The Need-to vs. Want-to Cycle of Daily Life

Generally speaking, you can divide all your daily tasks into two categories:

  1. Need to do (go to work, finish that report, call a plumber, file taxes)
  2. Want to do (stay home and read a book, go explore a new neighbourhood in the city, try out that new restaurant, watch a movie, go shopping, browse social media, play with your dog, watch your favourite show)

Your need-tos give you resources to do your want-tos. 

Your want-tos give you the energy to do your need-tos. 

It is a yin and yang cycle. One is not possible without the other.

need-to have-to diagram

Very simple example: 

You go to work to make enough money so that you can buy a book you want to read and go to that restaurant you want to go to. You spend money on new experiences which rejuvenate your spirit so that you have enough energy and enthusiasm to go to work. 

And it doesn’t only work with money. You can do the same with time. Sometimes you do your need-to activities in order to free up time later on. You do the activities you want to do during the freed-up time. 

You invest physical energy today by going to a cycling class (a need-to) so that you have enough energy to play with your kids outside later on (a want-to).

 


 

Need To vs Want To

Need-To Criteria:

  1. Strict Deadline,
  2. Specific outcome, or
  3. Accountability to other people

If a task has a deadline, specific outcome or accountability to another person, it is a need-to. 

If a task doesn’t have a deadline or accountability to another person, it is a want-to. 

Examples:

  1. You have arranged to meet with your friend at 2 pm. It is a need-to (deadline + accountability to another person). 
  2. You decided to spend your Saturday exploring a new neighbourhood in the city. There is no arrangement to meet with another person and there is no deadline. You can spend 1 hour exploring. Or you can spend 4 hours. Plus, there is no specific outcome you are trying to achieve. It is a want-to (no accountability, no deadline, no specific outcome in mind).

Need-tos = inhale. Want-tos = exhales

When you do your need-to activities. You are in focus. You are in tonus. You are alert. You are ready to fight. There is tension. There are some expectations of performance.

When you do your want-to activities, you relax. You let it go. You are not ready to fight. There are no expectations to meet, no agenda to follow. 

In order to stay alive and be healthy, you should have both at every given time. It’s like breathing. In order to stay alive, you need to have both inhales and exhales. 

You can’t just do a bunch of need-tos, so that all you can do your want-tos 10 years from now. It doesn’t work like that even though we are being convinced by the hustle culture that it does.

You can’t inhale for 20 years and then exhale for the remaining 20 years. 


When you do too many need-tos

When all hours of the day are scheduled for all the stuff you need to do, you end up being burned out or depressed. 

Burn out happens because you run out of your energy resource. And energy resource is replenished by engaging in your want-to activities.

Depression often happens when you don’t do the things that you truly like for so long, that you forget what these things are. “I don’t know what I want anymore”, is the common phrase you hear from people in depression. They all know what they need to do. They can write you an entire list. But when you ask them what they want to do, you get nothing. 

When you do too many want-tos

When all you do is your want-tos and you procrastinate on your need-tos, anxiety creeps up. It is very common among university students to procrastinate on their homework through partying and social media escapism. They are riddled with anxiety. Fairly so. Because when you don’t do your so-called “responsibilities” you start having fears of what would happen if you continue behaving that way.

What if I fail this course?

What if I get kicked out of school?

What if my parents who are paying for this degree find out? 

Fair questions. People who do their homework on time don’t usually suffer from that type of anxiety. 


What is your rhythm?

We all need to find a breathing rhythm that works for us. 

Maybe it’s inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. 

Maybe it’s inhale, inhale, longer exhale. 

But you need to have both in a balance on a daily or at least weekly basis. 

1. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale

This is an approach I prefer to follow on a normal workday. I talked more about it in Time blocking Q&A. I try to beat the clock and get my tasks (need-tos) done faster. That way I can spend 5-10 minutes between time blocks on the tasks I like (my want-tos). Plus, I have an hour-long lunch break every day. And I do my best to free up my evening from work. Plus, at least one day on the weekend is dedicated to the want-to category. 

Last week I had a sprint review call with one of my clients. That’s when we analyze the sprint and figure out what activities worked and what didn’t for each client. He was amazed to see that he was most productive when he took longer breaks after each of his 90-120 work sessions. And when he told me what he was doing during his breaks, it totally made sense to me why.

During his breaks, he was engaging in the activities from his “want to” categories. It was a perfect inhale, exhale rhythm that he was doing. Inhale for 90 minutes by doing what he needed to do for his publishing business. Then exhale by doing the activities he wanted to do. Then come back and inhale again. Then exhale. And by keeping this perfect rhythm, he always had enough energy to spend on his business activities. That’s why he had the most productive days when he followed this rhythm. As this client said, “There is time to be aggressive. And there is time to step back. 

You need to fill up your energy tanks when they get depleted. You can’t run on empty. And the best way to fill up your energy tanks is to engage in the activities from your “want-to” category.

2. Lots of inhales during the day, major exhale in the evening or on weekends

Danger alert!!! Danger alert!!! Danger alert!!! Danger alert!!!

You do a bunch of things you need to do during a workday.

You show up for your work tasks.

You stick to your 1200-calorie diet.

Eat lunch at your desk between answering emails.

Get your insane workout in.

Meet with people you don’t like for a drink after work because you were told that networking is the #1 thing you can do for your career.

.

.

.

And then what?

You come home exhausted, turn on your favourite Netflix show, open that bag of potato chips, pour that wine or beer and finally exhale.

And this is the only relaxing activity you can do at this point. Even a relaxing walk outside seems like too much work.

Netflix, junk food, alcohol, social media and recreational drugs at night seem like a new norm for people who embrace the hustle culture and the white-knuckling approach to getting things done. 

If you look at it from the Want-to vs. Need-to Balance, you can quickly find the reason why this toxic cycle is happening. There is too much inhaling throughout the day and not enough exhaling. The day is spent on doing only the things you need to do. Not a single want-to activity can be found in that schedule.

No wonder your psyche is trying to compensate for that insane psychological hunger at night. It tries to do it as quickly as possible. It is in an emergency state. It’s been inhaling all day long. It desperately needs to exhale. And it finds the fastest way to do it: Netflix, junk food, alcohol, social media, or recreational drugs.

Late-night binging

Talk to any specialist working with late-night binge eaters, and they will tell you that binge eaters don’t have enough restful and enjoyable moments to themselves throughout the day. It might be a mom with small children. It might be a high-power executive. The job title is irrelevant. What is common between late-night binge eaters is that their days are extremely skewed towards the need-to category without having a single moment of a want-to activity. 

And the first thing you might want to start doing to address your late-night binge eating is carving out several me-time moments throughout the day, where you can exhale and do the things you want to do. Even if it’s 10-15 minutes. It makes a difference. 

3. Deep vs. Shallow workdays

This is something one of my clients does. He has deep-focus workdays: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays. Mondays and Fridays are for wrapping things up, admin work and other less difficult business activities. 

It works great for him. And I think the reason why is because it is a great combination of three days filled with need-tos and two days that leave him enough time to do his want-tos.

Find your rhythms. But make sure it’s a rhythm. 

Rhythm is a combination of sound and silence. Make sure that your rhythm has a beautiful combination of both. Otherwise, you might end up in burnout or anxiety. Do you really want that?

Conclusion

Remember, your life is a beautiful dance between your need-tos and your want-tos. You need to have both in order to breathe deeply. Make sure you are not stuck in the inhale or exhale of life. Keep breathing. Keep showing up for your work in this world. And keep showing for your flavour of fun in this world. 

If you want to learn more tools like this that increase productivity, bring balance to your life and make necessary mind shifts towards work and life, consider enrolling in the Monthly Method.

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Read next:
  1. Time blocking Q&A
  2. Time blocking reduces stress
  3. Dream big. Go small.

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