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Identify your values to build better habits

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Do you regularly set new habits, only to struggle to keep them? If so, you are not alone, so please don’t think something’s wrong with you!

If you assume you would be better at forming long-lasting habits if you only had more willpower, please know that willpower is not an infinite resource, and each of us starts using ours up the minute we have to make a decision in the morning, whether that’s about what to eat or whether to snap at our partner/kids/coworkers.

And if you think the jet stream of abandoned habits trailing behind you is because you’re just not motivated enough, please know that taking consistent action builds motivation, not the other way around. And one way to take consistent action is to tie those actions to your values.

When you know what your values are, you are better able to tap into true sources of motivation, because you can take actions that are based on your values, rather than simply setting goals that are based on external should’s and shouldn’ts.

What do I mean by values?

First, let me tell you what I don’t mean. Values aren’t morals or ethics, and they also aren’t things — in other words, you might have a family heirloom that you value, but that’s not one of your values.

Goals: What you want to have, complete, achieve or do 


Values: The personal qualities you want to embody in your actions, the sort of person you want to be, the way you want to treat yourself and everyone/everything around you 


Setting goals is a key component of changing habits, but before I talk about setting goals, I want to talk about determining your values.

The handout “A Quick Look at Your Values” from Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” is the one I share with clients. It guides you to identify which values are most important to you right now. Narrowing down a list of 60 values to your top three can feel very hard, and that’s OK. There will be values you identify with that may have risen to the top a few years ago, or may rise to the top a few years from now. Just because “patience” isn’t in your top three right now doesn’t mean you think it’s fine to be impatient.

A brief word about goals

Many people confuse goals and outcomes, but they are quite different. You have direct control over progress toward your goals via the actions you take, but you don’t have direct control over progress toward desired outcomes. Or, more specifically:

Goals should be things toward which you can take direct, concrete action, like eating more fruits and vegetables, going to bed on time, or taking a walk after work.

Outcomes are possible results of the actions you take toward your goals, such as increased strength, decreased stress or improved blood sugar. These are less predictable.

When setting values-driven goals, the values typically come first, and the goals come second. As you do this, you’ll also want to consider the four major Life Domains:

Work and education: workplace, career, education, skills development, etc. 


Relationships: partner, children, parents, relatives, close friends, co-workers and other social 
contacts

Personal Growth/Health: may include religion, spirituality, creativity, life skills, meditation, 
yoga, nature, exercise, nutrition and/or addressing health risk factors like smoking, alcohol, 
drugs or disordered eating 


Leisure: how you play, relax, stimulate or enjoy yourself with activities for rest, recreation, fun 
and creativity 


In this Bull’s Eye exercise (also from Russ Harris), you’ll see what looks like an archery target representing the four major life domains.

The worksheet gives you space to write down how your values relate (or could relate) to each domain. Then it asks you to place an X on the bull’s eye to represent how close you are to living your values in each domain.

Are you behaving like the person you want to be, or is your behavior far removed from how you want to be. Are you walking your talk? 


Why values can motivate habit change

I’m going to turn to therapist Russ Harris again for a few definitions of values:

“Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life.”

“Values describe what you want to do and how you want to do it — how you want to behave towards your friends, your family, your neighbors, your body, your environment, your work, etc.”

“A value is a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never reaches an end.”

You can live your values every day, forever. A goal, on the other hand, is something you can eventually achieve or complete. There’s a box you can check off, a line item you can cross out.

I’ll share a few examples of how values — and values-driven goals — can apply to health and well-being goals, as well as how values can apply across your life domains, but first, here’s a great video from Russ that explains the difference between values and goals:

How self-care as a value applies to goals

Here’s another way of looking at values versus goals. Let’s say you identify self-care as a value, and two of your values-driven goals are to add an extra serving of vegetables to dinner and to do some gentle stretches after you wake up each morning, if in a year you look back and see that you have done these things consistently, and they are now solid habits, you might fairly say that you achieved your goals — but self-care doesn’t stop being your value.

Because you value self-care, you’ll and will keep making choices, and perhaps setting new goals, that help you continue to live that value. This is important, because while goals can sometimes feel challenging or far off in the distance, you can live your values every day. (Preventing chronic disease is a goal, while self-care is a value.) And even more than that, your values give you purpose.

If kindness is a value, this can motivate you to nourish your body by eating nutritious food and moving it regularly — but you wouldn’t choose types of physical movement that feel punishing or try to adopt a rigid, restrictive diet that made it challenging to share meals with friends.

Tapping into your values to find your motivation is an example of intrinsic motivation, in other words, motivation that comes from within you, rather than from external factors such as competition or nagging from a doctor or loved one. Values make life worth living. Here’s a video on the choice point, which has to do with making decisions that will move you closer to your values.

Applying values to your life domains

Here’s an example of how values can apply across your life domains, and tie into multiple goals. Let’s say independence is one of your values. That can cover a lot of ground: independence of thoughts and ideas, financial independence, physical independence, and so on.

If you value being physically independent for as long as possible, you might set goals around eating enough protein and moving your body every day so you preserve your muscle mass, stay flexible, and improve your balance. Even when you reach a specific goal — joining a gym, adding some protein-rich breakfasts to your repertoire — you still value your independence and will keep making choices, and perhaps setting new goals, that help you continue to live that value.

Setting the goal to prepare more meals at home will save you money, which can help you be financially independent, especially if you also set a goal to save and invest as much money as possible and minimize how often you shop based on want instead of need. 


Setting the goal to be a lifelong learner can help you keep current on your skills and knowledge, making it easier to stay employed or even advance in your career, which also contributes to financial independence.


Setting the goal to nurture meaningful connections with friends and family means that you have a number of people who have you back at any time, helping you if you ever have a short-term need to depend on others, which can ultimately foster long-term independence.

Connecting your goals to your values can make it easier to take consistent actions, even when life throws a curveball. For example, if you value independence but you come down with the flu, you’ll give yourself permission to not go for your daily walks because rest is what you need to get well, but you’ll resume your walking habit once you feel better.

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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