5 Step Personal Values Discovery Process

Introduction & Why Values? 

I’ve spent a lot of time studying values and have come to believe (over a long period of time) that identifying and living your values may be one of the most powerful ways to live a truly fulfilled life. Values, when done right, can serve as an ever-present, internal compass to guide your decision making – a framework for living life that we so desperately crave, but are rarely taught.

To demonstrate the power of values, I want to share a study highlighted in the book, A Liberated Mind, authored by Stephen Hayes. Hayes is a leading psychologist in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), a therapeutic approach centered on developing psychological flexibility with a focus on identifying and living your values. 

The study takes place in Sweden, where public health workers (e.g. nurses, care providers for the workers, daycare workers) experience over 2 months of sick leave a year, often ending up on full time disability. The two primary reasons for these high levels of sick leave are chronic pain and stress or burnout related to their work. 

The study split high-risk public health workers into two groups: 1) a group that received free medical treatment aimed at improving aspects of their lives like stress, exercise, sleep, diet, etc. and 2) a group that received the same free medical treatment and 4 hours of ACT training focused on helping the public health workers identify what they really wanted in life and the barriers that kept them from living their values. 

Over the next 6 months, the first group of public health workers missed 56 days of work due to sick leave. The second group missed on average only half a day of work over the same 6 month period. That’s a 99% reduction in sick leave resulting from the inclusion of just 4 one-hour sessions of values based work, an almost miraculous improvement. 

The end of a year is a great time for reflection. While doing your reflection this year, try incorporating your values into the process. Though dentifying values may seem like an ambiguous task (and often is), try starting with the 5 step process below to identify your values in a more personal and actionable way. I wish I had been exposed to this process earlier in my life. 

Step 1: Journal entries

Values are most powerful when identified from within, not created out of thin air or selected from a laundry list of common values. Fortunately, this internal value identification process can be done through a mini journaling and synthesis exercise. 

As a first step, find a quiet place to reflect and do a mini journaling session for each of the four questions below. Give yourself 15 to 30 minutes for the journaling exercise; this is the bulk of the value discovery process. 

  • What qualities do I embody when I’m at my best?
  • What are non-negotiables in the people I surround myself with? 
  • What will help me live a great life? 
  • What will I do to achieve that great life? 

Partial example of journal entries. 

Step 2: Underline the most common, meaningful words

Now that you have your four introspective journal entries, go back through each entry and underline the words or phrases that show up the most often and feel most meaningful to you. 

Partial example of underlining key words from each entry. 

Step 3: Begin bucketing and prioritizing

On a new page, create a list of the most common, meaningful words you’ve underlined and begin bucketing them together into themes. For example, you can bucket words like ‘perseverance’ and ‘train hard’ together. Take a look through the list you created and mark the words, or bucket of words, that feel most important to you and your life. 

Partial example of pulling out the key words, bucketing, and marking the most important ones. 

Step 4: Further distill the list & synthesize

Take the words you marked and further distill them into a final set, pulling in any relevant words from your journal reflections. Then synthesize each set into a single value that means something special to you. For example, a bucket of words that includes ‘prioritize people,’ ‘there for others,’ ‘caring,’ and ‘empathetic’ can be combined into a single value of ‘show up for others.’ 

I recommend aiming for a final set of values in the range of 3 to 5; any more than that and each value becomes harder to truly live and prioritize. And remember, this is only a first pass and can be altered as you have more time to reflect. 

Example of further synthesizing the final value set into four personal values: show up for others, be true to myself, focus on positive impact, and live a fun, healthy life. 

Step 5: Tie values to behaviors

Once you have your value set (and after you pat yourself on the back for even having a value set in the first place), start thinking about how your values tie in to your everyday behaviors. For each value, reflect on one behavior you regularly do in your life that reinforces the value and think of one new behavior you could add to your life that would further reinforce the value. 

For example, if your value is ‘show up for others,’ an existing behavior (or ritual) might be showing up for bi-weekly family calls even if you’re busy or tired and a new behavior (or habit) might be calling a friend while you’re out on a walk. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. 

Hope you find this process useful! 

Feel free to share how it went for you in the comments.

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