Everyone lives their life by some sort of internalized moral code, but many people don’t take the time to sort out what they really believe in. Because of this disparity, we often feel conflicted when deciding how to make regular choices about time, money, and personal decisions.
One definition of integrity is how closely your life aligns with your values. In other words, do you do what you say you do? Do you live your life according to what you believe in?
This definition is somewhat incomplete, because it allows for you to do pretty much anything you want to do (even harm other people, which most of us would not consider to be a good thing). But there is still some truth to the idea that integrity relates to how you live by the standards you have set. If you don’t do what you say you do, how can you say you practice integrity?
Therefore, it’s important to spend some time examining your life to determine your own personal, “most important” values. Choosing the ones that are most important will help you learn more about who you really are, because when it comes to values, you can’t have it all.
Instead, most people will have somewhere between 4-8 primary values that best reflect who they are and what means more to them than anything else. So, how to get started? Here’s a couple of ideas.
Decide What Matters to You
First, you may already have an idea of what your list of values should be. If so, you start by writing down your ideas in whatever way makes sense to you. You can use these ideas to make a finalized list of favorite personal values.
Important: find the ones that make the most sense to you, but don’t leave it at that. Instead, take those positive characteristics and use them to create a full statement that better reflects who you are.
A Few Impartial Suggestions
While it’s true that everyone should decide on their own values, I have a few suggestions. Adopting one or several of these will definitely set you apart from the prevailing norms of Western culture.
- Valuing experiences more than stuff. In short, I appreciate things I do more than things I buy.
- Adopting a flexible life vision. I want to know where my life is going and what the ultimate meaning is.
- Setting truly dramatic life goals. I set big goals—for me, visiting every country in the world, among other things. Your goals will be your own, but make them meaningful.
- Finding or creating meaningful work. Ask, where can I add value? How can I do work that I care about and helps others?
- Getting out in the world. For me, the opportunity to travel to other countries and cultures is a huge priority, so much that I consider it a personal value.
Values in the Real World – Time and Money
How do you apply your values in practice? Once you have the right values, it’s actually not that difficult. Every day you make choices, some big and some small. When you have to make a choice, start by thinking about each possible outcome in light of what you’ve set your values to be.
I personally do this whenever I buy something. Others aren’t that strict, and set a limit where they will begin thinking about values. For example, some people I know have set their limit at $10. Using this scenario, whenever you spend more than $10, you think carefully about your choice.
If the expense lines up with your values, make the purchase guilt-free—it’s important that you reward yourself for making good choices. But if it doesn’t line up, you may need to rethink the choice or risk feeling some dissonance over violating your values.
You also make many decisions related to your time. Thinking about values when you make time choices can be even more important than your spending choices.
As a self-employed person, I often face large blocks of unscheduled time. (This is how I prefer to work on my own, although when I work with groups I like deadlines and more scheduled times.) By facing the day ahead of me, or any two-hour block of unscheduled time, I often think about what I value and then determine how I’ll spend the time.
What about values you would like to have but don’t?
When you create your own list of values, make sure that most of them are not aspirational. In other words, most items on your list should not relate to values you would like to have but can’t honestly claim you live out. Instead, they need to reflect who you really are.
On the other hand, having one or two of your values based on who you want to become can be motivational. A while back I decided I wanted to adopt this statement into my values list:
I treat every person I meet as the most important person in the world.”
When I first heard that sentence, I liked it… but I also knew that it did not reflect my life at all. I do try to treat all people with respect, and I’ve maintained the habit of encouraging at least one person a day for a long time, but I can’t honestly say that I treat every person I meet as if they were the most important person in the world—not by a long shot.
I decided that I liked the statement enough to add it to the list, in part to challenge myself to treat people better, but also because I thought it was a truly remarkable value.
Stick with a few things that reflect who you are and one or two things you’d like to become. Make it your own and base your decisions on it.
But what if you change?
You will. That’s part of it. However, some of the core will stay the same. That’s why values are sometimes called core values in business settings—because businesses are expected to change in order to survive and prosper, but most successful businesses have attributes that are truly core and won’t change.
The same is true with individuals. By defining a list of personal values that are truly your own, you’ll be better prepared to make decisions. You’ll focus more on what matters. For many of us, that focus is truly the greatest value of all.