How to Live By Your Values This Year

A primer on staying connected to what matters

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If today was the last day of your life, would you be happy with how you’re about to spend it?

Steve Jobs famously said that he would ask himself this question each morning. I’ve found that continually asking this question is both one of the hardest and most valuable things you can do as a founder. 

It's hard because it's easy to get lost in the day-to-day grind of making your company succeed. It's valuable because the only way to make the stress worth it is to be working on something that matters to you. 

I learned this the hard way in the mid-2010s, when I was three years into running my first real business. What started out as a side project—a three-month hacker retreat in Costa Rica—had turned into a travel company doing half a million in annual revenue. However, as the business grew, I found myself in a role—and a life—that left me feeling unfulfilled.

In response to the pressures of building a bootstrapped business, I had become increasingly driven by loss avoidance. We made a few key decisions to make the business viable—raising prices and targeting higher-income customers—but these same decisions also moved us away from aspects of the work I had found meaningful and rewarding. 

Three years in, we had built a sustainable company, but one that I no longer wanted to run.

This happened because I'd lost touch with my values. Each individual business decision was economically rational but didn’t take into account what I ultimately wanted my life and work to be about. Altogether, they added up to a life that didn't work for me. 

If, instead, I'd been more in touch with what I wanted out of my life and work, I believe we could have built a business that was both viable and meaningful. But how can we stay in touch with our values as we go through the grind of building a company? 

Over the last several years, I've immersed myself in the values literature coming out of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and it’s been the most potent tool I’ve found for optimizing for meaning in life and work. 

In this piece, we’ll explore values in more detail and how they can help you stay connected to what matters, so you don’t end up with a business that works—and a life that you hate.

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What are values?

In ACT, we think of values as what we ultimately want our lives to be about. They’re about how we want to live our moments, knowing that we’ll die someday.

If you were to ask the average person about what they value, they might say something like, “work,” “family,” or “spirituality.”

In ACT, however, we don’t see these as values; we see them as valued domains—areas of life within which one can express any number of different values.

Since ACT comes from behavioral psychology, it approaches values as behaviors. As Jenna Lejeune puts it in her book, Values in Therapy, values are about “verbs and adverbs.” To get at a person’s values, you can ask:

  • What would you be doing if you were living meaningfully? (verb)
  • How do you want to show up to whatever you’re doing? (adverb)

For example, we might value loving openly in our family life or problem-solving creatively in our work life. In both of these examples, our values are about the actions we take and the intentions we bring to them.

Moreover, values are about things we move toward, not things we move away from. “Not being afraid” isn’t a value, but “living courageously” could be.

This is an important distinction, because a meaningful life isn’t one where we’ve successfully avoided threats; it’s one where we’ve chased after something worth chasing. 

It’s also important to note that values aren’t something you reason your way to. They aren’t moralistic, and they don’t require any rational justification. Values are about what gives you an experiential sense of meaning and purpose, not a philosophical position on what you think should matter in life or what someone else thinks is important.

Values are the ways of being and doing that, looking back from your deathbed, would make you think, “That was a damn good life.”

Values vs. goals

Another way we think about values in ACT is as meaningful life directions, whereas goals are milestones on the path.

If I were to ask you the question, “What do you most deeply want for your life?” you might come up with an outcome goal, such as:

  • I want to write a book.
  • I want to build and sell a business.
  • I want to find a life partner.

However, being overly focused on outcomes can get in the way of meaning-making and long-term motivation. This is because goals are always in the past or the future, never in the present.

If we’re focused on some idealized future state, we miss opportunities for meaning in this moment, and our lives become a means to an end. On the other hand, once we’ve achieved a goal, it’s in the past, and we no longer have something to orient towards.

Yet behind every goal is something we value. Perhaps you want to write a book because you value learning or contributing to the world. Maybe you want to build a business because you value autonomy or being able to support your family. A goal is only meaningful to us because it connects in some way to an aspect of life that we hold dear.

When we see our goals as just one milestone on a meaningful life path, each step we take can become a way to live out that value in this moment.

For example, rather than focusing on the far-off goal of writing a book—which can seem daunting and uncertain—you can instead find meaning in the day-to-day creativity involved in putting words on the page, or in how your understanding develops as you try and distill your ideas to share with others.

In this way, we can find meaning and enjoyment in the journey itself—which, in my experience, is the only way to sustain challenging work over time.

Moreover, when you do eventually accomplish a big outcome goal—like publishing a book—you still have your values to guide you. You can finish writing a book, but you can never “complete” values like learning, caring, autonomy, or contribution.

There’s another thing to know about goals: not all are created equal.

Dead-person goals

As mentioned above, values are about what we want to move toward, rather than what we want to move away from. Yet, many people set away-oriented goals, such as:

  • I want to stop procrastinating.
  • I want to drink less.
  • I want to quit YouTube/Reddit/Twitter/TikTok.
  • I want to care less about what other people think of me.

In ACT, we call these “dead-person goals,” because they are goals that a dead person can do better than a living person. A corpse doesn’t procrastinate, drink, or watch YouTube—they don’t do anything at all.

I often see high-performing clients come in with dead person goals that they’re trying to use for motivation. They say things like, “If I only could drink less, worry less, spend less time on Netflix, or fight less with my partner, then my life would be good.” 

In essence, they’ve created a cage where all of their behavior has become about avoiding what is “bad.” There are often so many of these rules that they can’t ever live up to all the standards they set for themselves.

To bring life to a dead-person goal, we ask the question, “What is doing less of {X} making room for? What are you hoping to bring more of into your life?”

Let’s explore what that looks like with the examples above:

  • I want to stop procrastinating so that I can do the work that is hard but matters deeply to me.
  • I want to drink less so that I can improve my health and spend more time on creative side projects.
  • I want to quit YouTube/Twitter so that I can be more present with my family and more focused at work.
  • I want to care less about what other people think of me so that I can take more risks in my life and chase what I really want.

In each of these examples, once we know what the original dead-person goal is making space for, we can drop the away-orientation and focus on moving toward what we care about.

This may seem like semantics, but it’s crucially important. 

When our behavior is primarily about trying to avoid something “bad,” it takes willpower to keep up and is draining over time. On the flipside, when we’re moving toward something we care about, the process is intrinsically rewarding and gives us energy.

This is why many people end up feeling like their career is running on fumes, with no gas left in the tank. Their lives and work become so driven by avoiding threat or chasing extrinsic rewards (money, status, and power) that they forget what it’s like to be pulled by meaning and purpose.

Ultimately, the more we contact our values in our work, the more fire we have to pursue them, leading to greater and greater patterns of values-aligned behavior in our lives.

Now that we know a bit about values, how can we put them into practice in our lives and work?

Values exercises

ACT has dozens of exercises around values, and here we’ll cover two of them that you can begin to implement in your life today.

The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot is an ACT exercise where we bring to mind a moment from the past that was particularly sweet or meaningful, then do our best to flesh out and savor that memory.

One of my sweet spots is a memory from our first trip at Hacker Paradise, the company I founded. It was a wild and creative time, with the energy of a month-long hackathon in the Costa Rican jungle, during which I was surrounded by good people working on interesting side projects. 

This experience stands out to me because this energy was what we lost when we started optimizing for financial viability and changed our offering. When I contact that memory today, it helps me remember to optimize for fun, creativity, and connection in my work. And indeed, when I finally left that company, the next project I worked on was all about wild side project energy—and it was amazing.

To do your own sweet spot, pick a moment where you felt a strong sense of meaning, connection, or aliveness, then close your eyes and reflect on it more deeply. You might explore it through questions like:

  • Where was I?
  • Who was I with?
  • What did I see/hear/smell?
  • What was I feeling?
  • What was important to me about this moment?

It’s helpful to pick an everyday moment that was particularly sweet or engaging, rather than a peak experience, like skydiving or closing a large deal. 

ACT therapist and trainer Lou Lasprugato—an ACT therapist and trainer—also has a Sweet Spot meditation on Insight Timer you can use if you’d like to try this exercise at home.

Values journaling

Values journaling involves reflecting at the end of each day on what you did and how it connects to what matters most to you. 

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes about this practice in her book, The Upside of Stress:

“Writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking… People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.”

From an ACT perspective, this makes sense: values are about seeing your behavior as in service of the things that you care about, and values journaling asks you to intentionally and proactively make those connections.

If you’d like to try this at home, it’s simplejust keep a daily journal reflecting on the question:

How did my behavior today connect to my values—to what I care most deeply about?

By asking this question, we not only begin to connect our values and our behavior, but also make it more likely that we’ll spot opportunities to express our values in our day-to-day lives.

The path forward

To close, I’ll leave you with two questions:

If you could choose, what would you most deeply want for your life?

If today was the last day of your life, would you be happy with how you’re about to spend it?

Perhaps you’re living in alignment with your values, and these questions bring a sense of meaning and contentment. Or perhaps you’re feeling out of sync with your values, and they are painful to consider.

Whatever your reaction, I hope that you keep coming back to questions like these, even when they’re uncomfortable. Understanding how we truly wish to live—and how that contrasts with our day-to-day reality—can show us what might we need to change or accept to move forward in our lives.

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about values from an ACT perspective, here are two books I’d recommend:

  • Values in Therapy, by Jenna Lejeune and Jason Luoma, is hands-down my favorite book on values and on ACT (and inspired much of this piece). It’s meant for clinicians, but it’s accessible to a lay audience.
  • The Art and Science of Valuing in Psychotherapy, by JoAnne Dahl, Jennifer Plumb-Vilardarga, Ian Stewart, and Tobias Lundgren, is a more theory-heavy book on values from an ACT perspective—not for the faint of heart.

If you’d like to go deeper, I also offer an 8-week experiential intensive—Mindful Values—that combines mindfulness practices with ACT-oriented values work. By the end of the course, you'll have a clearer sense of what's truly important to you and how to work with barriers that come up around embodying that more fully in your daily life.

Whatever your current work or life situation, there are ways to start living your values. All it takes is one step toward meaning to start moving in the direction of a well-lived life.

Casey Rosengren is a founder and executive coach based in New York. If you’d like to learn more about ACT and values-oriented coaching, drop him a note.

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@ninovizii over 1 year ago

How right am I setting my values?

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