Living by your personal values sounds easy—at least in theory. Your values, after all, are simply the things that are important to you in life, so it should be natural to live by them.
And yet so many of us don’t consistently live by our values. Have you ever been in any of these situations?
- Someone said or did something that you strongly disagreed with, but you didn’t speak up about it and felt ashamed afterwards.
- You set goals for yourself and then failed to meet them.
- Your life or career haven’t worked out the way you wanted them to.
- What you want often clashes with what you've got to do or what’s “practical.”
- You’re so busy pleasing other people that you’re not even sure what your own true values are.
If any of these resonate with you, then this tutorial will help you. In it, you’ll learn what personal values are and why they’re important. Then we’ll go through all the steps involved in defining and prioritising your values, changing them as necessary, and living by them so that your actions are aligned with your values.
When you live by your values, you feel better about yourself and are more focused on doing the things that are important to you. In this tutorial, you’ll see how to achieve that.
1. What Are Personal Values (And Why Do They Matter)?
Let’s start with a personal values definition. Personal values are the things that are important to us, the characteristics and behaviours that motivate us and guide our decisions.
For example, maybe you value honesty. You believe in being honest wherever possible and you think it’s important to say what you really think. When you don’t speak your mind, you probably feel disappointed in yourself.
Or maybe you value kindness. You jump at the chance to help other people, and you’re generous in giving your time and resources to worthy causes or to friends and family.
Those are just two examples of personal values out of many. Everyone has their own personal values, and they can be quite different. Some people are competitive, while others value cooperation. Some people value adventure, while others prefer security.
Values matter because you’re likely to feel better if you’re living according to your values and to feel worse if you don’t. This applies both to day-to-day decisions and to larger life choices.
If you value adventure, for example, you’ll probably feel stifled if you let yourself be pressured by parents or others into making “safe” choices like a stable office job and a settled home life. For you, a career that involves travel, starting your own business, or other opportunities for risk and adventure may be more appropriate.
On the other hand, if you value security, the opposite applies. What some people would view as a “dream” opportunity to travel the world and be your own boss may leave you feeling insecure and craving a more settled existence.
Everybody is different, and what makes one person happy may leave another person feeling anxious or disengaged. Defining your personal values and then living by them can help you to feel more fulfilled and to make choices that make you happy, even if they don’t make sense to other people. You’ll see how to go about doing that in the following sections.
2. How to Define Your Personal Values
What makes you feel good? That’s a good place to start when figuring out what your values are.
No, “ice cream” isn’t a value. What we’re talking about here are characteristics or ways of behaving in the world. As we saw above, someone who values honesty will feel good when they tell the truth.
Conversely, that same person will feel bad about themselves when they don’t tell the truth. So negative emotions can also be a good guide to your values. When have you felt disappointed in yourself or like you were a fraud? What behaviour led up to that?
Here are some more questions to get you started:
- What's important to you in life?
- If you could have any career, without worrying about money or other practical constraints, what would you do?
- When you’re reading news stories, what sort of story or behaviour tends to inspire you?
- What type of story or behaviour makes you angry?
- What do you want to change about the world or about yourself?
- What are you most proud of?
- When were you the happiest?
Take a blank sheet of paper and quickly brainstorm some answers to these questions. Then use those answers as guides to figuring out your personal values.
In some cases, the values will be easy to figure out. If you wrote “a loving relationship” in response to the question about what’s important to you, then “love” is an important personal value for you. If you wrote “being happy,” then you value happiness.
Others may require a bit more work, though. For example, if you’re inspired by stories of successful entrepreneurs, maybe you value determination or achievement, or maybe it’s wealth and success. If you’re inspired by activists trying to change the world, maybe you value courage or integrity, or maybe it’s justice or peace. Try to examine what exactly it is about those stories or experiences that you relate to.
List of Personal Values
To help you, here’s a short list of personal values.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of personal values. I’m sure you can think of plenty more. The idea isn't to pick items from a list, but to come up with your own based on your own experiences and personality, so please use these as examples of personal values, but don’t feel limited by them. Let your imagination run free!
When you’ve finished brainstorming, you may have half a dozen values, or you may have a huge list of dozens. If you’re in the second camp, try to cut the list down to something manageable—perhaps ten values that mean the most to you. If you’re struggling, try assigning scores to each one and then sorting the list in order.
3. How to Prioritise Your Personal Values
Once you’ve come up with a list, it's important to prioritise your values.
Why? Because prioritising can help you get even closer to defining what’s important to you.
Your overall list of values may include quite disparate values. If you value honesty, health, kindness, adventure and half a dozen other things, it doesn’t give you a clear direction. But if you put “health” right at the top of your list, you’ll know that establishing a daily exercise routine and cutting out the junk food should be priorities for you. If “adventure” is at the top, on the other hand, maybe planning that trip to South America will come first.
Ideally, of course, you’ll live according to all the values on your list. But your time and energy are limited. Prioritising helps you to ensure that you’re spending them on the most important things that'll have the biggest payoff in your life.
So take some time to reorder the items in your list by using the scoring system we covered in the last section. Or you could compare each item in turn and ask yourself which you would work on if you could do only one. Take your time, and keep going until you end up with a final order you’re happy with.
4. How to Live Your Values With Integrity and Use Them to Make Decisions
Having a list of values on a sheet of paper is nice, but it doesn’t change anything. To see a difference in your life, you’ll have to start living by your values. As we’ve seen, that can be easier said than done. So in this section, we’ll look at how to use your values to actually live your life and make decisions.
Use Your Values for Goal Setting
First, let’s look at the big picture. Are you living according to your values in your life as a whole? Does your career choice reflect your values? How about your activities outside of work? Are you spending your time on things that matter to you?
If not, don’t worry—it’s quite common for our lives to diverge from our values for any number of reasons. Here’s how to get things back on track.
For each of your values, make a list of things you could do to put those values into practice. For example, if you wrote “Learning,” you could go back to college and do that degree you’ve always dreamed of. Or you could commit to read a book every week on a subject that you care about. Or you could take online training courses or sign up for classes at your local adult education centre. There are so many possibilities.
Don’t be constrained by practical considerations at this stage. Just write down possibilities, even if you think you can’t afford them or don’t have time. Make a list of things you could do to live by your values.
You should end up with a long list of possible actions for each value. The next step is to make them into goals for the next week, month, year, and perhaps longer. For detailed instructions on how to do that, see the following tutorials:
- Goal SettingHow to Set (+Reach) Your Personal Goals in Life and WorkHarry Guinness
- Goal SettingHow to Set Goals With No Room For ExcusesDavid Masters
If you already have goals that you’ve set before, you’ll also need to take one additional step. For each goal, ask yourself whether it aligns with any of your personal values. If not, why are you doing it? Unless there’s a very good practical reason, delete it and focus instead on the new goals that do help you live according to your values.
Make Decisions According to Your Values
Living your values is about more than the big, long-term goals, however. It’s also about the small, day-to-day decisions. In the moment, do you react to situations in ways that align with your values?
If you value compassion, for example, do you regularly display compassion towards others, or do you sometimes slip into judgment and blame? If you value health, do you always take care of your body, or do you sometimes end up eating burgers instead of bulgur?
It’s not always easy to make your actions align with your values. Anything from force of habit to the lure of immediate gratification can be powerful enough to make us forget those good intentions and act in ways that don’t reflect our values.
You've got many techniques available to you to help you change your reactions and live more consciously in accordance with your values. For example, you could:
- Make a habit of reading your list of values every morning when you wake up.
- Visualise the day ahead and plan out how you'll live by your values throughout the day.
- Print out your values and keep them close to you to refer to through the day.
- Make them the background on your mobile phone or computer.
- Set up reminders to pop up on your phone.
- Whenever you find yourself straying from your values, analyse the situation afterwards and ask yourself what you could have done differently.
You can find plenty more ideas in the following tutorials. Although a couple of them are about productivity, which is different from living by your values, some of the techniques about overcoming distractions and following up on good intentions are relevant here.
- Time ManagementSoft Skills: Structuring Your Day for SuccessJonathan Cutrell
- ProductivityWhy Most Productivity Tips Fail (and How to Overcome That)Andrew Blackman
- Productivity4 Important Personal Habits for a More Productive LifeAnnie Mueller
Possible Barriers to Overcome
So far, it sounds quite simple, doesn’t it? So why do so many of us still struggle to live according to our values?
Sometimes it’s about lack of clarity or not knowing what your values really are. The values exercises in this tutorial should deal with that problem quite effectively.
But there are other possible barriers, too. What if your personal values come into conflict with those of your family or the wider society? For example, you may value tolerance, but the society you live in may stand quite strongly against tolerance, at least of certain groups.
Or perhaps you're facing a conflict between your personal values and the practical situation you find yourself in. You may value creativity, but you've got family members to take care of, so you can’t take the risk of embarking on an art career. Or you may value honesty, but feel that there are certain lies you need to tell in order to preserve important relationships, to keep your job, or whatever else.
These are important barriers, and they're worth reflecting on seriously. But it’s also worth remembering that there are many ways to live your values, and you don’t have to reject all compromises and ignore practical considerations.
For example, it’s quite possible to live according to a value of honesty while also inserting a caveat like “... as long as my honesty doesn’t hurt other people.” That would help preserve those important relationships. And if you've got to be dishonest in order to keep your job, maybe that’s a signal that, in the long term, you need to find a new job. But in the short term, you don’t need to get fired by telling your boss exactly what you think. You can compromise for now, while moving in the long term towards a solution that’s more in line with your values.
If your values come into conflict with those of others or the wider society, you may face some difficulties, but you can still live with integrity in your own life. If your circumstances allow, you can also fight to change society according to your own beliefs. Look at many of the heroes of history like Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King, Jr., and you’ll find people whose personal values came into conflict with those of their time. But if you don’t feel ready for that kind of struggle, then you could choose to focus on your own actions and on living according to your own values, without challenging those around you who live differently.
5. How to Adapt and Change Your Values When Needed
Your personal values aren't set in stone. While some of your core values will probably stay the same throughout your life, others may change as your life circumstances change or simply as you get older and start to have a different view of what’s important. Or even if the values stay the same, the order in which you prioritise them may shift.
For example, starting a family and having children to take care of may cause you to value security and financial stability more highly than you did when you were single. Or a divorce may result in a renewed desire for freedom and self-discovery.
So it’s worth checking in regularly to see if your values have changed. Repeat the process of brainstorming, listing and prioritising, and see if your results are different.
How often should you do this? At least once a year is probably a good idea, and any time you go through a major life change like job loss, bereavement, illness, divorce, etc.
Of course, you’ll also want to keep reading your values and referring to them much more regularly than once a year, and if at any time you notice that something just doesn’t feel right any more, feel free to revise your values then and there.
Once you’ve come up with your new list, re-examine your goals and rewrite them where necessary to reflect your new or newly prioritised values. And start using your revised list of values to inform and direct your daily life, as discussed in the previous section.
We've covered a lot of ground in this tutorial, and I hope you're now much clearer about what personal values are, why they're important, and how you can do a better job of living in alignment with your values.
To read more about values, but from a business rather than a personal perspective, see the following tutorials:
- BrandingHow to Define Your Core Brand Values (And Why You Should)Julia Melymbrose
- PlanningHow to Discover Your Business ValuesDavid Masters
The next step, if you haven't already, is to put the lessons from this tutorial into practice. Start brainstorming, making lists, prioritising your values, and setting value-driven goals. Then start living by your values from day to day, month to month, and year to year.