The Towers of Priority

First, let me get an announcement out of the way: Tempo is now out on the Kindle. Buy it, give it as a gift, tweet it etc. Whew! That’s a big, high-priority item checked off my to-do list.

Speaking of priorities. I had one of my weirder Aha! moments: you can use the well-known Towers of Hanoi game as a metaphor to understand the behavior of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or any similar hierarchy of priorities) under changing life circumstances, and the role of compartmentalization as a costly coping strategy. Here’s a picture:

If the details and implications of the metaphor aren’t immediately obvious, read on for the help-text.

The Basic Metaphor

The game involves moving a pyramidal stack of disks from one of three pegs to another without ever letting a larger disk rest on a smaller one. The number of moves approximately doubles each time you add a disk (so the full 5-level Maslow hierarchy would take 31 moves, where this simplified 3-disk version takes 7 moves).

The metaphor works like this: at any given time, each stack of disks represents a life compartment. Sometimes your life is more compartmentalized (work vs. life or work vs. life vs. health), and sometimes, it is all a single beautiful symphony.

The “never stack a big disk on a small one” models the idea that most of us don’t consciously violate priorities in obviously avoidable ways. If we do, we recognize our “moment of weakness.”

But this is only a local sort of consistency: we apply prioritization ideas via pair-wise comparisons/tradeoffs while making specific decisions. You rarely have more than two priorities butting up against each other in any given decision.

So long as your life situation is stable, you can gradually integrate the various compartments and get back to a single stack. We call this getting into a “routine.”

But when your life shifts, fragmentation and compartmentalization necessarily intrude. If your life changes faster than you can get back to the healthy stack of priorities, you’ll end up a mess, unless you level-up your game and redefine your idea of stability (think George Clooney in Up in the Air).

Integrated vs. Fragmented Priorities

In a fragmented, compartmentalized state, disks on the same stack represent integrated priorities while disks on different stacks represent fragmented priorities.

Integrated priorities reinforce each other via strong positive-feedback loops (lots of small trade-off decisions, with healthy behaviors being reinforced each time you make the healthy choice), and you can manage them consciously.

Fragmented priorities cannot be managed consciously, and can lead to messed-up behaviors that are not aligned with your actual priorities. You also lose any mutual reinforcement effects via positive feedback loops.

This happens because, in a compartmentalized life, you only have opportunities to trade off priorities that are on the same stack, through individual, micro-level decisions

Your ability to manage tradeoffs between stacks is much more limited. You are reduced to vague ideas like “I need to spend more time with my kids” or “I need to go to the gym more.” I suspect most people allocate attention amongst compartmentalized stacks based on how many disks the stack has (which determines how hard the stack is to compute with) rather than the priority of the stack.

To take a simple example “work life balance” is extremely hard in a traditional industrial environment, where “work” happens at the workplace, and “life” happens at home.

But it is much easier in (say) a Googleplex-like workplace with childcare, gyms and healthy food options available right near your office.

So instead of having to think in terms of “I need to spend more time with my kids” you can trade off “get coffee between meetings right now, or play a game of ping-pong with my kid in the childcare room.”

Priority management turns into a bunch of bite-sized decisions.

Implications of the Metaphor

The metaphor suggests several interesting ideas:

  1. Consciously violating priorities (putting a bigger disk on a smaller one)  can help you stabilize much faster (exponentially faster) in a new situation, but at the risk of bigger disks permanently damaging/crushing smaller ones.
  2. Given a specific definition of priorities/disks, there is a maximum frequency of life changing disruptions you can handle while still getting to a stable integrated stack at least briefly between disruptions. If your life changes any faster, it will be in a perennially unstable state.
  3. Fusing layers simplifies the game. Manage fewer categories. So working for a moving company fuses work and physical health.
  4. How you frame priorities is crucial. A stack of disks that needs to be moved under a life transition may not need to be moved at all if you redefine them to be robust to such transitions. If you are a nomad, capable of living out of a suitcase or camel-pack, your life will resist disruption due to physical moves. If you live in a country with portable, government-provided healthcare, your health will resist disruption due to changing jobs.
  5. You are not entirely in control of your life stack. The organization of society plays a huge role.
  6. Trying to keep unfused priorities stable in transit (moving multiple discs at once) is a balancing act.

The part of the metaphor that interests me the most is the idea that there are positive feedback loops within compartments. The more you compartmentalize your life, the more you lose the benefit of such loops. I think this relates to how 10x dynamics can be catalyzed in your life. It also relates to the more comprehensive analysis of such stuff that Greg Rader recently posted.




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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Interesting metaphor. I see a lot of parallels to the spate of recent research demonstrating the importance of context and environment in reinforcing desired habits. Probably best known is the research showing that people with overweight friends are significantly more likely to be overweight themselves. Adopting a certain context or integrating yourself into a certain environment is like fusing a disk you intend to move to a disk that has already in the process of moving. For example, by hanging out with people who eat healthy you are fusing the social and diet discs together.

    If you manage to find a community that shares enough of your priorities then you might compress a dozen discs into only one, dramatically simplifying the game. That seems to comport with your googleplex example – if you can get everything in one place there are many fewer trade-offs to juggle.

    One problem with the googleplex example is that it only works in one direction. When you join google you get the benefits of simplifying the game, but if you ever decide to leave google those discs will all decouple again. Obviously that is google’s incentive in providing those services…any decision to leave implicates priorities far outside the traditional work sphere.

  2. This metaphor looks quite compelling but, as much as I hate to say it, I’m not sure I fully understand.
    Can you provide some more examples, to illustrate what you mean? (Or a story narrative that explains the changes in the picture?)
    What are some integrated vs fragmented priorities?
    How does one disrupt priorities (put a bigger disk on top of smaller)? How does one unify stacks? Etc.

    • It’s probably not worth overthinking that much. A good example is probably work-life compartmentalization for an overworked exec in a traditional corporation.

    • Example: between May and October I took all the steps necessary to move from a sedentary lifestyle routine to a mobile lifestyle routine. During those four months I tied up loose ends, moved my stuff out of my old house, and bootstrapped a location independent income.

      The change crushed my fitness regime and self-actualization: meditation sessions became irregular and low-grade, I didn’t write a single blog post, and I read maybe two books. All my time was spent on logistics, saying goodbye, and freelancing.

      In terms of the towers, I moved the tower upside down to “Temporary Life,” and then back around again to “New Life.” Two simple moves. Basic needs damaged social needs, while both damaged self-actualization. It was worth doing it this way, because by keeping all priorities integrated, I leveraged my social life to smoothen the change.

  3. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Your friends are the people you work with closely enough that their unpredictability is reduced nearly to nothing. Your enemies are anyone to whom you outsource work that you’d prefer to do yourself, or would like to have a lot of control over, but cannot, due to time value arbitrage.

    If you work in the Googleplex, not only can you go see your kid at lunch, you can take your kid to lunch in the cafeteria. You could drop by the childcare area for 10 minutes while walking to get coffee with a colleague. Your child and the teachers become integrated not only into your life, but the lives of your friends, at almost no cost compared to the usual method of trying to invite multiple circles of people to a party (where they’ll probably ignore one another). You and your friends can add enough value to your child’s life, peer pressure on the teachers to do a good job, and so on, as to surpass the potential downside of the daycare facility falling short of a Montessori program.

    Perhaps the question is whether a nomadic lifestyle could ever create such efficiencies. Will shared workspaces wind up with co-op daycare facilities, organic cafeterias, exercise rooms and so on? Is it possible to improvise such things in a temporary situation, where strangers come together for a few months to do a project and then disband?

  4. They say one picture is worth a thousand words, you proved it

  5. Telecommuting, of course is another way to make the towers stack with less pain and suffering. Of course, if you do that, you have to create mental compartments or risk turning your tower upside down without warning. It’s really interesting to me to analyze what my priority disks are made of, and how they differ from others’.

    I’ve always looked at personal priorities through the lens of linguistic Optimality Theory, in which a body of possibilities is generated and compared against a set of ordered, violable constraints. The option with the fewest violations is automatically selected. You can see on the page how pluralization in English follows a pretty basic set of rules (only minor linguistic knowledge required).

    In personal priorities vis a vis Maslow, it appears that the “Hierarchy” is pretty squishy—true that Physiological needs come before Security needs in general, but in the specifics this is not at all rigid. Middle-class people around the world are overworking (to preserve their jobs—a Security issue) at the expense of their health (Physiological issue). It just seems that these people have a different order of violable constraints than those who would prefer the stress of a jobsearch over that of interminable unpaid overtime.

    I’d take this further—it appears to me that people with similarly-ordered constraints constitute a culture (or subculture), which may explain why I keep running into people who share very little of my cultural upbringing who claim that we are in “the same tribe”. We just happen to have similar orders of priorities.

    Bringing this back to Hanoi, it could easily be that the constitution and size of the priority disks depends upon the ranking of your personal priority constraints (which in turn, may have been inherited or influenced through the folkways you were raised with [or which you rebelled against]).

  6. Thanks for this. Seven months in to a transatlantic relocation, this helped.

  7. Jeremy Leader says

    One problem I have with any strict hierarchy of needs (such as Maslow’s) is that a strict hierarchy implies lexically ordered preferences, which I don’t believe really exist in practice. There are plenty of cases where people will trade off a small risk to one of the more basic needs in exchange for a high-expectation payoff in one of the higher needs (e.g. performing a stunt that entails some risk of physical injury, to try to impress a potential mate).

    That said, the Towers of Hanoi is a thought-provoking metaphor, as long as you don’t try to apply it too rigorously.