When we live our lives according to our values, incredible things can happen. But how do we know what really matters to us? Here, Gemma Jones explores how to connect with our true selves and create days that inspire and motivate
Like so many women I know, my days are endlessly busy. A perpetual merry-go-round of children, work, friends and family with the odd pause for a glass of wine and half of a box set when I’m lucky. If I’m honest, the thought of my values rarely troubles my diary planning.
‘Values are who you are in your own deepest nature, not who you think you should be in order to fit in. They’re like a compass that points us to our true north,’ says life coach Melli O’Brien.
As we journey through life, we often spend our days meeting targets, goals, expectations and the needs of our families and our jobs with relative ease. We fill up the hours quickly and this feels like living full, happy lives.
But, often, these busy lives are simply a cycle of tasks that need to get done, before we go to sleep, only to wake and repeat many of them all over again. A hamster wheel of productivity that never stops turning. We have created lives that are never-ending to-do lists, when really, we need to create to-be lists.
When we work out what we want to be, what we want our lives to count for, we get closer to our values. Only then can we start to create a life in which all our days are filled with activities that tap into those core ideals.
‘When the way you think, speak and behave match your values, life feels very good – you feel whole, content, in your power,’ explains O’Brien. ‘But when these don’t align with your personal values, then things feel… wrong. Life feels uneasy. You feel out of touch, discontented, restless, unhappy,’
Knowing our values helps us make good decisions about what we truly want in life. Respecting these beliefs guides our behaviour, giving us a personal code of conduct and helping us to live authentic, fulfilled lives. On a less lofty level, it can also help us to shape our days, allowing us to fill our time with activities and relationships that are good for us. By connecting us to what really matters, our values allow us to get the most out of our lives.
Roann Ghosh, a social entrepreneur and podcaster, has harnessed this way of thinking to create a new way of structuring his days. These ‘portfolio days’, as he calls them, prioritise variety and values over busyness.
‘This approach has had numerous benefits for me,’ says Ghosh. ‘It’s made me more creative and more confident, I’ve also rebooted my business, got fitter than ever and even started my podcast – a long held dream of mine. It’s also made me more grounded and resilient – and it’s helping me to get through these difficult times by offering variety and keeping me connected to what really matters.’
The benefit of knowing our values is two-fold. Not only does it help us to carefully craft a life filled with activities that connect us deeply to ourselves, but it also offers a guiding foundation which we can rely on when important decisions need to be made.
‘When we know our core values, life becomes far easier to navigate,’ says Carley Sime, writing in Forbes. ‘Whether we realise it or not, many of the decisions we make are often based on our values… simply put values are our puppet masters. They are core beliefs that underpin and guide our decision-making and behaviours.’
Connecting more closely with our deepest beliefs also helps us to make changes when we need to. If we know what matters to us, we can more easily understand why something doesn’t feel right, and we can act to fix a problem or shift our focus. ‘Being guided by our values may give us the courage to change situations which leave us misaligned, and inspire us to stay true to who we are or who we want to be,’ adds Simes.
Knowing your deepest convictions requires real self-knowledge – you need to be open to asking questions and brave enough to answer those questions with honesty, even if it is painful or not what you expected.
Finding your values
The following steps will take you through the process of finding out what your core values are. Remember this list is not definitive, nor set in stone – our thinking is always changing – so it’s good to do this at least once a year so you can recalibrate yourself and your focus.
To get started you will need a journal, a pen, somewhere quiet to think and an open mind.
1. Pay attention
Start by paying attention to the decisions you make throughout the day, from the big decisions to really small ones. Be curious, but not judgemental about what choices you make, and ask why you’re making them. What outcome are you looking for? Which decisions were easy? Which were hard? How did your choices make you feel? Write these down over the course of a week, so you have a record to use when you start the value-finding process.
2. Empty your mind
Take a deep breath and empty your mind. It might help to do a short meditation first, something focused on openness and acceptance. True discovery won’t come just from your conscious mind, so you’ll need to shut out the noise and be able to turn inwards.
3. Write freely
In your journal, quickly and without self-editing, start to write a list of values that really mean something to you. Don’t overthink them, don’t worry if you repeat them, just write things down as they occur to you. ‘They might not come at first, but they will. It’s difficult to ask yourself something like this when your ego has been doing all of the decision making for you – but it will come. Just breathe, look inwards and write,’ says Ghosh.
4. Make your values personal
‘When I did this exercise I wrote things like “being a force for good”, adventurous and present,’ says Ghosh. ‘But yours will be personal to you – they should be for you, not for your parents, boss or partner.’ If you need some prompts, see our list of Kintsugi values below to get you started.
5. Go deep
Once these values start to appear on the page, really interrogate them. Consider happy times, sad times, proud times and fulfilling times. Thing about when things were hard or uncomfortable, then reflect on the key moments in your life, both painful and joyful, what really stands out?
6. Peak moments
One great way to get to the heart of your values is this brilliant exercise from Melli O’Brien to recall a ‘peak moment’ when you felt totally and completely yourself. A time when you were in your element, when everything felt aligned, and you were happy and fulfilled. Describe this moment for yourself in detail and then identify the key values that this moment represents. In her own life, O’Brien describes a moment from a sharing circle on a retreat she was running. ‘There were tears of laughter and tears of joy…’ she says. ‘We all ended up crying together! It felt so intimate, real and deeply connecting. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing.’ From this moment, O’Brien wrote down the values that stood out from this peak – connection, making a contribution to people’s lives, being open, vulnerable and authentic, feelings of courage and a deep sense of aliveness – and then worked on these values through the process.
7. Groups and themes
By the time you’ve finished, you’ll likely have between 20 and 40 values. Now group them into sections – finance, work, family, health, creativity, personality and so on. Once you have these words or phrases together, pick one that best represents the group. For instance, you might have transparency, timeliness, candour, listening and truth in one group – for which the words either respect or integrity would be a good central theme. You can also use phrases if these speak to you more profoundly – such as leading with integrity or respect for myself and others, always. There are no rules, these are simply the words that make your heart leap with possibility and joy.
8. Hone and refine
Once you have worked your values down into sets of groups, write them all down and rank them in order of importance. This is often the most challenging part, and you may need to do it in multiple sittings, returning to the list over the course of a week. Don’t be afraid to go through the process several times over. Consider what values are essential to your life and to supporting your sense of self. Keep going until you have between five and ten values that make you feel excited and connected when you read them.
9. Time to apply
Now, it’s time to see how your values are represented in your life and start making changes to your life to align better with those values, rather than a one long dirge of emails, zoom meetings or household chores. It won’t be an instant change, this is an ongoing process that will change over time, so keep being open to your values and where they sit in your life.
Each morning, start by taking ten minutes to list and score all of your aims and activities for that day or week against your values. This is a great way to see if your day reflects your values. ‘If one of your values is to be more mindful about your energy, perhaps your seven back-to-back Zoom meetings are not the best way to uphold that,’ suggests Ghosh.
From here, you can work to slowly turn each day into a portfolio of activities that represent your true values. Ghosh suggests moving a lunchtime meeting so you can uphold your value to be healthy and cook a slow lunch instead. Or make emails or social media wait until after your morning meditation. ‘The key is to mix it up. Variety will energise you. Far from slacking off, portfolio days make us more productive, creative, a better colleague. Keeping it closely linked to your values will make you consistent and enrich you in more ways than you can imagine.’
10. Small steps
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to quit your job, move house or change your entire life to make a worthwhile change. You can be creative about how you organise your day and respond to colleagues, clients, friends and family in a way that doesn’t compromise you. Put limits on the length and amount of meetings, factor in real time for lunch, schedule exercise, walk your children to school every day, see friends for morning coffee, prioritise meditating, creativity and quiet time and so on. The changes may feel awkward at first, but as they bring you closer to yourself it will start to feel natural and empowering, and you will get better and better at planning a day that fills your heart with light and connection.
Kintsugi Values Your values are your own, don’t restrict them to what you think they should be. But if you need some inspiration, these are some of our favourites to get you started.
Deeper connections; service to others; creative self-expression; a commitment to spirituality; health and vitality; integrity always; excitement and adventure; curiosity and openness; surrounded by beauty; leading with compassion; always learning; to be mindful first; making a difference; living bravely; financial independence; a good example to others; creating change; meaningful relationships, putting family first; respecting the boundaries of myself and others; being in nature; leading with courage; at one with myself; empowering others; living with intention.