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Non-Ideal Productivity

If your plan is to do the impossible, then you've got no plan at all.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
Non-Ideal Productivity

I'm too late for the pandemic productivity news cycle.

Already, we've seen 8 billion tips about how to be productive during a plague, plus a round or two of plague productivity pushback.

All of that ground-level stuff is pretty boring to me. I mean... the tips are basically the same as they ever were. Still, it doesn't feel good just to wave the white flag and give up, either.

This piece goes out to those of you who haven't yet made up your minds as to whether now's a great time for a new project/hobby/job or whether you should "give yourself permission" to do the bare minimum for perhaps another 12 or 18 months.

I've danced around this claim in my other work on productivity, but now's its time to shine:

When viewed properly, as a non-ideal enterprise, productivity questions can begin to resolve themselves.

Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory

Theories like gravity are drawn out of reality. They come from the world. But ideal theories (i.e. political theories) are templates we might wish to impress onto the world.

When you try to press your ideal theory's template onto the world, very often it doesn't stick. Now what?

"Non-ideal" theory is characterized by its deliberate attention to agent non-compliance and unfavorable environmental factors. It especially makes sense in political philosophy, where considerations like human nature, coordination problems, and agreement-defectors loom large.

It's not a productivity failure to have only 24 hours in the day, and more uses for your time than can ever possibly fulfilled. Instead, productivity failures come from the mismanagement of existing resources: time, energy, motivation.

All true productivity failures can be traced to idealizing what ought to be realized instead. You have to see the constraint before you can work reliably up to its edge.

How To Do Non-Ideal Productivity

Well, the problem with the messy part of theory-world fit is that it's messy. But here are some specific ways to non-idealize your productivity:

  • Start with conditions: If your productivity conditions aren't favorable but you have some control over them, it might make sense to start there. This might feel more like procrastination than productivity, but the truth depends on the person: if you genuinely cannot work in a cluttered room, then tidying first *is* working - not shirking from work.
  • Partial compliance: Don't create a schedule with no slack. Don't pick a system that collapses when you flake. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • Adjust expectations: Goals are simply theories about what your ability and willingness to do things, and letting them take up residence in your brain has a cost.
  • Cringe and bear it: It usually feels better to succeed at a small goal than fail at a bigger goal (even if in both cases you put forth the same effort!) Swallow your pride and cut that goal down to size.
  • Know thyself: Some types of tasks will energize you, others will drain. Notice the patterns and defer to them. Don't be a hero. Don't choose inappropriate productivity idols.
  • Coordinate the forces: Sometimes parts of you conflict: values, mood, energy, conscience. Do whatever you can to locate consonance, however spotty or occasional - then use it.
  • Exploit abnormality: if you're stuck doing lots of things you wouldn't usually do anyways, might as well do something you wouldn't usually do. After all, a pandemic is a terrible time to reconsider everything and give up your habits, goals, and identity. Except when it isn't.


You are not a blank slate. You are not a robot. You are not a lump of human capital. You are crooked timber, and nothing straight will be made - now or ever.

If you haven't internalized this already, maybe now's the time. And even if you do know, this is a terrible time to forget.

Non-ideal productivity theory isn't just the best way, it's the only way. If your plan is to do the impossible, then you've got no plan at all.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.