DR. JAN NEWMAN
One of the many reasons that I love Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the research-based training and coaching models based on it is the emphasis on values as the guide for our choices and actions.
Clarifying and acting on your values intuitively is a lifelong process, yet it is THE process. When what truly matters to you becomes the choice point from which you make your decisions, you will see powerful changes in your life.
What Are Values Anyway?
Values have gotten a bad rap. If you’ve never worked through values clarification intentionally, the word may evoke some vague or abstract notions or even dread.
According to Russ Harris, values are “desired qualities of action: how you want to behave; how you want to treat yourself, others, and the world around you.” They are the principles that guide and motivate us throughout our lives, and they require ACTION to live and move in the world.
Identifying key life domains. Often, it can be helpful to view values based on which life domain is involved. Your values will likely differ across these domains. Life domains that are important to most people include: physical health, family relationships, parenting, romantic relationships, work, learning / education, personal growth / psychological well-being, and play / recreation.
Determine the importance of and satisfaction with life domains. Next, it’s helpful to get a sense of where you are in terms of values alignment right now. This can help you figure out where to intervene and when.
To do this, FIRST rate how important the life domain is to you overall (1 – 10). (The rankings are not ordinal. You can have multiple items rated as 10.)
SECOND, rate how consistently aligned your actions, behaviors, and choices have been in that life domain ( 1- 10) over the last week.
This step can really trip people up. Try not to overthink this. We’re really trying to get a sense of what you’ve been trying to do, and not any overly critical self-assessment of how unsuccessful you felt you were. We will discuss barriers in other steps.
For instance, let’s take the valued domain of PHYSICAL HEALTH & WELL-BEING. Let’s say that overall that domain is a 10 to me. Sadly, what if I’ve broken my leg. Does that mean it’s a 0? Not necessarily. If I have done no exercise, eaten poorly, and stayed up all night binge-watching Netflix, I might get a 1. But if I worked out my upper body with weights, did PT 3 times a week, ate well, and emphasized sleeping it might be an 8 or 9.
You can use these ratings as well as the domain’s current priority in your life, “ripeness” for change, and the degree of internal and external barriers to determine where to take action first. (The Bullseye below and Wheel of Life exercises below are common ways to do this. For clients, working with me, we would do this in a spreadsheet I have created, and we would do this in a session).
Identify qualities of action within those domains. Then, we are looking at important qualities of action within those life domains. Values describe how you want to behave and act in your life, how you want to interact with others, and the qualities you want to demonstrate in your\ life and encourage in others.
Some common values include: acceptance (i.e., to accept myself just as I am; to accept others as they are), autonomy or freedom (i.e., to choose how I live my life, to live on my own terms), or flexibility (i.e., to accept and adapt to change more easily), etc. .
There are several online values-based action tools for this part of the exercise, which can be viewed here and here. (For clients working with me, we would also do this in a spreadsheet and / or a values inventory like the Values Inventory Assessment (VIA)).
Aligning goal-setting and committed action with values. After clarifying values, it is important to monitor how your actions and behaviors align or sync with them. I worked with a spreadsheet-loving client who gave me the idea to use a spreadsheet to make this process more straightforward and quick as compared to long-form journaling. Given that my motto is if it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist, a quantitative approach really resonates with me at least as another piece of data.
For certain decisions, you can then actually rate how values are aligned for different decisions to have a percentage alignment score for different choices. Most of my clients aren’t this data-driven, but a simple weighted average rating can provide some objective data to assess how well your goals and actions are aligning with your values.
Ideally, when you’re trying to decide how to act or which goals to set the questions sound like:
What are the most important valued domains and values in play right now?
What actions are consistent with those values (or move me towards them) and which ones are inconsistent (or move me away or block my progress towards them)?
What is a specific, measurable, articulable, relevant, and time-based goal that I can set for action in this area?
What is a strategic action plan for this? (Here you are considering barriers to action and reaching your goal and mechanics of changing behavior. It really helps if this is informed by behavioral psychology and neuroscience)
Start knocking down walls and taking action. Then, you are basically setting strategic goals to increase values-based living and knocking down barriers to values-based action. Yet in the end, the reality is the same as the Nike slogan, you’ve got to JUST DO IT – the stuff that matters to you, that is. No one else will! (For these actions, sometimes less is more, smaller is better. Later in this article, I discuss the “tiny” steps principle of change.)
What Are Some Important Things to Remember About Values?
Our values can change over time, of course, but many will persist forever. Also moment-to-moment, you may notice that some values are a bigger priority than others. How I live and act in line with my values will likely differ depending on the context and situation.
For example, I may emphasize different parenting values if my children are in physical danger than when they are upset about a bad grade. When I testify in court on behalf of a client, I may emphasize different values than I would with my client in a coaching session.
These are two different concepts. Goals can be attained, checked off, achieved, and completed. There is an endpoint. Values are guiding principles. There is no endpoint – they are continuous and ongoing.
Let’s take the life domain of parenting. Being a parent is a goal, not a value. Once you have a child, technically, you are a parent. However, if you want to have a close, loving, caring, and supportive relationship with your child, that is not a goal; it is a value.
To be that kind of parent, you must make day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions to act consistent with those values. I find that aspect of values empowering. I can always be working on my values to be a loving parent. When I mess up, it is not a fixed, end-point. I can still choose in the next moment to comfort and apologize to my child and continue living in line with my values.
When comparing the process to navigation:
Values are like the points on a compass (e.g., west). Goals are the place you’re going to (e.g., Denver).
You can’t get to Denver (goals) without figuring out which way is West first (values clarification). And you can never obtain or achieve West as an endpoint – the directions on a compass are an infinite loop.
Values are also not rules or beliefs about how we “should” act or behave or what we “should” want. Values are qualities of action that are FREELY CHOSEN.
This is NOT about deciding what you think you could or should hypothetically achieve or what you or others think you deserve.
Values clarification can often be tricky because your mind gets in the way with all of the rules, stories, and judgements. (If you can, try to pause, notice, and acknowledge them with curious detachment while continuing with the exercise).
This process involves real magic wand thinking: if we could remove all of the internal and external barriers, forget about what other people think, feel, or do about what you want, what kind of human would you want to be? How do you want to act and behave?
One of my favorite clients for high performers in coaching is: What would you do and how would you behave if I told you that, all the experts agree in the world agree, you ARE the best in the world at what you do? No questions. So, we’ve taken imposter syndrome and lack of confidence out of the equation just for a moment to dream. The critic will circle back, but, in that moment, focus on designing the life you want.
They don’t depend on what others do or don’t do.
Values don’t require other people to do or not do anything. This is so important.
Rob Archer, a colleague of mine from the UK, wrote about the importance of understanding that our values are not a statement of what we want or need from others. They are not dependent on how others respond to us.
This is a critical part of values-clarification because many of us base our choices on what other people will think, feel, or do — all things that we have no absolute control over.
Although I could potentially take values-based action that might demonstrate things to another person that could possibly affect or influence what they think, feel, or do, it’s not within my absolute control. This also means if you set a goal that depends solely or mostly on another person thinking, feeling, or doing something, you’re in trouble.
For example, if my child has come in from school slamming his bookbag, I may choose to lean into my values of kindness, patience, and compassion and give him space or support. If he ends up snapping at me, it doesn’t affect that my action was in line with my values and my next action can be as well even if that is to set a limit. I am not loving or kind so that he will do something for me.
I am choosing these actions for myself. They don’t depend on his actions. If I end up acting inconsistent with my values, I can always then pivot and apologize for my behavior, which shifts me back in line with my values. (And so can he, and he’s more likely to if that’s what I model for him).
When you can step back and think about your actions and goals in this way, it is so freeing! Mistakes become learning opportunities for further action next time.
What Is the Purpose of Values Clarification?
Clarifying your values is like orienting a compass to read a map. Both help you get where you’re going. If you don’t use them to guide you, you will get lost.
Before you plan a hike or journey, you have to figure out which direction you need to go. When you hit roadblocks on a hike or in life, if you haven’t oriented your compass, then you could try to walk around the roadblock which could get you lost in the woods. If you know what direction you’re going, you can always reorient there and continue the journey no matter what comes up. You can also always stop and check the compass to see whether you’re still headed in the right direction.
Values-based action is often driven by tiny steps, not big leaps. Humans love to do things and make forward progress. However, most high achievers try to set goals that are too big given the realities of the situation.
Substantive change is a process and one that is built upon many tiny steps one at a time. When you start focusing on your values-based actions in this way, you can do incredible things.
A values-based focus on your actions even transforms your mistakes because values are ongoing and never-ending. When you feel stuck, the question is: In this moment, what is one thing that I could do right now that will help me move towards what matters to me? If it’s possible to act, you keep acting in alignment with your values.
If it feels too big, break it down into smaller goals. Dopamine production is sustained better by little wins, not big ones.
The more data collect; the better it works. If you mess up, the mistake is data about how you could do it differently next time. Your mistakes are just grist for the mill.
Will Pursuing My Values Help Me Change My Brain & Behavior?
Yes. Some neuroscientists believe so.
Behavior change is rooted in reinforcement learning. When I perform a particular behavior in a particular context and it is rewarded, then that behavior and context are now paired with a reward value for later repetition. (And I will save this for another article, but what our brain finds rewarding would likely surprise you. Our brain is motivated more by the avoidance and escape of pain even than the pursuit of pleasure or even human connection. We can get a dopamine hit from quitting!)
Without going into details on the activity of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system, the bottom line is that when a behavior is rewarded it activates the reward system in the brain. The “wanting” part of motivation is then primed by that same system. This is why it is so hard to replace new behaviors with old, overlearned ones. We can get the dopamine boost from the old ways even if they don’t technically “work” for us long term.
Where do values come in? Current research on behavior change indicates that there are connections to our prefrontal cortex and those thoughts, memories, and beliefs that comprise our sense of self and identity, which is distinctive to humans. Some researchers believe that when we pursue goals and actions that are in line with our values – who and how we want to be in the world – we will likely be more successful in behavior change.
The research shows that values-linked goals are likely more successful than values-neutral or values-counter ones.
I’m planning more content soon to discuss how values-based time-blocking can even make you more productive!
Interested in Working on Values Clarification?
Here are some links to some values clarification exercises that go along with Russ Harris’ leading book on ACT, the Happiness Trap. To access these, you must login to Russ’ website. If you need help in this area, a therapist or coach who uses the ACT therapy or coaching model could be helpful.
Values Bullseye – This worksheet helps you determine how you’re doing in several key life domains.
Quick Look at Values – This is a list of 60 common values with a rating system.
Good Project’s Values Sort – This is an online values card sort program that can help you identify your overall important values.
Think2Perform’s Values Sort – This is another values card sort.
Video on Values – Here is video discussing the importance values from Dr. Russ Harris.
Values Based Questionnaire – This is the Values-Based Questionnaire adapted from Dr. Kelly Wilson’s work.
Values in Action Questionnaire – The VIA survey is one of the more robust values clarification questionnaires. There are options for a comprehensive and Top 5 survey.
(Please note: this is not intended as a therapy exercise or to provide any type of mental health or medical advice. Russ Harris notes that his book will likely yield the best results with a trained ACT therapist or coach.)
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Berkman, E. T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28.
Harris, R. (2011). The Happiness Trap.
Rangel, A., & Hare, T. (2010). Neural computations associated with goal-directed choice. Current opinion in neurobiology, 20(2), 262-270.
Prochaska JO, DiClemente CC, Norcross JC. In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. The American Psychologist. 1992;47(9):1102–1114.
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