, I know I'm capable of both. It's just a matter of which scenario I choose to accept and allow. When I slip, I feel like I'm now able to rely on and catch myself. I may not always be wearing a reminder to watch my mouth (and my mind), but mentally I will make every effort to restart back at Day 1 and live every day as if I only have twenty-one more to go.

I Conquered Beer City USA's Brewsader Passport

I Conquered Beer City USA's Brewsader Passport

Winter Solstice on "Kuhnhenn Time"

Winter Solstice on "Kuhnhenn Time"