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The 30-Day Challenge to a Petty-Free Life

05/14/2014 02:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2014
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Now that we're five months into 2014 and our resolutions have taken root (or not), it's time to get to work on other insidious issues that erode our quality of life and the lives of those around us. I'm not talking about addictions to sex, drugs, alcohol, sugar, carbs, shopping, or hoarding -- serious as those may be. I'm talking about the national (and probably international) addiction to pettiness. Small-mindedness. I'm talking about the universal human tendency to avoid our own issues in favor of those that afflict others, others who usually aren't present. And if you think you're one of the very few who doesn't suffer from this addiction, just check in with your thoughts once in a while and let me know. I'm pretty sure my own pettiness has lots of company out there.

Pettiness isn't exclusive to words or actions. It has the same corrosive effect on our thoughts before we ever speak or act. Pettiness is a fungus that germinates in the mind and spreads to the heart until it becomes a way of life. It's a grudging way of protecting my ego at the expense of yours. It applies to everything -- weather, for instance, or traffic. Nothing is immune. We complain about parking, menus, seating arrangements -- virtually anything that doesn't suit us at the moment. Then it spreads to things we don't even care about, but feel free to address anyway -- a co-worker's appearance, eating habits, even her pet.

The thing about pettiness is, it likes to hide out as light-hearted sarcasm, humor, entertainment, or even sincere conversation. At its best, it's all dressed up as a secret or a problem that merits discussion, when it doesn't even merit a thought. From there it devolves into learned behavior, the chronic default pattern of a family, a group of friends, an entire society. At its happiest, pettiness is so entrenched in our familial, social and media culture that it's invisible. We don't recognize it anymore. We've become it.

Like anything worth changing, the only way out of pettiness is one person, one thought, one minute at a time.

The 30-Day Challenge to a Petty-Free Life is not for sissies. Just try it for one hour and you'll see. Commit to it for a full day, and you'll understand how systemic pettiness is in your own life and the lives of nearly everyone you know. How systemic it is in society. The only tools you'll need are a notebook, a pen, and the will to improve yourself. Oh, and a buddy. Like any addiction, getting rid of pettiness works best in partnership with someone who can keep us honest.

If you can find a buddy with a sense of humor, all the better. The first week might actually be fun, or at least funny. Call yourselves out. Compete. Pettiness is like a typo to a writer -- the more you find, the more you know are out there. Call them in; confront them. Dare them to hide from you. For these seven days, hold nothing back. This is the time for identification. Complain away, but write it all down. Write down what occurs to you even if you don't say it. Write down every petty thing you do (or don't do) -- leaving the garbage, dishes, dog, plants, phone call for someone else. Trashing the neighbor, spouse, colleague, father-in-law. Dump it all out on the table and see what you've jammed into that junk drawer. Collect a notebook or several notebooks full of petty thoughts, deeds and tendencies. Have a drink and share them with your buddy. The only way you can get rid of pettiness is to expose it.

The second week is a bit tougher. For the next seven days, the task is to write down every negative thought you're aware of -- every petty word you utter, every deed you execute regarding another person, place or thing, especially if the person isn't there to defend himself. This time share the frequency, but not the details. No matter how tempting it is to tell your buddy all about your coworker's bad haircut, how much weight your ex-girlfriend gained, or how your friend offended you; don't do it. Suck it in. Force yourself to withhold, and feel the tension this creates within you. It isn't easy, but this week is about restraint. The impact of unleashed pettiness is misery for all concerned. This week, we learn to keep our *&!@% to ourselves; to bottle it up so we can measure it, define it, and convert it into something good.

The third week of the Petty-Free Diet is about transformation. This week you and your buddy switch diaries, exposing every nasty detail, even the petty things you've thought, said or done to or about each other without sharing. This week you're going to convert every petty thought you apprehend from your own mind into a blessing for the one who would ordinarily be your victim. For every negative thought you have, find something positive about the person, place, or situation. Entertain that positive thought and articulate it to someone else, not just your buddy. If you can't compliment the coffee, praise the caffeine. Or the company. Or the job. Become a positive force.

Week four, bring it home. For the last seven days, every negative thought you have will not only be withheld and then converted to a good thought or statement, but to an equal action. This week, if the coffee is bad, you'll buy a new, improved brand of coffee and make it for your coworkers. Instead of complaining about how dirty the carpool vehicle is -- you'll borrow it at lunchtime and cheerfully drive it through a carwash on your own dime. Instead of complaining about how depressing the workplace is, you'll bring something to cheer it up -- flowers or cookies or lunch. If you can't think of a way to improve a situation, you'll ask your buddy to come up with a solution, and do that. Do something. This week, instead of delivering the usual dirge about the darkness of the world, you'll be the light.

I'm starting the 30-Day challenge on Sunday. Won't you join me and let me know how you're doing? It might be the toughest challenge we've ever accepted, but I'm betting it will also be the most rewarding.