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This old school theory can help you understand YOUR motivation

This old school theory can help you understand YOUR motivation

Did you know that we are hardwired to want to become our best? Yep, as long as you and I are alive, we will want to do some type of self-improvement, set goals and make resolutions.

We will want to improve our health, our relationships, do better at work, and learn new things. We will want to improve ourselves because that is what it means to grow and move forward. It is the very purpose of life. This “actualizing tendency” is inherent in all of us and it is a good thing.

But as we know, wanting and actually doing are two very different things. Getting stuff done requires first the motivation to start. Once we get started several qualities like productivity to efficiently manage our time factor into whether we succeed or not, but the first step to everything is the motivation to start.

There’s an old school theory that can help you understand YOUR motivation: Maslow’s theory of human motivation.

Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation

In the 1940s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation,  and as we say today, the thing blew up. It’s still a popular framework in sociology research, management training, behavioral therapy, psychology studies, and other disciplines. His theory is usually depicted as a five-tier pyramid because that’s an easy way to demonstrate the hierarchical path Maslow thinks our needs take. Maslow believed that in order for us to be motivated to work on higher needs, our lower needs must be adequately satisfied.

I was looking to understand my own and my clients’ motivation when I came across Maslow’s theory. It soon became clear to me that some of the goals I had been stressing and considering failures, weren’t urgent to me. Something else that I wasn’t working on, my finances, was. Today, instead of setting goals to learn French and go to Peru, I’m fully committed to my entrepreneurial efforts. It will create the financial security that I had been silently anxious about for forever.

This principle is important to help us keep our resolutions:

Work on those things that are most helpful to us NOW.

I should point out that, although still popular, Maslow’s model has its critics. Some have questioned the single-direction the needs take and believe we attend to our needs in a zigzag fashion, not one level after the other. And Dr. Pamela Rutledge wrote in Psychology Today that the model doesn’t give enough credit to the role of social connection. Even with these questions and evolving insights, Maslow’s main point, that we’re motivated to work on our most urgent needs first, is still valid.

With that said, let me present Maslow’s model/theory in the standard hierarchical pattern. I’ll start with our physiological needs and go from the bottom up, according to the above diagram. I will also try to explain how unmet needs (deficiencies) may be making it difficult for you to follow through.

Physiological needs

On the lowest most basic level are our physiological needs. These include our need for:

  • Breathing
  • Water
  • Food
  • Sleep
  • Clothing
  • Sex

The basic needs of the body, when not sufficiently met, make it hard for us to focus and stay motivated on anything else, which is why kids who go to school hungry have a harder time paying attention in class.

Safety/Security needs

According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological needs are relatively satisfied, safety and security needs take precedence and become the main drivers of their motivation. These are the needs most commonly associated with Maslow’s theory:

  • Personal security
  • Emotional security
  • Financial security
  • Health and well-being

After reading some of the criticisms of Maslow’s Theory and applied my own logic and life experience, I came to the conclusion that each of us may have our own definition of security, but feeling secure is still a critical need. 

There’s no denying that living in a safe environment, having money in the bank or a secure well-paying job adds to our sense of security.  We follow through more often when we feel secure. If we don’t feel secure, generalized anxiety may follow us through life and make achieving even goals we desperately want, difficult. Sometimes the insecurity goes away and we feel motivated to pursue a goal, only to stop when the insecure feelings return. This happens every new year for a lot of people.

New year, more hope

New years bring with them a burst of hopefulness and we think to ourselves, “This is gonna be my year!” so we try again to get organized or lose weight. But the realities of our lives and our unmet needs have not changed.

What’s important to remember is that insecurity of all kinds can undermine our confidence and often look like procrastination. Procrastination is based on fear and the job for all procrastinators is to figure out what you need to feel secure and to make sure you get it or work on getting it.

My second insight from Maslow’s theory is that all levels on the pyramid are important, but the first two are super important. These first two levels (our physiological and our safety/security needs) represent our two most basic needs and set the foundation for our lives. Human motivation increases when our basic needs are met and decreases when they are unmet.

Contact me if you need help to build skills you may be missing.

Social/Love and Belonging needs

The third level on the pyramid represent our social needs and these are the needs we crave:

  • Friendships
  • Intimacy & romantic attachments
  • Family
  • Community
  • Social groups

According to Maslow, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. Feeling loved, connected and accepted makes us feel secure and motivated. We satisfy this need with relationships with co-workers, in religious groups, sports teams, gangs, and online communities. In more intimate ways, we get this need filled by family, with spouses/partners, mentors, colleagues, and confidants.

Emotional eaters and procrastinators

Without support and acceptance, most of us don’t feel grounded. So it’s easy to understand why it’s difficult for emotional eaters to stick to their efforts to eat better, exercise, and maintain positive thoughts. When their deeper hunger for connection resurfaces, they fall off the wagon. If you’ve never had strong social connections or someone to turn to for support, it’s important that you stop pretending to be fine. It’s a survival tactic that often turns into acceptance of the situation and it makes you vulnerable to low-grade depression or quiet anxiety. A more honest assessment of your situation, I’m guessing is this: I’m fine for now but I want to feel more connected and create supportive relationships. Both self-talk helps you feel fine in the present but the healthier one programs you to change it for the future.

There is a lot you can do to address this need both in the long- and short-term, once you recognize it for what it is. Working one on one with someone or in a good personal development program, you can formulate ways to get what you need. The long-term work is about building healthy families, relationships and communities, but in the short term, you can use what you have and build from there.

What you can do now about emotional eating

  • By having a regular lunch date with a work friend, emotional eaters are more likely to stick to their diets and will also do better at work, therefore, feel better about themselves.
  • If you make dinner for your family, trying to make two separate meals – the popular stuff for everyone else and “diet” foods for yourself – is going to drive you nuts and add to feelings of isolation. Learning to make healthy nutritious tacos and other meals that are both tasty and delicious will satisfy your family and make them a part of your weight loss team.
  • Having a family dog may be a smart step in getting you moving and making movement a habit.
  • Even smarter would be to religiously walk the dog after dinner (setting up a routine) and do it with your kids or partner. This is smart because you would be working on several goals at once: getting your exercise in, teaching kids healthy habits, having bonding time, giving the dog his exercise, and getting fresh air and the other lifestyle benefits of walking outdoors.
  • For a single person, a group class or doing pick-up softball on the weekends (even if you have to be the organizer) may be better than running on the treadmill by yourself.

It’s important to recognize that some goals, starting a business and changing your lifestyle, for example, are just hard for anyone to do by themselves. There’s nothing wrong with you if you need help and trying to prove you can do it alone despite repeated failures, is just a waste of time.

Ego/Esteem needs

Esteem needs are concerned with getting recognition, status, and respect from others and guess what, it’s natural for even spiritual people to have this need. We all want to be SEEN or to feel esteemed even if it’s by one person.

There are two types of esteem needs:

  • “Lower” level esteem
  • “Higher” level esteem

The “lower” type is the need for status, fame, and prestige. The “higher” type is about our need for self-respect. We satisfy this type of esteem by setting standards for ourselves, having self-confidence, independence, and freedom.

Some criticisms of Maslow’s order of needs has merit.

I believe Self-Esteem could be placed anywhere on the pyramid after physiological need. We know that mastering a skill like cooking, playing sports and dressing well can raise our self-esteem. Higher self-esteem equals more confidence and confidence is a huge driver of motivation. This increased confidence can motivate us to work on goals at any level of the pyramid. Whether it’s making friends (social) or personal growth (self-actualization), confidence helps to keep us motivated.

Sure, praise from others and group acceptance on social media is a nice way to get our dopamine fix but I encourage people to be the primary source of their positivity. The list of things we can do to generate good feelings naturally is endless. Things like daily affirmations, dressing well, volunteering, music, comedy, the outdoors, spending time with people, pets, a good night’s sleep, sex, playing an instrument, reading, and having my favorite snack are just a few of the things that does it for me.


What a man can be, he must be.” This sums up our innate need for self-actualization. Once our basic needs met, we start looking toward self-actualization. These are some of the things we’re looking to achieve on this level:

  • Our full potential
  • Personal growth
  • Peak experiences
  • Become everything we’re capable of becoming

If you’re in your 20s and can’t seem to reach these goals, please relax and take a breath. I agree with critics of Maslow’s model who think we can zigzag through the pyramid and work on higher goals at any time. It’s still worth it to acknowledge what deficiencies, emotional baggage, insecurities could be blocking you. If you have some block, it’s worth taking care of them first or working on them at the same time.


Thanks to the theory, we understand the following about pursuing goals:

  • It’s important we meet ourselves where we are, and
  • Do what’s most important/most beneficial for us now
  • A solid foundation is critical to staying on track
  • Having help/a community is essential to the success of most goals
  • Feeling good raises our energy and motivation
  • There are many ways we can help ourselves feel good naturally

While Maslow’s Model/theory is not perfect, the framework and the main idea of addressing our unmet needs are super helpful. The theory helps us understand that motivation doesn’t just happen. Knowing this, we can begin to view our capabilities in broader, more compassionate terms.

The insights I gained from studying Maslow’s model didn’t just help me better understand human motivation. They helped me to understand why we get depressed, anxious, suffer from insomnia and develop many social and emotional complaints.

It can be frustrating when we try but see no progress and crushing when we seem to fail repeatedly. We beat ourselves up, lash out at others, turn to addictive habits and behaviors like procrastination and isolation. A more productive approach is to concentrate on the root cause. Do the work to meet your needs and you’ll begin to do better and better.


Because “Man is a perpetually wanting animal,” we will always want to reach our potential. We will always set resolutions at the beginning of the year and at key moments in our lives. We will always want to be seen and hope that our time here on earth has meaning.

Depending on how you’re looking at it, this reaching your potential thing can either drive you crazy or inspire you.


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