“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”. Annie Duke, How to decide
I have days when I wake up extra ambitious and I plan to do one thousand things. I will do my meditation practice, I will do a few exercises, I will eat a healthy breakfast and write a couple of pages while drinking my coffee. I will go for a run, I will finish that presentation for work and the two workshops I am planning with the team. I will transcribe the latest interview for the internal company newsletter. I will call my mom and grandma, I will check the recipe book and decide what I make for dinner. I will go shopping for groceries and stop at the chocolate store to pick up that order. I will buy fresh flowers. I will build a new Lego set with Sam and watch those two movies we have for the weekend list. I will read one chapter of my book and I will write down the notes immediately. I will do my weekly review. I will catch up on a few newsletters and a couple of articles from the HBR magazine that just landed in my mailbox two days ago. I will arrange my clothes and take care of the plants. I will cook dinner. We will play a board game after dinner. I will write my gratitude notes.
All these thoughts come and go in the first few minutes of my day and they won’t go silent until I write them down. The old fashion writing down that keeps me grounded and realistic. The black and white proof that the plans I have in my head are not real. They are hallucinations. No, you can’t do all those things in one day, says my realistic-mature-self to the monkey-mind-teenager version of myself. And most likely nobody can, unless they have a team of personal assistants, which you don’t. So get real and decide what’s most important for you today.
There was a time when this series of impossible events was my daily life. It was how I was running my days, in a rollercoaster of thoughts, unrealistic expectations and constant disappointment with myself that I was not doing enough. Back then, I had no realistic-mature-self to keep me grounded. And I was not writing things down.
It was somewhere in 2019 when I started to seriously think that what I was doing was not only unrealistic, but also not effective. I had just finished Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable, and there was one idea that kept on distracting me. If we want to be indistractable, we first need to understand what are we distracted from. In other words, what is it that we would rather be doing, and that would make us feel good about ourselves? What is it that we value most and that would bring us happiness and fulfillment long term?
I got stuck on this question and I hated it. It was difficult and uncomfortable, and there was no easy answer I could find. I soon understood that I had opened Pandora’s box and that what was following, was a long process of discovery.
As I started to spend more time on this question and explore what was most important for me, I learned about the concept of “personal values”. At first, it seemed such an abstract and philosophical concept, but as I reflected and observed my behavior in action, I realized that values are not at all abstract. They show up in what we do every day. Like an invisible wizard acting from the shadows, they inspire us to say yes to that volunteering project; they are behind every big and small decision we take; they are the reason why we sometimes choose to speak up, and other times we stay silent. They can empower us and show us the light at the end of the tunnel, but they can also make us feel miserable and unhappy about the choices we make.
To put it simple, values are one’s judgements of what is important in life. They can change depending on the life stage we’re in, but not radically. They are linked to who we are as personality, motivations, and shaped beliefs. Values are influenced by the culture we grew up in, by our family and environment. They are subjective and personal. My set of values will not perfectly match yours. Values are like the North Star, helping us find direction when we’re lost and providing a safety net for when we need to take decisions fast and do the right thing without thinking too hard.
We all make on average 35.000 decisions every day. Big and complicated ones like “I will take this new job and move to a new country with my family”, or small ones like “I will have fish for dinner, instead of chicken”.
Every decision we make consumes a bit of our energy and willpower, so having our set of core values clarified, can help us speeding up our decision process and reduce the chance of regretting it later.
Discovering our core values is a process and if you haven’t been through this process until now, don’t expect it to be fast and easy. It took me almost a year to get to a set of three core values that guide me in everything I do. I started from a long list that I continued to filter down and refine as I was observing and reflecting on my behavior in all areas of life. There are no personal values and professional values. There is only one set of values that we can see in action in everything we do.
When I first did the values exercise, I started from a list of around one hundred values; this list from Brené Brown is a good example. I thought about everything I cared for and I circled around 25 of them. Thinking about the goal of the exercise, to get to 2-3 core values, it seemed impossible. A week later, I came back to the list and tried to combine certain values that had something in common. I asked myself for each value at a time, “Why is this important for me?”
For example achievement, excellence, fulfillment, leadership, growth, learning, were all related to getting better, move forward, improve every day and making a difference. So after several attempts of refining, I concluded that growth is the core value that influences my sense of initiative and drive to get better and improve what I do in all areas of my life and all interactions. I am actually fearing stagnation and complacency and that shows in the way I sometimes react in interactions with people who are complacent or play the victim. Now I better understand that we are all different in many aspects and I don’t expect everyone to have the same drive.
Once I became aware of how important growth was for me, I could re-calibrate myself in my interactions with others. This is one of my core values and I don’t expect everyone else to feel the same way.
My second core value is love, and I discovered it through a similar process of filtering down, refining, asking why questions and reflecting. For me, one of the strongest manifestations of love is my family and the time we spend together. The real test of aligning what I was doing to my values, came when I realized that I was sacrificing a lot of the time with my family, for learning and self improvement. I was quick to subscribe to a new training, webinar, online course or book club, while the only time available for such activities, was in the evening or during the weekends, when I also wanted to spend quality time with my family.
The conflict between these two core values, could only be resolved with pen and paper and looking at the facts. How many hours do I spend for productive work, learning and self improvement, versus how much time with my family. When I looked at the facts, I felt ashamed. I was not living what I preached. I was not walking the talk. I was investing way more time in working and learning, than in playing and caring for the people I loved. Every time a new interesting opportunity came along, this was the new filter I was applying. If the time required for the new opportunity or challenge was taking away the time with my loved ones, I was immediately saying no, without any regret.
Lacking Alignment to Our Values
We don’t know how aligned we are with our values, until we get to a roadblock or to a bad decision that makes us suffer. It can be that you said yes to helping a colleague finish a project over the weekend, while you had plans to go see a football game with your kids. The moment came to go to the football game and now you had to tell the kids you couldn’t go anymore because you had this project to finish. When you see the disappointment on their face, you immediately regret your “good colleague instinct” and think “why did I do this? Family is the most important thing for me.”
Or imagine that your most important value is safety. But when the neighbors offer to take your children to the movies for their family movie night and they don’t put their seat belts on, you don’t say anything. You tell yourself, “it’s not far away, and they were already so kind to take our kids with them’’. But you don’t feel right, you have that heaviness in your shoulders and your stomach cringes.
When we are not aligned with what is most important to us, we feel that something is missing and we cannot really enjoy what we’re doing.