The Hierarchy of Simplification

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist that developed a theory known as the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. This theory describes what people must have in order to live a fulfilling life. At the very lowest level of his hierarchy are the very basic physiological needs of food, water, shelter etc. Without first fulfilling these needs, a human cannot move forward toward a more complex existence. I wouldn't be writing this article if I was starving and Leonardo da Vinci wouldn't have painted the Mona Lisa if he was spending his time trying to find shelter.

As these basic needs are met people can start achieving bigger and better things. Each level of Maslow's hierarchy must be attained before the next level can be reached. At the very tip of his pyramid is the pinnacle of human existence or self-actualization. This level is characterized by creativity, problem solving, spontaneity etc. In Maslow's theory, this is what people are striving for and the more their prerequisite needs are met the more likely they are to achieve self-actualization.

Despite criticisms of Maslow's actual theory, I think the concept can be applied to the process of simplification. I recently made the connection between Maslow's theory and my own quest for a simpler life. At the very basic and broadest level of my simplicity hierarchy is the identification of values. I've written many times about how the whole point of simplifying must be something other than simplification for its own sake. For me, I am trying to live a simpler life so I can make decisions based on the values I think are important.

Once my values are articulated, the second level is physical decluttering of my space. Decluttering is a very basic activity that most people think of when they think about simplicity or minimalism. Of course, you could simplify without articulating your values first, but what's the point? If you don't know why you're doing it I doubt your living space will stay very decluttered for long. Physical decluttering serves as a very important base for further simplification, but it is not the ultimate goal.

The next level is mental decluttering and the cultivation of attention/focus. I argue that mental decluttering cannot happen until physical decluttering is completed. In my own experience, it is nearly impossible to clear my head and focus when surrounded by chaos. This level is all about learning to harness our minds to focus on one thing at a time.

The fourth level is where we take our newfound mental clarity and strengthened focus and apply it to our passionate work and leisure. For me, it is coaching and writing. Whatever your "great work" is, this is the level in which you make strides toward achieving it. Passionate leisure may seem like an oxymoron but I see it as the cultivation of productive hobbies. There is no reason our leisure time cannot be as productive and beneficial as our passionate work while also being an outlet for relaxation and stress reduction.

Lastly, at the very tip of the simplicity hierarchy is "living a life driven by personal values." When I first sat down and began planning this blog I wrote that I thought many people lived a life stuck on "autopilot." Instead of examining their own values and passions, people allow themselves to be directed from one frivolous pursuit to another by advertisement and others' values instead of their own. By identifying personal values, decluttering our physical space, decluttering our minds and cultivating our attention/focus, and then applying our attention/focus into passionate work and leisure we can live a fully actualized life. Instead of being stuck on autopilot we have our hands firmly on the controls of our own existence.