Why do we do one thing when we’re trying to accomplish another? Our predominant cultural message is that procrastination is personal weakness, lack of willpower, or some other personality flaw that must be overcome—an assessment that more often leads to self-recrimination than any satisfying resolution of the problem. That’s because procrastination isn’t a flaw, it’s actually an important signal that you have an inner conflict in need of attention.
Just like external conflicts between people or nations, internal conflicts arise when there’s a power struggle around strategies that meet some needs but neglect others. If most of your time and energy goes toward accomplishment and productivity, the parts of you that need rest, connection, fun, spaciousness, self-care, etc., are going to start complaining. When certain needs are temporarily delayed (as sometimes must happen), you may feel a touch fatigued, cranky, or blue. But if your needs are chronically undermet, your neglected parts will protest increasingly loudly, and your uncomfortable feelings will intensify. And if you still don’t listen and respond (perhaps because you don’t really understand what all that internal ruckus is about), those neglected parts of you may give up hope of being heard and simply go on strike.
This “on-strike” state is, in its mildest form, procrastination. It’s the ignored parts of you having a sit-in. It might look like uneasily watching TV or cleaning out the fridge or going out with friends, even though a voice in your head is agonizing about your upcoming deadline (or whatever else that voice feels you should be doing at the moment). And in that exhausting split state, none of your needs are fully or joyfully met.
Rather than engaging in an ongoing emotional arm-wrestle over which of your needs is more deserving of your time and attention, you can choose instead to value and make time for all of you needs, and attune to which needs are alive for you at any given time. You can engage in conscious dialogues between the different parts of you, take all of your needs seriously, and come up with creative strategies that touch all of those needs. This is the path to internal harmony, collaboration, and ease (and it’s also an excellent model for how to approach your connections with others).
There are countless ways to make a conscious shift from procrastination to collaboration. Here’s one to consider: Each day, start by identifying your top three needs, and then create a to-do list that addresses each of these needs. For example, if you choose accomplishment, companionship, and rest, your to-do list might be, “Pay bills, grocery shop, take a hike with a friend, and lounge on the couch and nap/listen to music/cuddle.” In this way, you aren’t organizing your life around strategies that may or may not touch your needs, you’re organizing your day around the actual needs themselves.
If this approach sounds intriguing, try it out for a week and notice how you feel throughout each day. Note how this experiment impacts your procrastination, and if that impulse arises to do one thing when you’re really hoping to focus on another, acknowledge that there’s an important need you’re neglecting. See if you can identify which one, and make sure it goes on the top-three list the next day.
With love and empathy,