Have you ever heard of the nirvana fallacy?

Coined in 1969 by economist Harold Demsetz, the nirvana fallacy happens when you compare an actual thing with unrealistic or idealized alternatives.

Any time you feel you have a choice between a realistic, achievable possibility and an unrealistic solution, you’re falling for the nirvana fallacy.


Achievable possibility: eliminating your debt

Unrealistic solution: winning the lottery


Achievable possibility: losing weight and building a more muscular physique

Unrealistic solution: signing up for the Super Soldier Program

So why is the nirvana fallacy important?

At the end of 2019, I sent out an email to my email subscribers asking how life was going. It was a short questionnaire, nothing too crazy. But it also functioned as a sneaky way for me to better understand my readers’ struggles.

And I learned a lot from this survey. Let’s start with some of the positives:

  • Work is great
  • Healthy and happy families/family life
  • Have a newborn
  • Losing weight
  • Gaining strength

A lot of folks are doing pretty well. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t struggling with something. Temptations while dieting, sticking to a routine, and mental health were common struggles. But the top compliant was time.

  • “Finding time to get fit.”
  • “Managing my time with a newborn to workout more and eat better.”
  • “Time is my biggest struggle, really.”
  • “I don’t have the time.”

Later on in the questionnaire, I asked readers to fill in the blank on this sentence: “if I could just (do, have, start, stop) ‘_________,’ my life would be much better. And again, time was the most common answer. “If I could just:”

  • Have more time to workout
  • Find more time
  • Have more time to make better choices
  • Start creating time to exercise

Confession: I feel guilty talking to you about time. Time’s pretty open for me. I work from home. I don’t have kids. My apartment is right beside the gym. I don’t have any responsibilities outside of serving my clients, writing, and doing research for articles. And, of course, continuing my education in all things fitness, nutrition, and psychology.

For the most part, I can do anything I want, when I want. But I can’t escape this sense of feeling like a fraud. I mean, who the hell am I to talk about “time?” Especially when I know you feel like you have none of it.

I could be one of those asshats who says something like, “you make time for what’s important.” But according to 23 and Me, I don’t have the gene for asshattery.

Still, “you make time for what’s important” is a bromidic phrase. It’s what you say when you think you’re being smart but offer no help at all.

Wanna know the one glaring problem with the cliched saying of “you make time for what’s important?” It doesn’t give you any power. All it really does is make you feel guilty or more ashamed for not doing the thing you want to do.

So how can you rectify this?

By asking better questions. Questions like “what can you do to get more time” or “what would you do with more time” are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad questions. They imply that you can “gain” more time. Which immediately sends your brain into black-and-white thinking mode and activates the nirvana fallacy. Questions similar to the ones above encourage your brain to think there’s some “magic” you’re missing. And that if you had that magical sword or serum or strategy, you’d be saved.

Here’s an example of your brain attempting to problem solve the time issue, while operating under the nirvana fallacy.

Brain: “We have a problem; we don’t have enough time.”

Also your brain: “OMG, I have the perfect solutions. We’ll buy more time. Or we could slow the Earth’s rotation down.”

So now you start mulling it all over. You have two perfect solutions: buy more time or slow the Earth down.

Except, your rational brain knows you can’t slow the Earth’s rotation down because you’re not that strong. (Damn.) And it also knows you can’t buy time on Amazon or at Macy’s. (You’ve looked.)

So your brain starts to deduce things logically. And since you can’t slow the Earth or buy/trade/steal more time, then obviously, you can’t accomplish your goal. And that means you only have “one” real solution. The real solution: throw your hands up and do nothing, and make excuses about your lack of time.

The nirvana fallacy is a dangerous breed of thinking. It creates a false dichotomy in your mind. By creating an either/or situation (you either gain more time or you don’t), you handcuff yourself into believing that there’s only one “perfect” solution.

Adding more time to the day is unrealistic, even if it’s your “perfect” solution. So you tell yourself, “well, since the perfect solution is to have more time, and since that’s not possible, I guess I can’t do anything.”

So you do nothing. And your problem only gets larger and more menacing over time.

It’s not that your goals are too lofty. It’s not that you don’t care. You do care. You want to be better. You are capable of achieving your goals. But you can’t “get” more time. So why even try and get fit and healthy when you “just don’t have the time?”

Here’s the thing about problem-solving that no one ever tells you: it’s not the answers that matter most, it’s the way you ask the question(s). And there’s a better question you can ask that helps you solve your time issue. In fact, phrasing the question in this way gives you power and allows you to problem solve, even if it’s not “perfect.”

Here’s the better question:

What can you do in the time you have available?

“Robbie, I don’t have time to track what I eat.”

Problem: No time to track your food

“Perfect Solution”: Get more time

Imperfect solution: Record what you’re eating for the day while you’re on the crapper.

“Robbie, I don’t have time to get to the gym.”

Problem: No time to go to the gym

“Perfect Solution”: Not have an hour’s drive to and from work, which would give you more time.

Imperfect solution: Do 10 push-ups and 10 squats first thing in the morning, on your breaks, before or after lunch, and/or right before bed.

“Robbie, I have a new kid at home and don’t have time to exercise.”

Problem: My kid takes up all my time

“Perfect Solution”: Trade it in for a better model (I’m kidding, duh)

Imperfect solution: Be active WITH your kid. Make a daily walk or two in their stroller your way of staying active. Or if you have equipment at home, do squats while they sit in their carrier or stroller and make faces at them while you do it. They laugh, you laugh, and you stay active.

The nirvana fallacy is a trap that ensnares you into believing there’s only one solution to your problem. But you don’t need a “perfect” solution.

And this is why black-and-white thinking, like the nirvana fallacy, is so dangerous. It doesn’t empower you to take action and do anything.

It handcuffs you to your situation; it makes you a victim. And because you see the only solution as “gain more time,” and because you can’t solve your problem with the “perfect” solution of ‘more time,’ you reject the CHANCE to do anything.

“What can you do with the time you have?” reframes your problem and encourages you that you CAN do something. Framing your time dilemma through that lens empowers you to take strides, however small they may be, to attempt to solve your issue(s).

So, no, you can’t gain more time. But there is more you can do with the time you have.

  • Include your kids in your exercise time and kill two birds with one stone (exercise and connection with your kiddos)
  • Fill out MyFitnessPal while you sit on the toilet or on the train/bus to work
  • On your break during work, use that time to record your food or to hammer out push-ups, lunges, or bodyweight squats
  • If you have weights at home to use, put them by your bed so the first thing you do after waking up every morning is squats and rows
  • Drop down and do ten push-ups while your breakfast cooks
  • When your kids do their homework, if you check it with them, tell them for every correct answer they get you have to do 10 squats/push-ups
  • Take the last 20 minutes of your lunch break to walk (without your phone in hand)
  • Use your kid’s nap time to meal prep vs scrolling through Twitter (I mean what’s gonna make you healthier? Planning healthier meals or reading more annoying news about Harry and Meghan? [Life tip: Be more tuned into your life and not the lives of others])
  • During commercial breaks or between episodes of Grace and Frankie, do squats or push-ups.

Imperfect action, doing something rather than doing nothing, will always get you closer to your goal.

So what can you do with the time you have?

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