Non-Self-Coercive Productivity

Hey! Dan here. I pay a lot of attention to productivity culture, and if I had to pick a small idea that's beginning to take root in the productivity zeitgeist it's non-coercion. It's something new Every writer Michael Ashcroft wrote about in his last piece on goals, Tiago Forte has written about it in Pleasure as an Organizing Principle, and I'm even seeing it applied to other, related, places as Rob Hardy does in Non-Coercive Marketing.

That's why I'm so excited to bring you this piece by Pamela Hobart. She's a coach with a philosophical bent, who helps smart people turn their overthinking into wisdom and action. In this piece she unpacks our winding relationship with self-coercion: how we instinctively rebel against anything that looks coercive, but then apply coercion to ourselves to accomplish (or fail to accomplish) tasks large and small. Then she explores how we can replace our tendency toward self-coercion with other—more helpful—ways to actually get stuff done. I hope you enjoy it!

As I cheerfully handed him a brightly colored plastic cup, my toddler son’s face began its familiar contortions into his characteristic jack ‘o lantern-type sob. He batted the cup away from me and fell to the floor screaming, “No juice! No juice!” 

My crime? I had handed my son the juice that he himself requested just one minute earlier. The lesson? Even a whiff of compulsion can ruin anything—including liquid sugar. 

Theoretically, as we grow up, we develop a clear sense of when we’re actually being coerced by others. We stop refusing the juice that we actually wanted, a false positive instance of coercion.  We learn to gracefully accept assistance from benevolent helpers—a true negative. 

The mature coercion detecting system eventually hones in on true positives: those (hopefully rare) times when someone really is trying to get us to do something for their purposes and not our own. Then, and only then, the ideal inner coercion detector protects us from that task by throwing on our internal brakes. 

Unfortunately, for whatever reasons of nature and nurture, some people’s coercion detectors remain rather touchy. The coercion detector has a valuable purpose—to insulate us from inappropriate external influence. But coercion miscalibration can end up working against our own goals, rather than protecting us against threats to those goals.

Although an imperfect coercion detector creates pervasive productivity problems, the solution is not necessarily just to coerce it harder in return. Instead, there are kinder and gentler ways to befriend this part of us, allowing our internal ecosystem to keep doing stuff with less internal strife and more ease. 

The Hidden Cost of To-Do Lists

Over 20 years ago, David Allen encouraged us to “capture” all our to-do items in a personal productivity system designed to Get (more) Things Done while simultaneously reducing stress. After all, it’s only rational that a leaky excuse for a system (half-filled in calendar, overflowing email inbox, ambiguous priorities) could increase stress rather than alleviating it—such a system can’t be trusted or followed without reservations.  

And yet, despite its theoretical rationality, even the most carefully captured, prioritized, and well-reviewed to-do list can’t always escape the scourge of unintended consequences. As soon as you put stuff on your to-do list, even a purely mental to-do list, you run the risk of awakening that inner coercion detector. Like my son, you devolve into a toddler screaming on the floor, refusing the juice that you just demanded. 

Even a to-do list that contains only dream items—plan a trip to the Bahamas, order catering for a birthday party, shop for a new Rolex—contains the seeds of aversion and coercion. Planning and deciding can be fraught, even under the best of circumstances. Given the extreme diversity of conflictedness I’ve seen in the clients who show up to my coaching practice, I can even easily imagine someone procrastinating on collecting their lottery winnings. 

What does a person do when she notices the inner pushback beginning to happen? Here in the modern Western world, many adults’ first instinct is to push right back, or fight fire with fire. Self-coercive tactics, for instance, include shaming and blaming oneself (“I can’t believe I wasted all that time, I’m such a screwup”), punitively withholding personal care (“I can’t do anything fun/go to sleep until this is done”), and not giving credit where it’s due (“what does it matter if I finished that report, I’m still behind at everything”). 

Whether we learned these methods as diligent schoolchildren or at the office or while doing “adulting,” the net result is the same: an inner economy dominated by conflict and the merely temporary avoidance of partially self-inflicted pain. 

Sometimes self-coercion travels under the familiar label of “inner critic”—that nasty boss that we’ve managed to internalize somewhere along the line. The inner critic shows up at inopportune times to insist that we look wrong, act wrong, and feel wrong. It didn’t come out of nowhere—the inner critic was initially conjured in an attempt to stave off the criticism of other people. The inner critic overshoots badly though, and it’s an insensitive one-trick pony of an adaptation. 

When your inner critic wins this battle, another part of you loses—but the loser isn’t necessarily bad or wrong.

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