One of the magical things about human beings is that we are always doing something.

The above phrase, said by one of my favorite professors during a live therapy supervision, has been an anchor that I’ve used to ground my treatment strategies with clients. We ARE always doing something. The question is whether we are doing something that is worthwhile, that aligns with our core self, and that leads us in an ultimately helpful direction.

I find the issue that my clients often run into when “doing”, is that they don’t have an internal compass that tells them where to sail on their journey. Instead, they’re being tossed around by waves and swells, swayed by winds and influenced by other ships that are sailing around them. They may not get shipwrecked, but they also may not make it to that beautiful island they imagined for themselves. And frankly, they’re probably going to get sea sick and tired and honestly who enjoys nausea?

This internal compass I speak of is comprised of our values. I know you’ve heard the word and understand the concept, but do you know what it really means in the context of your life?

Defining Values

So what exactly are values? Frankly, I’ve found them hard to define. Through my research and practice, I’ve discovered that your values are the ongoing qualities of actions that make up how you want to be in this world. 

Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, describes values as “what we want to stand for in life, how we want to behave, what sort of person we want to be, what sort of strengths or qualities we want to develop.” 

If as you read that you simultaneously nodded your head in agreement and said, “um, but what?” you aren’t alone because that was my initial reaction. So let’s get a little bit more specific, shall we? 

Values can be broken down into different categories or domains of life. Some common ones are:

  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Work
  • Education
  • Finances

Values can also include your own personal domains, including Adventure/Hobbies, Spirituality, and Community. We have desired qualities of being in each one of those domains. For example, when it comes to Relationships, my values may include being supportive, respectful, and honest in my relationships. The next step would be determining what that would look like, behaviorally, and engaging in that way.

Values VS Goals

The most common misinterpretation of values is thinking of them as the same as goals. While values lead us to clarifying our goals, they are not one and the same. 

Goals are future focused objectives you set and achieve, and then you’re done. 

You can keep setting goals that build upon one another, but they are ultimately steps that you complete and then move on from. You set a goal to run twice a week, then you set a goal to run a 5K, then a marathon, so on and so forth.

Values are present and a constant in your life. They keep you on track as you achieve your goals. 

Caring for your body is a value. It’s a way you behave, it’s an ongoing quality, and it’s something you can do without running a marathon. You can also run a marathon without caring for your body, but I imagine it’ll be painful and exhausting and you might throw up. The actions and behaviors that fall in line with caring for your body can change, even while the value stays the same. Caring for your body can look like running, like taking a rest, taking vitamins, or staying home when you’re sick.

While values and goals are different, they’re related. Your values can lead you towards your goals. Your values are the journey, and the goals are the destinations. I often have clients identify their values, and then use those to guide their short term and long-term goals. Once we have that figured out, we can start identifying the habits necessary to be successful in their goals. The habits in themselves align with their values, and thus, are more likely to stick because they are allies to the individual’s core self.

Values as Your Guide

Values can also be used as a compass when you are faced with a crossroad, a life transition, or a moment when you feel stuck, because they are chosen life directions.

Let’s take a value in the domain of Work/Career.  I’ll use myself (as I may or may not have been in this situation before, emphasis on may). I hit an unexpected crossroad in life where I can either continue down the career path I planned for myself but am feeling unsettled in, or I can embark on a whole new unknown career path-another kind of unsettling. Well, what are my values when it comes to my career? How do I want to be? What gives me a sense of meaning? I value creativity, connection and diversity. Knowing that those are my career values, I can assess which path allows for me to honor those values more readily. I can make a more informed decision, rather than being pushed around by my fear or “plan”.

Values Provide “Small Wins” Along the Way

Living by your values leads to a sense of fulfillment, cultivates motivation and helps us enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Constantly waiting for the destination to make us feel satisfied will typically lead to chronic fatigue and disappointment.

Imagine you’re on a boat and you’re heading to the Bahamas. Now, you can spend your time in the captain’s quarters, constantly checking the map, calculating how much longer it will take to get there, asking the captain to increase the boats speed, and staring into the distance trying to make out the outlines of the first island (hint: this version of you is goal focused). Or, you could explore the workings of the boat, talk to the crew members, look out at the ocean and sky on the viewing deck, and try to spot dolphins and sharks! (Second hint: this version of your values of connection, adventure and beauty). Which one do you think will spend more of their time feeling satisfied?

Developing Your Own Values

Hopefully the reasons outlined above demonstrate why it’s important to take the time to identify what your values. To recap, values give us a focus, direction, guidance and ensure overall fulfillment. Values should be clear, but they should also be flexible. Rigidity with anything is unproductive. 

There will also be times when you need to prioritize your values. Going back to the work example, perhaps I find myself in a situation where I don’t like my job, but I need to prioritize another value, such as financial responsibility.

You can choose to use your values at anytime. You don’t have to wait to “achieve” them. But they do take some intentional work to identify. Clarifying values takes time, reflection, and often guidance. In sessions with my clients, I often guide this type of work through the use of specific questions and prompts to foster this type of valued focused reflection. 

Remember, when clarifying your values it’s about what you want, not about what you should do. Our culture tends to push a “do everything, be the busiest, the more you do the better you’ll feel” mentality. Don’t let this impact you if this is not what you value. Ask yourself: 

  • What do you want to stand for as a human being?
  • How do you want to be in the span of your life?
  • Clarify your values, and ultimately know your value.

In the second installment of our Jumpstart Your Goals course, we’ll walk you through how to use your values to set inspired goals.