I generally think it’s a good idea to focus more on your values than your goals. But sometimes these can be difficult to tease apart. Values are ongoing patterns of committed action that you can do for the rest of your life. Goals are accomplishments that you can complete and check off your list.
The distinction still might be a little confusing, so let me give a few examples. Engaging in meaningful work is a value. Getting a promotion is a goal. Living a healthy lifestyle is a value. Losing 20 pounds is a goal. Being a loving and supportive partner is a value. Getting married is a goal.
Goals Can Be Helpful
Goals can be helpful because they can keep you on track with your values. It’s similar to going on a long hike. Values are the direction you are heading—maybe you want to keep heading east. Goals are the mountain peaks in the distance. Keeping your eyes on the mountain peaks can help keep you heading east.
Too Focused on Goals
In our culture, however, we tend to get super-focused on our goals and accomplishments. This can be a problem. If we are too goal-focused, we might not enjoy the journey that we go on to get to the goal. The time we spend actually completing the goal is usually pretty short—it might just be a single moment. It seems like a bad deal to only enjoy the destination and not the journey.
Also, when we are too goal-focused, we often experience a letdown after we experience a goal. Think about your own life—when you finally reached a long-awaited goal, it probably felt good for a little bit, but how long did it last? If you’re like most people, the satisfaction is short-lived, and pretty soon you’re searching for a new goal to accomplish.
Focus on Values
Focusing on our values can provide us with more consistent levels of satisfaction and meaning in our lives. Because values are ongoing—they don’t end—we can always connect with our values, and work to align what we are doing with our values. The more your actions and behaviors are aligned with your values, the better you will feel about what you are doing.
What are Your Values?
Sometimes, however, it’s tough to figure out what our values are. This is especially true in our culture that overemphasizes goals and accomplishments. Often, I will ask someone what their value is, and they will give me a goal instead. It can be hard to dig underneath the goal to figure out a person’s core values.
What is Your Goal in Service Of?
Here’s an exercise from Russ Harris that can help with this process. Let’s say you are having trouble figuring out what your values are. On the other hand, it’s probably pretty easy to get in touch with your goals. Maybe you want to lose 20 pounds, get promoted, get married, or make a ton of money.
So, let’s start with your goal. Take one of your most important goals, and ask yourself the following question: “What is this goal in service of?” Another question to ask is: “If you accomplished this goal, what would you have in your life that you really want?” If your answer is another goal, keep digging deeper: “What is that goal in service of?” “If you accomplished that goal, what would you have in your life that you really want?”
If you dig deep enough, you will likely hit one of your core values.
Making a Lot of Money
Here is an example from my own life: One thought that I’ve been having lately is that I want to make more money. Making more money isn’t really a value—it’s a goal. What is this goal in service of? For me, it’s about having safety and security for me and my family. That’s what I think having more money would give me in my life.
It has been helpful for me to get in touch with my value of having safety and security. I still might want to make more money, but there might be other things I could do to live a life of safety and security (besides making more money). Or, I might realize that I have a good amount of safety and security in my life already, and perhaps having more money won’t really take away the uncertainty that is a fact of life. In this way, connecting with my values even pointed out a direction for future growth.
It’s essential to connect with your underlying values, because getting caught up in your goals might actually steer you off course in your life. For example, if I was caught up with making more money (my goal), but I wasn’t in touch with the value underneath the goal, I might do things that weren’t actually in service of my values (e.g., spend the extra money I make on a vacation or a new car—things that wouldn’t actually increase my sense of safety and security).
Think about one of your current goals that is important to you. Ask yourself: “What is this goal in service of?” “If you accomplished this goal, what would you have in your life that you really want?” What is the core value that is underneath your goal? How might you focus on that value in your life, rather than getting caught up in your goal?