A Deeper Reason for Disorganization

posted by Andrea | 03/15/2016


When I was in college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what classes I should take to get me there. And since I had an interest in several different subjects, I started working towards a couple different minors to go along with my business major.

One of those minors was Psychology.

I realize that a Psychology minor doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with a Business major, but I was very interested in so many of the Psychology classes… and the information I learned has actually come in handy many times over the past 10 years (seriously, how have I been out of college for 10 years already!)

Anyway, one of the psychology lessons that has really stuck with me over the years is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (I’ll explain more below).

It’s interesting for me to see how his theory of a hierarchy of needs has played out at various point in my own life, and how I can see it affect other people’s lives as well — specifically when it comes to the “need” or desire for more organization.

I’ve heard and seen it over and over and over again — someone desperately wants to create order in their life, to get more organized, to simplify, but for whatever reason, they don’t… or can’t.

While I realize there are countless reasons why someone might not follow through on their intent to get more organized or better manage their time, I do think that taking a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs could shed some light onto a deeper reason for disorganization.


But first, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me quickly outline the general concept.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow (a psychologist in the 1940’s) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs… and that when one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next need, and so on.

The earliest and most widespread version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs includes five motivational needs, often depicted as a 5-tiered pyramid. There have been some additions to this 5-tiered pyramid over the years, but for the purpose of this post, I’m sticking with the original 5 levels of needs.


1. Biological and Physiological Needs

This first group of needs is extremely basic — oxygen, water, food, warmth and sleep.

If you don’t meet these biological and physiological needs, you will die. Period.

2. Safety Needs

This group of needs is not completely necessary to sustain life, but when our basic safety needs are not met — security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear — life can be very harsh and unenjoyable.

Whenever I think of this group of needs, I always picture the war in the Middle East and assume many of those people do not have their need for safety met. There is no security, order, law, or stability in those nations — and it’s no huge surprise that they are crumbling.

3. Love and Belonging Needs

This group of needs is something we all require in different amounts — friendship, intimacy, affection, and love.

We all have an innate desire to belong and to be loved. Even extreme introverts need to have some sort of connection to, and relationships with, others. In fact, you can even see this need for love and belonging in animals.

From the moment we are born, we need physical touch (this is why it’s so important to do “skin to skin” with new babies) and from a very early age, we can very quickly tell when we do (and don’t) belong in various situations. Bullying and suicide are two very real consequences to an unmet need for love and belonging.

4. Esteem Needs

We all have the desire to achieve greatness, to master a skill, to better ourselves and to improve, to become more independent — it’s there when we are born! However, we will not act on these desires unless our other, more basic, needs have already been met

**This is the “need level” I’m going to focus on later in the post! 

5. Self-Actualization Needs

Once all your other needs are adequately met, you are capable of realizing and achieving your own personal “highest potential” — self-fulfillment, personal growth, peak experiences, etc.

Maslow estimated that only 1% of people ever get to this level. I’m not sure if this percentage has changed or not — but the point is that not everyone gets to this level or stays at this level all the time.

Many life experiences such as divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, depression, anxiety, chronic illnesses, etc. will prevent people from reaching the highest level.

I thought this social media version of the pyramid was humorous! 


And here’s pyramid adapted for kids.


The interesting thing about this hierarchy of needs is that we must satisfy the lower-level needs before meeting the higher-level needs. Once the lower-level needs have been reasonably satisfied, we can begin to work towards reaching higher levels.

For example, if your plane crashed in the middle of the ocean, your very first instinct would be to get above water so you could breathe. Once you were above water, you would then most likely look for land (or at least something to float on).

Once you found land, you would probably try to start a fire to boil water, then look for food, and then create some sort of hut or tent or shelter.

Only after all of these very basic survival needs were met, might you consider developing a relationship with any fellow passengers, or dwelling on the fact that you might never see your family members and friends again.

And you certainly wouldn’t be worried about getting a promotion at work, buying the latest and greatest technology, having any sort of prestige, or taking some time away for personal growth.

Here are a few more examples.

Victims of physical and emotional abuse lack the security and stability (level 2) they need to lead a happy and fulfilled life, so it very difficult for them to achieve the love and belonging (level 3) they want and require. Instead, they often end up looking for love and belonging in all the wrong places (their abusers) and are sure that if they leave their abusers, no one else will ever love them… so they stick around and continue to be abused.

We talk about being in “survival mode” when we are extremely tired, overly busy, recovering from an illness, or bringing a new baby home because we only have the ability to meet our basic biological (level 1) and safety (level 2) needs. We certainly don’t have the time or energy to devote towards personal growth, or mastering a new skill.

Anyone suffering from any type of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness will spend most of their time and energy simply trying to fulfill the most basic (level 1 and 2) needs that they won’t be able to reach the higher levels.

Studies have shown that children who get a good breakfast and sleep well at night will do much better in school (I have no sources to link to right now). This is most likely because their most basic needs are being met which frees up more energy for higher needs (to learn and grow and become more independant).


So… what on earth does this have to do with organization?


I would consider cleaning, organization, time management, and simplifying to fall under the umbrella of “Esteem Needs” (level 4). They are tied into our innate desire to improve ourselves and our environment.

This means that if the more basic biological, psychological, and safety needs aren’t met… AND if the needs for love and belonging aren’t met, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to meet your esteem needs either (no matter how badly you want to).


Obviously, this is not the case for every single person and situation, and I certainly don’t want to offer this theory as an easy excuse for those of us who just don’t feel like picking up after ourselves or getting up 15 minutes earlier so we aren’t always running late.

However, I do honestly believe that we are all motivated to achieve certain needs (and we do all desire to have some sort of order in our lives), but we can only get there once other needs are met. If our more basic needs are NOT met, we will be constantly fighting an uphill battle in our quest for simplicity, organization, productivity, time management, etc.

This is not to say that it’s impossible for someone to bypass the lower-level needs and still achieve a higher-level need; but rather, it’s to try to shed a little more light onto a potential deeper, more complex reason for disorganization and poor time management.


I’ve often joked with Dave about how he is such an integral part of my business life (even though he literally does nothing but proof-read my posts) but we both know that I could never do it without him.

Not only is his salary and health benefits nice to have (so I don’t have the pressure of being the sole provider for our entire family), I also couldn’t do it without his love, support, encouragement, and willingness to help out with the kids and around the house.

Thanks in large part to Dave, I have fulfilled my biological needs, my safety needs, my love and belonging needs, and can use whatever extra energy and time I have to focus on my esteem and self-actualization needs. Although I don’t have endless time and energy to put towards self improvement or personal growth, I know that I wouldn’t be able to keep doing everything I’m doing if it wasn’t for him.

I realize this is a fairly long and complicated post… but I feel like the hierarchy of needs is something you should consider if you feel like you have been unable to meet certain needs (like getting more organized) and you can’t figure out why.

Instead of beating yourself up over it, you might make more progress by trying to dig deeper and figure out if you have other, more basic needs that are unmet and causing strain or stress on your life.

top photo source


Filed under: OrganizingMental & EmotionalHealth

Leave a comment


  1. Debbie


    I never thought the hierarchy of needs had anything to do with organization, but I can now see how it does. If someone’s energy is mostly spent on trying to get back on their feet again after a divorce, or someone is in a difficult marriage, the ability to be motivated to organize will not be there. It gives me empathy for others.


    Andrea Reply:

    yes, the more I’ve thought about this over the years, the more I realize how true it is (even in my own life).


  2. Nicola


    Thanks so much for this post. This morning I was struck by the realisation that I’m lonely. My husband left me 10 years ago and 18 months ago my son got amnesia, he lost his memory of everything he has experienced in his 18 years and he recognised absolutely no one (he still hasn’t regained his memories). We have rebuilt our relationship but I am still ‘Nicola’ to him, not ‘Mum’ as he can’t remember me being his mother. I am involved in church and have plenty of acquaintances but a lot of my energy has gone into my son and I haven’t been proactively maintaining close friendships; those people who you can pour your heart out to. That is something I will need to change. Thanks again for helping me understand some of the reasons why I haven’t moved to level 4.


    Andrea Reply:

    Sorry to hear this Nicola — I can’t even imagine what you must be feeling or going through right now. What a terribly difficult situation. I’m sorry!

    I think you are smart for seeking out more friendships at this point in your life — in fact, I don’t think there is ever a bad time to find a few new friends!


  3. Jennifer


    Great post and great run down of the hierarchy of needs. Yes we can certainly struggle to meet esteem needs if we haven’t experienced the foundational needs being met in our lives. Some times we even try to establish the esteem components to hide or make up for what’s missing in our lives, but when we aren’t successful we beat ourselves up instead of seeking what is truly blocking us. This also brings a good point to keep in mind when we see someone who seems to be a mess and disorganized: you never know what they might be struggling with at a deeper level.


  4. Catherine


    Excellent post! Thank you 🙂


  5. Kelly S


    This is great!!

    I am familiar with the Heirarchy of Needs – I always enjoyed learning about it – but haven’t thought about it in quite some time, and certainly not in this way. Going to keep thinking about this and how it relates to my life.

    I am in a very similar stage of life to you with little ones and varying levels of sleep, transitions, etc. and feel like I bounce back and forth between these different levels, at times, though I’m grateful to mostly be able to focus on #4-5, generally speaking. As a result, however, sometimes I feel guilty when I just “can’t get it together” and handle all I want to handle… good to remember to look at the big picture and think about what is keeping me from that point! Thanks!


  6. Shannon


    Excellent article!


  7. Kim


    Great thoughts, we are so blessed! The part about plane crash and getting above water, I think you meant breathe not breath. . Enjoy your site!


  8. Andrea


    I enjoyed reading this! Thank you.


  9. Carrie


    Great post, Andrea! It makes a lot of sense. It makes me have hope that after our kids get a little older and I am out of survival mode more regularly, our home might have a little more order to it!! It also reminds me of the framework this parenting blog I’ve started following uses. They even use a pyramid – from bottom to top it goes, “you are safe”, ” you are loved”, “you are God’s workmanship”, ” you are responsible. “. Your post helps solidify their philosophy on discipline. Your child has to feel safe and loved before they can know they are made to do good/bless others and then for correction to actually be effective. Check it out! connectedfamilies.org


    Andrea Reply:

    thanks for sharing the link to that blog Carrie! That’s a great way of looking at the hierarchy of needs for kids!


  10. Melissa


    A beautiful shout-out to Dave; I hope that he got to proofread this post! 🙂


  11. JJ


    Thank you for sharing this! Much needed and thought-provoking!


  12. Tracey


    Excellent post, Andrea!!

    I learned about the hierarchy in high school and in college, and again in a teacher prep course, then taught about it in a high school psych class. I appreciated the importance of it more and more each time.

    A bit of wisdom that reminds me of it is “the state of your bed is the state of your head.” I take it to mean if your bed is neatly made, you’ll be in a better mindset all day, but also that if your bed isn’t made (and things aren’t otherwise organized) it may be because you’re in survival mode and can only handle the most basic needs.

    I too, feel so grateful that that our family’s first two/three levels of needs are generally met, leaving me free to focus on the higher needs. Sometimes it feels like a luxury!!


    Andrea Reply:

    honestly, compare to most people in this world, I think it IS a luxury to have the first 3 levels of needs met on a regular basis.

    And I LOVE your statement about the bed — I couldn’t agree more!


    Tracey Reply:

    True, it is always luxury. So blessed!!


  13. Chris


    This makes so much sense and explains what I have been struggling with for the past 3 years since my husband passed away. It’s been difficult just meeting the biological and physiological needs let alone trying to find a new “normal”. I have made it to level two-safety. The trek to the top is a long one.


    Andrea Reply:

    So sorry to hear about your husband, Chris — I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be for you. I’m glad this post helped to make some sense of things though.


  14. Organize 365


    Wow! This is so well-written and makes so much sense.

    I am always telling my husband that I could never be achieving my dream of owning my own business if it weren’t for the stability that he provides for our family in his 9-to-5 job.

    I can easily see how going through times of transition or even just getting the flu can bump you back it down on the piramid again.

    I love being able to see the visual and then realize where I am so I can keep moving up the mountain. Thanks for the extra examples of the piramids for kids, and the social piramid. 🙂 That one is classic.



    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Lisa! And yes, isn’t the social media pyramid great!?!


  15. Peggy Jones


    Very good, insightful and informative article. Thank you for sharing.


  16. Deni


    This post is outstanding, Andrea! You have explained this better than anything that I have ever read. Thank you for sharing this 🙂


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Deni!