I once heard that the only people who love cycling are those who cannot afford to buy a car. If you want to know how to prioritize in life in general, and how to prioritize tasks and projects, you can find your answer about the value of your choices in the Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs: The Simple Method to Prioritize Complex Life Choices

The funny story from the beginning reminded me of how manipulative we can be with our life choices. We downplay or amplify them depending on the context. Minimalists, for example, scorn the consumer mentality, while people with cars mock green economy fans. 

While it is less risky to play games with complex, higher-tier needs, jeopardizing the basic needs can have more costly consequences. 

Maslow’s theory of needs is an isolated, linear way of explaining complex human nature. You often make choices unconscious of the basic needs you try to meet. But when life gets tied in knots, simple systems are the best way to untangle them without sidetracking into unwanted domains. 

Too Much Safety is Dangerous

Spending too much time in the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs won’t lead you to growth. It can even revert your safe choices to an unsafe place. Nevertheless, if you don’t feel warm, protected, healthy, full, and rested, it is challenging to charter into the area of self-actualization. 

Instead of wanting to take huge abrupt leaps into the higher tiers, use the tier order to ensure you pay attention to each tier as you make your life choices.

The Deceit of Self-Actualization

Often, this approach will reorder your daily priorities to look different than they used to do when you were chasing the often deceptive goals of self-actualization. The simple answer to how to prioritize in life lies in between safety and risk:

Don’t go for higher goals with a pace that will make you feel unsafe in your basic physiological and psychological needs.     

The five needs you need to prioritize in life are:

  • Physiological needs
  • Security/Safety
  • Belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

Physiological needs

You should feel good in your body, mind, and soul to be able to grow. 

The soul aspect is not dominant when people speak of the number one tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. But if you stop feeding the soul, whatever that means to you, you may fall out of giving your physiological system what it wants, due to the inextricable connection of the mind, body, and soul. 

This can include unusual basic level needs, from having the need to pray daily to purchasing good, nourishing food. It can also include quitting a job that doesn’t let you take a bathroom break whenever you need to. 

Security/Safety

Security is about having shelter, a safe container, your personal haven

It can include your home, a room in a house, your friend’s circle, your savings, your dormitory, your family, or a cottage in the woods. It can be a set of marketable skills.

The most important thing about your safe container is that it is a place of core stability, a spot you can always come back to relax and rest and protect yourself from the outside world. 

Safety is essential and its endangerment can pose deep trauma to people.

When you decide how to prioritize life choices, make sure you have a safe place to come back to. If your current safe place ends up in ruins, build another one before everything else. When you prioritize safety, you are less likely to stay in an abusive relationship, a poorly functioning family, among non-supportive friends, or with a mean boss. 

Belonging

Babies need the touch of the mother’s skin to develop properly. Many of the things we do as adults make no sense in a world we live in alone. For better or for worse, we have a deep need for belonging and finding our tribe. Being left outside the group was painful when we had to fight wild animals centuries ago and now when we feel isolated in modern social groups. 

However, the need for belonging can contradict a more genuine need for camaraderie or the feeling of trust in mutually beneficial friendships where we feel like we are true to ourselves. An example of a person that prioritizes the sense of camaraderie in a group instead of simple belonging is what we call the black sheep in the family.

You have to be careful with the need for belonging because the attached security and affirmation a group, a tribe, an affiliation brings, can make you gamble with your authenticity. 

Sticking too hard to the need for belonging in adulthood, when you don’t depend on the support and approval of parental figures, narrows the access to your authentic genuine, creative side. This is the side you need to propel growth and self-development. 

Higher tiers in the hierarchy often require having sufficient safety in your own abilities to venture further from the group. Authentic prioritization is how you build esteem, which is the next tier in the hierarchy.  

Esteem

Esteem can be a need directed toward yourself and a socially supported need.

Recognition, respect, and status are needs that make sense in a social context unless you place them in the “self” category, such as for example, self-respect or self-esteem. But, nonetheless, esteem is a need that is majorly established via your place in society and through social exchange. 

If you haven’t met your needs from the previous, metaphorically speaking, lower tiers, you will have a hard time building your self-esteem. 

Whenever you look for recognition, respect, status, and achievement, don’t do it from an inauthentic and unsafe place. Don’t sacrifice your safety and originality for the sake of status. The reward for achieving status at this cost is no food for the soul. Choose nutritious esteem meals to satiate a hunger that’s coming from deep within instead the one that’s falsely perpetrated by society.

Self-actualization

Look at the need for self-actualization through Jung’s perspective. Jung calls self-actualization individuation.

Similarly to Maslow’s definition of the highest tier on the needs pyramid, individuation is the realization of the person’s greatest potential or “everything that a person can be”. But Jung’s definition of the individuation encompasses the integration of the conscious and the unconscious, which often means becoming a lot less the ideal person, and a lot more becoming the more authentic person by knowing the deepest, hidden parts of yourself. 

These are the most challenging life choices you have to make. When you choose how to prioritize tasks, it’s easy to conquer visible obstacles and open opponents.

But when the adversary is the unexplored self, it asks from you a studious effort to dig deep and explore your shadow side.

Conclusion: Prioritize by Turning the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Upside Down

By seeing the basic physiological and safety needs at the top and comparing the size of the tiers to the one for esteem and self-recognition, it becomes evident where your priorities lie. 

It is not only the placement of the tier: consider its size. For instance, you may need to spend ten or twenty times more resources on meeting your physiological needs than on meeting your self-actualization needs. It will be impossible to meet higher tier needs without meeting lower tier needs. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivation hierarchy. As with every rule, it has notable exceptions, such as people who have achieved self-actualization or recognition under strenuous life circumstances. Viktor Frankl, for example, planted the seed for his therapeutic method based on meaning in life by surviving a concentration camp. The odds of unconscious motivation in his story are huge. 

Maslow’s pyramid may not be the perfect mathematical model for making perfect life choices but it can be a helpful structure you return to when life hits hard. Finally, don’t forget that cars and bikes are only a means of transportation whose market worth may be measurable but whose personal value can be known only to you.

Featured Image Credit: Samuel Clara on Unsplash

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