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. This railroaded part may in fact be trying to protect you from low-value tasks, workaholism, and an overall impoverished existence. So, whether you succumb to your inner critic’s orders or reflexively reject them out of contrarianism, your internally-divided self can’t really come out ahead. The things may get done, so that’s good, but any sense of ease and self-sovereignty still slips through your fingers. 

Non-Self-Coercion: An Emerging Paradigm

Thus we stumble across a new standard for productivity: non-self-coercion. If you wouldn't vociferously berate your coworkers or roommates for their various foibles and inefficiencies, why do you keep behaving as if it’s acceptable to do it to yourself?

Experiencing important, even self-given tasks as fundamentally coercive, and coercing right back, locks a person into an inflexible psychological local maximum. It may sort of work, even for a long time. But hovering around that maximum prevents someone from ever shifting towards the potentially much more pleasant, healthier (and possibly even more effective!) frontier of non-self-coercion

“Non-self-coercion” is the conceptual distillation of several converging threads of what you could call productivity criticism (if not outright backlash). For instance, Tiago “Building a Second Brain” Forte wrote back in 2020 about “Pleasure as an Organizing Principle.” He argues for a social justice-theory inspired inversion of the Western, Protestant work ethic-infused, ostensibly commonsense tenet that worthwhile things are necessarily hard, and that the harder and more self-flagellating one’s work, the better it must be. 

Forte senses this shift as being already in progress, but identifying and naming it can accelerate the trend. Maybe pleasure isn’t just for softies or shallow hedonists. Instead, think of pleasure as the lingua franca of biological beings, a potent form of information that we can’t deduce in our heads but must experience as it courses through our bodies. 

This pleasure-embracing, pain-renouncing shift is available on many different paths. I’ve also noticed various Buddhists and monks around Twitter also joining the club, which is not too surprising if you consider that non-self-coercion in practice is basically a form of self-directed mindfulness and compassion. 

In retrospect, perhaps pop psychology’s perennial darling, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, provided productivity’s pleasure bellwether back in the 1970s. The state of immersion that he named “flow” is not a painful and begrudging but theoretically worthwhile one. Instead, “flow” is valued (even fetishized) for its specific pleasurability. 

But how does non-self-coercion actually work? That’s a great question, and one that the non-self-coercion crew is still very much in the process of answering. First and foremost, there’s no use in shaming oneself for lapses in attempts to become non-self-coercive, lest we accidentally incept some kind of self-coercion infinite regress. In fact, simply noticing that you’re doing it may be half the battle. A person who’s fused with her nasty inner critic can’t hold it at arm’s length to evaluate the situation calmly. But a person who keeps recognizing individual instances of self-coercion as part of a habitual, suspicious pattern absolutely can. 

Even when we notice that self-coercion is happening, it may be difficult to depart from it simply because we don’t know what else to do. This is where a little mindfulness can go a long way. People operating from a lifelong list of “shoulds” have often completely lost touch with their intrinsic motivation. But, with a little space and care, this atrophied capacity can grow right back. 

Take this case I often see in my coaching clients, of perfectly successful and intelligent adults who can’t seem actually to partake of their own stated hobbies. I meet readers who aren’t reading, writers who aren’t writing, musicians who aren’t jamming, amateur chefs who never cook. This isn’t just simple “irrationality” or “signaling” regarding a high-status aspirational interest—if examined closely from the inside, something about this is actually coherent.

Usually what has happened is that the hobbyist has accumulated all kinds of baggage around their activity, like books that were started and not finished, abandoned blogs, or ingredients rotting untouched in the fridge. This history feels bad to remember, and it feels bad to face. When they think to pick up their hobby but feel aversion, that self-coercive habit kicks in, insisting that they need to try harder, to finish that (boring) book or (stale) blog post, to cook those veggies even though they’re slimy. 

Since hobbies are optional, internal stalemate is usually where things end. The self-coercion doesn’t really work, but it still feels bad. This person spends time and energy on lower value things instead, and remains confused about what the heck is wrong with herself. 

What if we approached lapsed hobbies with curiosity and compassion instead of shame? Maybe we’d chosen a boring book to read out of obligation, because it’s a “classic.” But you’re just never going to get through it, especially if you read at the very end of the day. Or maybe you had unrealistic expectations for how much blogging or cooking you could really do with the time you have in your day.

The part of you that’s interested in things doesn’t need to be whipped, it needs to be let loose on the range. Get rid of the boring book and the wasted ingredients, refuse the urge to rush towards your very important next evening activity. Sit with the possibilities. Start to read an impulsively purchased book on something random, cook simply from the pantry, visit the grocery store and see how it makes you feel. This is not a rational calculation of what is optimal to do tonight—that’s a recipe for analysis paralysis. Instead, it’s more like a check-in with the preexisting, felt realities of the possibility space. 

Now, without the self-shamey bit, ordinary productivity hacks have an improved chance of working. For instance, lowering the barriers to beginning the activity means that even a light motivational pull towards a task can get you over the hump. You will actually be feeling motivated towards the task, rather than insisting that you ought to be motivated to do it. (If you’re actually too tired to read or do something active tonight, it’s much better just to go to bed than to doomscroll while wondering why you don’t just get off your lazy butt and do it already.) 

The non-self-coercive paradigm helps to make sense of the common motivational advice to reconnect with your “why” or purpose in doing something. When we reconnect with “why” instead of juicing ourselves up with the dark motivators like fear, envy, and shame, we choose the active pursuit of something good over the reactive avoidance of something bad. Even if the results are no better in the end, the journey takes a whole new tone. 

Giving up on dark motivators can be scary. Without that self-coercion, would I even do anything? At least subconsciously, there’s a popular worldview within which constant self-coercion is the only thing keeping the world turning. If that were known to be true, then it’d be idiotic to give up this source of motivation. 

But we don’t know that—it’s quite unclear to what extent people are motivated by the avoidance of pain vs. the pursuit of pleasure. Evolutionary psychology suggests that both play an ongoing role. Each time you experiment and approach yourself and your tasks with more space and grace, you generate a little more information about what is truly possible beyond the painful cycle of self-coercion. 

Can everything be done non-coercively? 

I’m happy to admit, however, that all curiosity and compassion in the world may not ever bequeath you with the spontaneous, effective motivation to, say, file your taxes. Even if you get all the information that you need and lower the barriers to task entry, truly hard cases may exist. (When it comes to taxes or stuff your boss tells you to do, you really are being imposed upon by the social world! Your coercion detector has gotten it right). 

All ideologies invite purism, whose proponents bite every bullet—but I’m not one of those. At least occasionally, and maybe often, we may genuinely have to force ourselves to do something. But, happily, the same mindfulness that allows you to shed your habitual self-coercion can also help soften these blows. 

Productivity hard cases aren’t just worse instances in a neverending line of stuff you have to force yourself to do until you die. They don’t prove, once and for all, how ineffective and bad you truly are. Instead, hard cases are temporary and manageable aberrations from your basically non-self-coercive status quo. You will use all the tools in your belt to manage them—reconnecting with your purpose, breaking the task into approachable chunks, applying a little old fashioned (but morally neutral) willpower—and return to your pleasant baseline soon. 

What to read next

If you like this piece here are three other Every pieces that act as a great compliment to the ideas you just encountered:

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@ashleygiles about 1 year ago

Feeling seen by this one!

Dan Shipper about 1 year ago

@ashleygiles so glad!

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