Values and goals: For best results, make them match

Seated man playing guitar

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

People are often confused by the difference between values and goals. In this article, we’ll explore how you can tell them apart, and how you can use them to create more meaning in life. For best results, define your values and goals together, so that they match or reflect each other. That way, you’ll be sure to stay on track to live the life you want. 

So what are values?

Values are abstract

Values are abstract ideals or concepts. They’re broad, overarching beliefs or ideals that you hold.

Values may be concepts that you think society should be based on, such as equality, non-discrimination and freedom. Your values may also reflect how you think people should be treated. For example, you may believe in showing respect, compassion and empathy towards others.

And values can also help you determine what kind of person you want to be in everyday life. You may value commitment, reliability and self-determination. Or you may value enriching interests, rather than fleeting pleasures that can leave you empty and feeling at a loss. 

Values guide behaviour

However, values don’t describe the specific actions that will lead you to be a certain type of person. Instead, values act as a general guide or set of standards to aim for.

As values are abstract concepts, they only exist in your thoughts. If you want to live by your values, you need to put them into practice.

In other words, you need to work out how to apply your values to the specific actions you carry out day by day.

Goals are specific 

In contrast to values, goals are specific and measurable. They’re realistic plans that you make to get specific results within a certain time.

Ideally, you’ll set your goals in response to the values you hold. Goals therefore apply your abstract values to life in practical ways that will reflect your beliefs. In this way, you can foster values and goals that match and work together, to create more meaning in your life. 

Make values and goals match

If you set specific goals that are in line with your values, putting them into action will make it more likely you’ll follow your ideals.

As an example, perhaps you believe it’s important to build close relationships with family. So you decide to spend half an hour every day playing board games with your children. 

Firstly, is this decision describing a goal or a value?

Because this statement describes a specific action with a specific time frame, it’s a goal. However, this goal directly relates to your abstract value of nurturing family relationships. Playing with board games with your children is only one of many ways you could show this value in action.

But the value itself isn’t the goal to be achieved, or the action you’re going to carry out. The value is the ideal you want to live up to, which spurred you on to set the goal of playing with your children.

Goals can influence values

Even if you’re not consciously aware of your values, they still shape the goals you set, and how you behave. If you don’t know your values, you can often work them out from both the goals you set, and the way you act. You may notice that your goals seem to follow a few central concepts or ideals.

For example, you may prefer activities that are fulfilling or more meaningful.

By looking at those activities, you can work backwards and identify the values they exemplify, such as life satisfaction, creativity, and purpose. And of course, knowing these values will then influence other goals that you set in the future.

Or if you prefer adventurous activities rather than routine, you may value variety, challenge, practical problem-solving, stamina and persistence.

So the relationship between goals and behaviours on the one hand, and values on the other, goes both ways. Each can influence the other.

Define your values first

So does it matter whether you define your values or your goals first?

In reality, it’s more effective to define your values first for a number of reasons.

If you don’t know your values, you may set irrelevant goals. They may not really reflect what you believe is most important, or the kind of person you want to be.

In other words, your goals and values probably don’t match. And you’re using your values to live with intention

This can lead you to spending weeks, months or even years chasing after goals that, in the end, don’t fulfil you or make you proud.

You may even get caught up in pursuing goals to please others rather than yourself. This can happen when others with stronger beliefs override your desires or values.

Perhaps you don’t know what you believe in or can’t defend your values. Unfortunately, if you don’t decide what you want out of life, someone else will decide for you. And most of the time, it won’t be what you want.

So save time, energy and a lot of heartbreak, and identify your own values first. Then you’ll know why you’re pursuing certain actions.

The goals you set will be more relevant to how you want to live, and the kind of person you want to be. And because your goals will mean more to you, you’ll be more likely to follow through.

Little commitment = little follow-up

Because if you believe in a value strongly, you’ll want to live up to that ideal as best you can. So you’ll act in ways that make it clear that this value is important to you. 

In addition, you’ll resist acting against that value.

For example, if you believe in healthy living, you’ll resist the urge to stay on the couch for weeks at a time. And if you do fall into a sedentary streak, you’ll exert yourself to the utmost to start exercising and eating better again.

Living by a certain value means that you’ll set matching goals that direct your behaviour in the desired direction.  

So generally, to be successful, you need to know the values that underpin your behaviour. They provide you with the reason for your actions.

When values and goals don’t match

However, you could say you want to play with your children even though you don’t really want to.

Maybe you’re only concerned with impressing your partner or your in-laws with how good you are with the kids. But in reality, you don’t value family relationships as much as other activities you’d rather be doing.

That means your motives to keep playing regularly with your kids will probably be fairly weak. When you do play with them, you probably won’t show much enthusiasm. And you’ll always be looking for excuses to back out of your stated commitment.

But no matter what, your family will know the truth. As the old saying tells us, actions speak louder than words. Your family will soon notice that your stated values don’t match up with your actions.

In other words, that you’re being a bit of a hypocrite. 

So how committed you are to a particular value can affect how well you follow through with related goals. If a value isn’t a priority, it’s unlikely any goals that derive from this value will be important either. 

Values can be overridden

Of course, sometimes you can’t act in line with your values, the way you’d like to. All sorts of unforeseen factors can foil your best intentions.

Let’s say you believe in the value of helping others, and also in nurturing your child’s well-being.

Unfortunately, you’re too ill to help at the local school as promised, and also didn’t listen to your child properly when they were upset. But even though you couldn’t live up to your values in these particular circumstances, you can make amends. 

Because you value reliability and cooperation, you’ll let the school know you’ll help out another time. Because you value your child’s well-being, you’ll make time to listen to them and their concerns. 

In each case, your values remain unchanged. Your specific goals have changed to fit the particular situation. But the overall direction of these new goals still matches your values. 

Goals are flexible; values are timeless

So goals can be changed easily as circumstances change.

Some goals may no longer be relevant or of interest, or are at the wrong level for your ability. If so, you can rework your goals, so that they serve your needs better. However, as we’ve seen, it’s important that your goals still reflect your values. 

In addition, you may gradually change the values you hold over your lifetime. So you may value socialising when young, but place more value on creativity and independence with age. Then the particular goals you set will also change, in line with your changing values. 

However, the meaning of any particular value doesn’t change over time.

For example, concepts such as kindness and compassion meant much the same 500 years ago as they do today. But the behaviours that show these values in action are probably different now. This could be due to differing social expectations or prejudices then compared to now.

So while goals may be short-lived, the values on which they’re based are timeless.

Living up to values takes a life-time

Aspiring to live up to your values is a worthy project, even if it takes a life-time.

No-one is perfect, so no-one ever reaches the ideal person they’d like to be. We all make mistakes and miss opportunities to act the way we know we should.

But it’s how we deal with these slips that’s important.

Do you hide your mistakes when they go against your code of behaviour, and hope no-one ever finds out? Do you then continue acting the same way until you’re shown up?

Or do you come clean, make amends, and take steps to change your behaviour to fit your stated values?

If you’re really serious about living up to your values, you’ll choose the second path. And you’ll consciously set goals that match your chosen values.

So take the time firstly to define your values. Then design your goals so that they channel your efforts into becoming the person you want to be.

Your quest to gain greater meaning in life will be so much more effective, if your values and goals match.  

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