When committing to a new course of action it’s useful to distinguish between values and goals because they have different motivational properties.
- Goals can be achieved. This is why they motivate – we enjoy the feeling of purpose and progress this brings. Yet, once the goal is achieved what then? Very often we revert to our previous behaviour. This explains the diet industry. And why it is hard to get a taxi in New York in the rain*.
- Goals can’t be achieved right now. So they can be bad at motivating right now (when I need it). For example, I have a SMART goal to lose a half stone in weight in the next 2 months. The trouble is, I have had that goal for about 3 years…. The problem lies in the fact that whilst I cannot meet the goal today, what I can do is eat a piece of cake. So, when I see a piece of cake a question arises in my mind; can I eat the cake and still meet my goal? Then some uncertainty arises in my mind – maybe I can have both? Minds hate uncertainty and they will do almost anything to get rid of it. So what do you think I do to get rid of the uncertainty?
- Goals are powerful motivators. Humans are intrinsically goal oriented and our minds like the feeling of purpose which goals offer. Yet goals can be set without us really examining why. Once set, their gravitational pull can pull us away from the things we truly value. Hence, for about 10 years I busied myself pursuing promotions which I did not really care about. Whilst pursuing I felt busy and purposeful, but once achieved I felt empty and sad. I worked so hard to climb the ladder, only to find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall.
In contrast values have different motivational properties which can help us in many different ways.
- Values can never be achieved. So values retain their motivational properties long after a goal’s have been ticked off. Whilst my goal of losing half a stone could be achieved, acting in accordance with the value of health can never be. Is it important or not? If it is, then when will it cease to be so?
- Values can be lived in each moment. So, although Viktor Frankl was not free inside Auschiwtz, he was able to make the value of freedom important by choosing his response to the tyranny he saw. In this way, values can bring us powerfully into the present moment and, over time, can bring greater coherence to patterns of behaviour over far longer periods. This builds a much more powerful sense of meaning in life.
- Values are what we most want to stand for in life. They are how we want to be remembered and what we want to stand for in life. When we act in line with our values we act authentically and in alignment with our deepest motivations and aspirations. Maybe (like me) you have spent much of your life pursuing meaningless goals before realising that life is a musical thing – and we are supposed to sing and dance whilst the music plays…
*They knock off earlier because they meet their daily goal earlier