The Elastic Band Challenge

It isn’t fashionable to make New Year’s resolutions any more – people’s smug “I don’t make resolutions” is the new “I don’t watch TV” – but you have to believe in something, and I choose to believe in our ability to quietly, privately renew and make ourselves a little better. New beginnings are delightful, and why would I deny myself delight?

Still, I do agree that it doesn’t much help simply to have good intentions. Right now I’m supporting my good intentions with a slim rubber band around my wrist, the kind you buy at a stationer’s shop (and I hereby, as undertaken to security staff, publicly apologise to Oxford Stationers for going through all their boxes of rubber bands and opening the little plastic packets inside to find the rubber band that will fit my slender, well-turned wrist and not catch and pull the hairs on my arm every time I put my hands in my pockets).

Every so often, during the course of my day, I’m obliged by good conscience to pause my conversation, snap the rubber band painfully and move it to the other wrist. I’m conducting a 21-day experiment, you see, and the 21 days start again from 0 every time I have to snap and switch. The experiment started on New Year’s Day, and as I write this on 10 January, it still has 21 days to run.

It’s an idea I picked up from Tim Ferriss, an inveterate self-experimenter with metacognitive intervention. Metacognitive is a fancy word that means “thinking about thinking”, and the proposal is that every time I catch myself complaining or being unhelpfully critical, I snap the band to alert myself and break the loop of the reflexive habit, and then start over. The idea, I think, is that when you can make it to 21 days, you’ll have broken the habit.

It sounds simple but it’s a little more interesting than that, because the goal isn’t just to reduce the endless carping and tiresome negative prattle in the world, although that’s a worthy enough goal. The key comes in how you define complaining, and Tim proposes this: “Describing an event or person negatively without indicating practical next steps to fix the problem.”

So for instance, “Every goddamn January I have to do these goddamn taxes” is a snap-worthy complaint. “Every January is my tax deadline, so this year I’ll keep my slips together and start sorting them earlier” might be more helpful. Now, I’m no fool. I know that I am extremely unlikely to keep my slips together and start sorting them earlier, but thinking about it that way makes it at least marginally more likely that I will. I’ll take any margin I can get.

The idea isn’t to be some kind of beaming Pollyanna, but to force me to be present in the moment of vexation, to pause and reword my response to what’s vexing me. Rewording means rethinking, and rethinking is a good thing to do when you’re feeling vexed, because wherever you are is wherever your previous thinking has led you. A complaint is an inert statement, a piling up and regrooving of mental habits, and even the minimal effort required to pause and rephrase a complaint so that it’s not a complaint is usually enough to make me think more helpfully, and to re-evaluate whose life I am improving by saying these words.

So far I think it has made me a more pleasant person to be around, and I’m certainly enjoying being me a lot more, but the modern world is not optimally designed to assist those who are trying to complain less. Just as Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, so after three zen-like days I found myself in a vehicle driving a longish distance on an afternoon when test cricket was being played, and I think you know what that means. Show me the man whose wrists aren’t snapped raw and bloody with elastic bands, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t tried to listen to the cricket commentary on Radio 2000.

I mean, I don’t like to complain or criticise, but I think we can all agree that South African DJs and radio hosts – with some exception so rare that when you hear them you pinch yourself in fear because surely you have fallen asleep behind the wheel and are now dreaming your way over the side of a bridge – are the stupidest people in the country. Forget the person who runs the Ster Kinekor website and the people who turn up for Andile Mngxitama’s BLF gatherings and whoever writes the headlines for the Cape Times – they are stupid but not stupid enough for this competition. South Africa’s oxymoronically named radio personalities are the ground zero of stupidity, the event horizon of cretinism, the ne plus ultra of numbskullness, the kind of stupid that penetrates solid barriers like radiation and makes you more stupid for simply having touched the air that you breathe. I know it’s no longer nice to use the word retarded, but South African radio DJs weren’t just tarded once, then retarded, they were multiply, infinitely tarded. They’ve been tarded so often and so frequently that the word “tard” has lost all meaning.

And in this bottomless black hole of dumbassitude, this howling primal chaos of intellectual vacancy, the dark princes and princesses that rule over this bleak and blasted infernal know-nothing hellscape are the cricket commentators on Radio 2000. You think it’s bad having to listen to Makhaya Ntini on TV? Get into your car one test-match morning and listen to these Nitwittgensteins trying to banter with each other. This is what I heard on the N2, shortly before giving up the will to live:

Cretin 1: “His bat ended up at the wrong angle there.”

Cretin 2: “Hahahaha, that reminds me of the best one-liner from a movie ever.”

Cretin 1: “Oh ja?”

Cretin 2: “Ja, that movie when he said … hahahaha.”

Cretin 1 (loving this): “Stop laughing, man! Tell us!”

Cretin 2: “He said … hahaha … ‘It’s a bad angle’.”

Blessed silence on the airwaves, but the kind of silence too precious to last.

Cretin 1: “Hey?”

Cretin 2 (clarifying): “He’s parking a car, and they’re saying, ‘Why can’t you park it?’ and he says, ‘It’s a bad angle’. Hahahaha!”

Cretin 1 (laughing along because she doesn’t want anyone to know she doesn’t get the joke): “Hahahaha! What movie is that?”

Cretin 2: “The Snatch!”

Cretin 1: “Oh, The Snatch?”

Cretin 2: “You have to see it, it’s so good, it’s … I can’t actually explain it, you must watch it, hey.”

Cretin 1: “Who’s in it?”

Cretin 2: “Brad Pitt!”

Cretin 1: “Oh ja, I love Brad Pitt, hey.”

Cretin 2: “He’s awesome. He’s Irish.”

Cretin 1: “Is he? Like that other guy? What’s his name?”

Cretin 2: “No, not in real life, in the movie.”

Cretin 1: “Oh, in the movie.”

Cretin 2: “You’ve got to watch it. ‘It’s a bad angle’. Hahahahahaha!”

Cretin 1: “Hahahahahahaha! That’s a good segue.”

Cretin 2: “What’s a segue?”

They went on, but I had to pull over to the side of the road because you can’t keep driving on a national road when you’re shouting loud obscenities that even the most sympathetic adjudicator would rule to be both critical and complaining, and it’s surprisingly difficult to steer a car while simultaneously snapping your elastic band and switching wrists, and then snapping and switching back again even before you’ve finished the first one. (It’s even harder to do it, incidentally, while writing a column.)

I’m going to be a better person this year, I really am, and I’m going to be more positive and solution-oriented and I am going to be a source of light to those around me, and to you too, if you’ll let me. I am. I just need to spend more time watching cricket on TV, and less time in a car.


The Times, 10 January 2019