Complaining: The Self-Deceptive Productivity Killer

By Aaron Orendorff

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We’re all guilty. Whether it’s the boss we love to hate, a demanding client, or a new HR policy, complaining is a universal human response to stuff we don’t like.

After all, what’s wrong letting off a bit of steam now and then? Isn’t venting our problems good for us?

Turns out … not so much. There’s a fine line between unburdening ourselves with the intent of finding solutions and simply harping on the mistakes, misunderstandings, and malignancy of the world around us.

Because of this, complaining is incredibly self-deceptive, toxic, and an absolute productivity killer.

That’s why — if you’re one of the millions trying to maximize your productivity — not to mention your own personal happiness — it’s time to stop.

The good news is killing your complaining — before it kills you — isn’t as hard as it sounds.

What is complaining?

This might sound like an obvious question; however, most of the productivity killing complaining we do gets passed off by a host of more acceptable names.

Instead of calling a spade a spade, we say thing like, “I’m not complaining. I’m just … venting, letting off steam, giving feedback, or trying to be helpful.” Perhaps the most self-deceptive excuse of all is “I’m just being honest.”

The truth is whenever you start inserting negative feelings into a conversation without the clear-eyed intent of (1) locating a solution and (2) staying on your side of the street, that’s complaining. Ironically, acknowledging the problem and complaining about complaining it doesn’t actually make it go away. It just encourages more negativity.

Psychologists call this a negative feedback loop: we feel frustrated or wronged and so we give voice to those emotions. However, instead of alleviating our negative feelings, our negative words simply reinforce them. In Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman calls this the “ventilation fallacy”:

Anger builds on anger.

Catharsis — giving vent to range — is sometimes extolled as a way of handling anger. The popular theory holds that “it makes you feel better.”

[While] there may be some specific conditions under which lashing out in anger does work … [researches like “Diane Tice, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University” have] found that ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outbursts typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry, not less.”

Why is complaining a productivity killer?

Three areas of life influence your overall productivity:

  1. your brain
  2. your body
  3. your relationships

Complaining affects them all.

Your Brain

Research from Stanford University shows that complaining or being complained to for over 30 minutes can physically damage the neurons in the hippocampus. Unfortunately, the hippocampus is part of the brain used for problem solving, retaining new information and paying attention. So not only is it just plain annoying to listen to your coworkers rant on and on, it has a significant impact your work performance.

In addition to Goleman’s “ventilation fallacy,” complaining also rewires our neurological pathways creating deeper and deeper negative ruts: “Not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it New Research on What Really Works for Improving Productivity

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