Hierarchy of Personal Goals

Instructor: David White
Identifying and organizing our personal goals can be difficult, but there are some existing models that can help. Through this lesson, you will explore ways to create a hierarchy of goals that can improve chances of success.

Organizing Our Goals

It is always surprising how strange life can be; at times it seems as though we are directionless, and the next thing we know, there are a million things we want to do. There are positive and negative aspects of both positions, but when we do find ourselves with a long list of goals or objectives, it can be overwhelming and we may not know where to start. In these cases, the best thing to do is to create a hierarchy of your goals.

A hierarchy is a way of organizing things based on their level of significance or importance. For example, the cliché 1950s American family had a hierarchy that placed the father at the top, mother below him, children below her, and so on. Using a hierarchy to organize your goals is not a new idea. In fact, there is a long history of using this model to organize human desires and needs, which is good news for you because that means there's already a template.

Maslow's Hierarchy

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his seminal paper 'A Theory on Human Motivation', in which he explained his new theory on the organization of human needs. It is referred to as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow's hierarchy, people have certain needs that must be met in order for them to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Organized as a pyramid, he places basic physiological needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) at the bottom, and less tangible things on top.

Maslows hierarchy organizes human needs in a way that is easy to understand and apply.

Maslow's hierarchy makes a good template for setting personal goals because it breaks things down into categories, and also because it demonstrates that fulfilling needs and goals can be a long-term process. For example, the basic physiological needs that we have can be satisfied fairly easily, i.e. if you're hungry you eat something. The most important goals, on the other hand, are at the top and can be harder to reach. Moreover, successfully achieving them could possibly require achieving the other goals along the way, from the bottom up.

Meaning and Motivations

The primary objective of setting and achieving goals is to give our lives meaning and contribute to our well-being, but this doesn't necessarily mean that all of our goals are meaningful. This has a lot to do with what is motivating us to achieve each goal. In a broad sense, there are two types of motivations that drive us to pursue goals: extrinsic motivations, things that other people think we should do; and intrinsic motivations, the things that we think are valuable.

For example, there are many people that feel society values wealthy people who own a lot of material possessions, like cars and houses. Given that, they might set a goal of making lots of money so they can buy these things and achieve a certain social status. Unfortunately, many people find that once they have attained these things, they still don't feel fulfilled or satisfied, and haven't come any closer to a meaningful state of well-being.

Achieving a state of meaningful satisfaction is what Maslow places at the top of his hierarchy and refers to as self-actualization, which is the fulfillment of a person's potential, or realization of their desires. This is the long-term goal that drives almost every living person. Extrinsic goals, like acquiring material wealth, might make a person feel like they are satisfying some social expectation, but it doesn't usually correspond with self-actualization or internal desire. This is what makes goal-setting and organizing so tricky: understanding the motivation and where it belongs in your own hierarchy.

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