Five exercises to identify what’s important to you

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Your values set your direction (Photo by Valentin Antonucci from Pexels)

I’ve always considered myself a value-driven person.

And then I got a career.

This is not an article about workplaces asking employees to do things that suppress, if not contravene, their values. It’s more about the way that working in a high stress professional career can increase your decision fatigue.

For me, this resulted in a lot of decision-making based on attributes such as “the path of least resistance”, or “I deserve an indulgence”, or “this is the first option that met minimum requirements”, or worse, “I’m not going to evaluate this choice at all.” Not exactly the most inspiring list of values there, hey?

Earlier this year, I made a new friend who really put a magnifying glass on how I was making decisions. (You remember Neil from my earlier article “Uncovering design”?) He talked about using values as a filter for every single decision. This seemed like a good way to make better choices that would add up to a more fulfilling life so I gave it a go.

I took this quite literally for the first week. If I felt like a Kit Kat from the vending machine, I would ask: Does that align with my value-based goal of fuelling my body for performance in triathlons? Well, not really… How about my value-based goal of paying down my mortgage as quickly as possible? Ah, I suppose I could use that $2.50 for my mortgage…

So perhaps I took it to a bit of an extreme, but I certainly didn’t buy much vending machine chocolate that week!

Using your values as a filter for your decisions is all very well. But how do you pin those values down? Trust me, if you have to re-identify your values with every decision, that will only increase the decision fatigue. So you will most likely want a pre-prepared, memorable list of values that actually mean something to you.

Below are five exercises I’ve used in the past, either implicitly or explicitly, to understand where I place the most value. All of these can be done in 5–10 minutes, with no week-long, offline retreat needed!

1: Google a list

This first exercise is probably the most straightforward, but it also the least telling. In some of the self development material I’ve read, an exercise like this would be done last. I prefer it first because the list of values you use here will be useful for the subsequent exercises and reading the list will help prepare your headspace and give you some initial ideas.

You’ll need a list of values for this. If you Google “values list” or “core values” or something similar, you’ll find hundreds of personal development websites and speakers’ pages with lists of anywhere from 20 to over 100 different values. Any list will work for this.

If you can’t find a list you like, here’s a link to Darren Hardy’s list, as Hardy’s work is what inspired my conversation with Neil. (By the way, Hardy has his own value assessment worksheet, so you could Google that if you don’t want to read the rest of this article. His exercises are a little bit different but he did inspire some of these.)

  1. Google for a list of core value words.

  2. Copy that list into something you can edit, or print it if you like.

  3. Optionally, randomise the list order as it’ll be easier to read if it’s not in alphabetical order.

  4. Skim through the list in 3 or so minutes with a highlighter and pick the words that resonate with you.

  5. Create a smaller list with just the words you highlighted.

  6. Reread this list a bit more carefully and try to narrow it down to your top 5 or so values. Don’t expend too much energy on this step, as the following exercises will also help you do this.

As I mentioned, this is a bit of an imperfect method. You’ll probably find yourself wondering if you can skip over “charity” because everyone has to be charitable, right? But to be useful, your list of values needs to reflect the things that are meaningful to you, not to society, or your mother.

That’s where following exercises come in. They are designed to take events, experiences and people from around you and use them to hone in on the values that trigger something a bit deeper in you. You’ll refer back to both your shortlist and the longer list of values again during each of these exercises to find the word that goes with the values you identify.

2: Open the news

Ok, so the trick here is not to get sucked into a vortex of news reading that gradually leads you further away from meaningful news and closer to tabloid gossip and “what does your favourite meal say about your personality” quizzes and then leave you lost in the hazy internet world of cat videos.

With that warning, let’s jump in:

  1. Open up your preferred news service.

  2. Spend 2–3 minutes reading just the headlines.

  3. Note down 5–6 headlines that get the most visceral reaction out of you. Think of the things that make you go “that’s disgusting” or “that’s unfair” or “I want to change that”. Or more positive reactions, such as “that’s amazing” or “I wish I could do that” or “I wish someone would do that for me.” For example, you may pick out a story about refugee families being separated.

  4. Review your list of reactionary headlines and pick out what about it gave you feeling. Using “I hate that…” or “I love that…” sentences might help here. For example, you might summarise your reaction as “I hate when families are torn apart.”

  5. Go back to your list of values from the first exercise and pick the word that best describes your reactions to the article. In the example, perhaps your value is “family”.

  6. Add these value words to your shortlist of values.

3: Meet your heroes

This exercise focuses on identifying the values of people that you admire or aspire to be like. Often time these heroes stand out to you because how the values they express through their actions resonate with your own values.

  1. Write down 3–5 people in your life that you admire. Try to include some people you interact with in your day to day life, not just public figures. Although including a few of them is fine as well.

  2. Write in a few short sentences why you admire those people.

  3. Go back to your list of values and highlight the ones you feel best capture what drives these people to do the things.

  4. Bonus: If you can, and if you’re feeling brave, ask those people how they would describe their own values.

  5. Add these new values to your shortlist.

4: Walk down memory lane

Next, we’re going to take a walk down memory lane. This exercise examines some of those “defining” moments in your life where you saw, heard or did something that changes your behaviour going forward. Moments that created such a huge sense of pride or achievement that you seek to repeat it, or such a sense of disappointment or anger that you strive to stamp that out of your own life, or others’ lives.

It’s best if you can identify situations where it was your own internal sense of justice that motivated your reaction to what happened. These will be much more powerful than times you were externally rewarded or punished. Because if the external reinforcement isn’t present in a different situation, you may not find the value is as important to you as it seemed.

  1. If any moments in your life have already come to mind just from reading the introduction paragraph, jot those down. It doesn’t have to be a complete retelling. Just write something like “That time that I…” For me, one is “that time that I blamed my manager for something I didn’t know.” This resulted in one of my strongly held values of never blaming senior or junior team members for things that go wrong on a job.

  2. If nothing springs to mind, draw out a timeline on a sheet of paper.

  3. Mark down “firsts” on this sheet: first best friend, first relationship, first job, first trip by yourself, first time you quit a job, first time you stuck up for someone, first time you moved, etc. You can also include any other big moments in your life.

  4. Use these events as springboards. Some of your “value moments” may have happened with the first. Why did you leave that job? Why did you stick up for yourself or someone else? If not, putting yourself back in that moment, that location, that job, may remind you of times you did something you believed was really right or really wrong.

  5. List out 4–5 of these mini-stories: “That time I quit my job because…”

  6. As with the other exercises, go back to your values list and pick out what value was important in each of your defining moments.

5: Shorten the shortlist

Now you probably have a list of 20 or more values. Maybe you have less, because some of the exercises highlighted the same values for you. That in itself is starting to tell you which values you hold most strongly.

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Make a list of your values (Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels)

Filtering decisions through 20 different value points every time you make a decision will be time-consuming. So we want to narrow this down to your top 3 or 5 values. (Odd numbers are good, right?)

  1. Write each of your values out on a notecard or post it note. If you prefer to keep things paperless, list them out in a spreadsheet or document.

  2. If any values did come up through more than one of the exercises, start with these.

  3. Pick any two of your values.

  4. Ask yourself, ‘Is this first value more or less important that the second one?’ If more, put it above that one; if less, below.

  5. Pick another value.

  6. Assess if it’s more or less important that the other two values. Or does it belong in the middle? Put it in order.

  7. You get the idea. Keep reshuffling the values until you have them in order. The top 3 or 5 on that list are your top values.

Bonus exercise: Target your values

You can use your list of 3 to 5 value words to assess your decisions. However, the words may be pretty abstract in the context of some decisions. How does a value of “authenticity” apply when it comes to buying chocolate from vending machines, for instance?

To make these values more tangible, it can help to convert them into some big goals. It’s easier to evaluate your actions against whether they push you toward or pull you away from those goals.

For example, let’s imagine authenticity is one of your values, but you notice yourself being inauthentic in some situations. Perhaps you identify that you need a confidence boost so you’re able to be yourself in more situations. And perhaps part of this lack of confidence comes down to the condition of your skin or your body. So you set yourself a goal of improving your health through eating less sugar.

It’s much easier to evaluate the Kit Kat decision against a goal of eating less sugar. And when this links to a medium term goal of improving your health, which is part of a big goal of increasing your confidence which links to your value of being more authentic…

Well, I for one don’t feel like a Kit Kat anymore.

#personaleffectiveness #values #valuesled