Your value system acts as your internal GPS – consistently pointing you in the right direction. It helps you to make decisions, course correct when you’re off track, and live a more authentic and fulfilled life. In other words, you don’t want to be without it!
I’m going to assume if you’re reading this article that you’ve already done the vital inner work of identifying your own unique set of personal values (if not, then this is a great place to start). But bear in mind that this is just the first step. Because your values mean nothing if you’re not making a consistent effort to live by them.
Which begs the question – how to live by your values?
It may be that you’ve just identified your values and want a better understanding of how you’re currently living by them or falling short. Or, you may simply want tips to bring about more of them in your life.
On the other hand, you may be clear on your values in theory, but find that you’re struggling to act on them consistently. This can ultimately lead to feelings of stress, frustration, or lack of purpose.
So, if you’re feeling out of kilter and want to check you’re walking the walk (not just talking the talk), then read on!
How Do You Know If You’re Living By Your Values?
Now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it’s something we all need to hear: actions speak louder than words.
What do I mean by this, exactly? Well, you can tell everyone in the room that your health is important (and maybe even convince yourself in the process). But if you’re regularly rocking into bed at 2 am and relying on highly processed ready-meals, then I hate to break it to you… Your health simply isn’t as important to you as you like to think it is.
So what is the key to uncovering what you truly value?
In general, what you value can be found right in front of you in your daily routine. It’s what you regularly spend your most precious resource on – time.
For instance, if Family is one of your values, then think about how much time you’re actually spending with them day-to-day. Do you make the effort to have a sit-down meal in the evening? Prioritise quality time together? If you’re regularly getting home late each night because you ‘couldn’t get out of the office’, then family time isn’t your top priority right now. Whether you’ll admit it to yourself or not, you’re just making excuses.
This might be initially hard to accept. ‘No, I really couldn’t get away on time!’ I hear you protest, ‘It’s something I know I need to get better at.’ But the truth of the matter is that we always have a choice, and our decisions today are what matter most. If things are truly important to us, then we will make them happen. Or, we’ll do everything in our power to make the very best of the situation at hand.
In our example of Family as a personal value, this might mean having a self-imposed deadline for leaving the office every day. Or, even if you’re home late, at least taking the time to read your kids a bedtime story.
What If You’re Completely Out of Alignment With Your Values?
Let me just start by saying that I can really relate to this question.
When I first identified my values, one of the more surprising ones to emerge was Courage. But having suffered with OCD since childhood, my life was characterised by anything but courage. My daily routines told me without a shadow of a doubt that what I truthfully prioritised was safety and stability. I avoided situations that would trigger my fears. And, as a consequence, my world had become very small.
When you’re living the opposite of your values, there may well be self-limiting beliefs and other hurdles to overcome, but change is possible.
Living in alignment with your values can require major life changes. For instance, aligning my actions with my values meant going vegan – something which radically altered my lifestyle. However, change can also involve lots of tiny steps in the right direction. Courage certainly wasn’t something which came very naturally or easily to me, and is still something which I face my ongoing internal battles with.
Remember to approach this process with self-compassion, and don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you’re off-track. Having this kind of self-awareness is a huge first step in itself, and is key to making necessary changes.
When you find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a therapist or trained professional who can help guide you through the process.
7 Steps To Make Sure You’re Consistently Living By Your Values
If your mind is already on overdrive as to where you are and aren’t in alignment with your values, then I hope that by going through the below process, you’re able to get a better grasp of your value system and find more ways to bring it to life.
#1 Know your values
It sounds obvious, but first and foremost, it goes without saying that you must have a real understanding of your values if you want to intentionally live by them. Perhaps you already have a vague notion of what you value, but you’ve never taken the time to sit down and truly get clear on them.
We all have a tendency to rush around on the surface of our lives. But sometimes, no matter how much we take on or burn ourselves out, we’re going around in circles or ploughing ahead in the wrong direction entirely. All because we haven’t established our values to guide us.
If you haven’t already, then make sure to check out my personal values exercise and workbook, which will help you to get crystal clear on what’s important to you. By undergoing the simple exercise of writing your values down, you give them more weight and importance. This crucially distinguishes them from the endless stream-of-conscious thoughts running through your head. It also allows you to revisit them when you need reminding of them most.
#2 Get emotionally invested in your values
Once you’ve established your top 3-5 priorities, the key to living by them is to get emotionally invested in them. The secret rocket fuel to bring your values to life is to write a personal values statement. This involves jotting down a short piece about why each value is significant to you as an individual – the more personal and emotive you can make it, the better.
For example, I define my core value of Courage as follows:
Having suffered with OCD and health anxiety as a child, courage in the face of fear is so meaningful to me. Fear has traditionally stopped me in my tracks and held me back from living my best life. But I’m not a child anymore and I can choose to act despite fear. Going forward, I vow to take massive action, even in the face of self-doubt and anxiety. Even if I embarrass myself or fail spectacularly with my efforts. I will always be so proud of myself for taking risks and getting out of my comfort zone, no matter the outcome.
I’ve also made a note of one of my favourite inspirational quotes from J.K.Rowling:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
This is powerful because Courage as a core value is now completely personal to me and my own unique story. It also helps to rewrite my limiting beliefs around perfectionism and feeling like I must be competent at everything I do.
When you read your values back and they make you feel something, that’s where the real magic happens. Until this point, they’re really just empty words on a page that don’t have very much to do with you. So make sure you don’t skip this step!
#3 Find some concrete examples of where you’re currently living by your values
Now that you’re feeling passionate about your values, it’s helpful to make sense of how they’re currently showing up in your life.
As an example, Creativity is one of my values, and part of my morning routine is to spend a set amount of time writing. This is fulfilling for me because I’m truly living and breathing this value – Creativity is now an established part of my day-to-day life.
You can usually identify where your values show up because things just seem to flow when you’re in alignment. If there are areas of your life – whether that be at work, home, or how you spend your free time – where you feel deeply fulfilled, then this is a great sign you’re living your values in action.
So whether it’s a cornerstone habit in your daily routine or a defining moment where you stood up for one of your values, identify these and write them down.
#4 Identify any areas where you’re out of alignment
Now for the flip side of this exercise – identifying where you may be out of alignment with your values.
Whilst I’m more aligned with Creativity today, there were many years where I wasn’t. I was in love with the idea of being a writer and fantasised that one day I’d publish a book. No doubt, during this time, I’d have told myself with absolute sincerity that Creativity was essential to me. And yet I barely even picked up a pen or typed a sentence on a keyboard!
I had to swallow this unpalatable truth before I could make meaningful changes to bring more Creativity into my life.
When you’re out of alignment with your values, it can lead to feelings of frustration and stress, but it can also cause deeper-seated feelings of emptiness and unfulfilment. This might show up in the form of procrastination or unhealthy relationships with trivial distractions like online shopping, trash TV or fast food.
I’ll just reiterate to treat yourself kindly at this stage. When you address your shortcomings, it can be so easy to beat yourself up, which only ends up making you feel worse about yourself. So try to approach this exercise with curiosity rather than judgment.
#5 Rate yourself on each of your values
This may sound a bit crude, but once you’ve identified the ways in which you are (and aren’t) living by your values, I find it’s really helpful to give yourself a quick rating on each value.
Draw a circle, pop your values in each segment, then rate yourself on that value on a scale of 1-10 (see the image above for an example of what I mean). This gives you a high-level, concrete overview of how aligned you feel at any given point in time.
It’s a great way to visualise what is working well for you, as well as areas in which you’re struggling. Perhaps you could take some of the wins from your higher-scoring values and apply the same methods to the ones you’re struggling with. If you do this exercise regularly, it also gives you an insight into how your alignment fluctuates over time.
Knowledge is power, so I like to revisit this quick exercise every month or so. This allows me to check in with myself and get laser-focused on the actions I need to take, which brings me nicely on to my next point.
#6 Put together an achievable action plan
Having rated yourself on your personal values, it’s time to take action!
When you write your personal values statement, I always suggest thinking about the daily actions you want to commit to in order to truly live by your values. Just remember – the key is not to overwhelm yourself. Small wins gain momentum.
For example, with my value of Health, I had originally committed to going to the gym a set number of days a week. In reality, I was finding this hard. Some days, I was simply too achy to get anything out of my workouts. But by not going, I felt like I wasn’t living up to my values and quickly became demotivated.
As such, I changed the daily action to either a thirty-minute walk OR a gym session. Getting exercise every day, I realised, was enough. I had been putting too much pressure on myself by insisting that being healthy had to look a certain way. This helped me to feel remotivated about my value – making it more sustainable and enjoyable.
If you’re struggling to stay committed to your personal value action plan, it’s always a good idea to work out why. What roadblocks or resistance do you face? Can you make it easier for yourself to succeed? Or can you take some of the pressure off and make it more enjoyable?
Whatever action you choose, the main thing is consistency. So it needs to be something you can build into a habit and feel genuinely good about. Try a habit-tracking app like Streaks to keep yourself accountable, and remember to regularly reward yourself for sticking to your action plan.
Once you’re achieving consistency, you should find that these behaviours begin to become more instinctive and ingrained. And, when you’re fully flowing with your value system, things can’t help but fall into place as you go after bigger and better things.
#7 Be open to the possibility that your values may change
Finally, if you find that you’re consistently struggling to live by one or more of your values (e.g. regularly scoring a 4 or less on the wheel), then it’s worth doing some inner investigation to check whether your values have changed.
While some of our values will be a permanent fixture throughout our lives, it’s important to remember that we change as people – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! In reality, our value system can’t help but shift over time, and we should remain adaptable and open to this possibility. Particularly after intense periods of growth or major life events, it’s completely normal to outgrow your values.
For instance, it may be that Achievement was one of your values in your twenties, because during this time you were investing a lot of your time and energy into growing your career. However, now that you’ve had children and want to enjoy family life, Balance overtakes this as your new personal value.
In other instances, it may be that your values haven’t changed, but that you need to make some serious life changes in order to live by them more authentically.
Whatever the reason, be honest with yourself so that you can endeavour to embrace your values more fully moving forward.
Take Action on Your Values for More Authenticity & Alignment
Identifying your values is the first step towards a life of intention, but it’s not a one-off exercise. Just like the best relationships require real work and dedication, so do your values. It’s worth revisiting them often to check in with yourself, allowing you to course correct when you find yourself out of alignment.
And beware, because what you value isn’t always what you think you value or what you say you value. What you value is what you spend your time and energy on. In truth, these can be wildly different things.
If you can make your values meaningful to you and commit to daily actions that embody them, you’ll be well on the way to an empowered and purposeful life. But if you’re still struggling, check out these tips for how to be more intentional with your time. And, for more on intentional living, explore my full guide here.
How do you stay aligned with your personal values? Is it ever a struggle? And if so, how do you successfully get back on track? I’d love to hear from you!