How to use values to live with greater intention

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

At times, your behaviour can seem mysterious – even to you. Sometimes you make decisions so automatically, you don’t question what you do. This lack of awareness can be a recipe for acting without intention. But if you have a strong value system, you’ll know most of the time why you act the way you do. So use your values to live with greater intention, and move closer to becoming the type of person you want to be.

Live with intention

To live with intention means that you:

Define what values you want to live by.

Form a clear idea of what’s meaningful in life to strive for. 

Work out the best ways of achieving those goals and dreams.

Consistently and mindfully act in ways that bring you closer to the life you want.

Consistently and mindfully refuse to act in ways that take you further away from the life you want.

Know your values

So to live with intention, it’s important to know your values. 

The reality is, though, that often you’re never really sure why you act the way you do. It’s only later, perhaps when someone asks you, that you try to justify your actions.

But the knee-jerk answers you give may not be the true reasons for doing what you did.

For example, you walk past a homeless person without noticing them. When your friend asks why you never give money to the homeless, you’re surprised. You hadn’t realised that you usually ignore them. Put on the spot, you sputter, “I don’t carry any cash.”

But later, you realise you’ve never really thought about homelessness and its associated problems.

Focus too narrow?

Perhaps your value system emphasises mainly independence and self-reliance. This can blind you to others who are less fortunate. So you automatically walked past someone in obvious difficulties, without a pause.

Yet you’re able to relate to close family or friends who are in strife. Obviously, you’re not unfeeling or mean.

So you may have chosen only a limited range of values to live by. And unconsciously, you may be using them to judge others.

It may be more helpful to develop values that apply to a wider range of circumstances. Then you’ll be able to make decisions about how to behave appropriately, no matter what situation you’re in.

Clarify wider values

In clarifying your wider values, you may realise you do believe in compassion and generosity. But perhaps you also value efficient use of resources.

So you’d prefer to donate to organisations for the homeless, rather than to individuals.

Whatever you decide, be aware of the values that underpin your actions. You’ll know more why you do what you do.

Your actions will be more in line with what you profess to believe in. And moment-by-moment decisions will better match the way you want to live.

Use your values to live with greater intention.


Sadly, not being aware of your priorities or values in life can sabotage your best efforts to change. This can be especially true if you want to change unhelpful behaviours, like annoying or unhealthy habits.

Maybe you’ve tried to change for a long time but aren’t having much luck. You may be more successful if you know what your values are. Then you’d know why it’s so important for you to change. And that might motivate you to act with greater intention.

1 Let’s look at Bill

Most evenings Bill sits for hours playing video games in a mindless trance. By midnight, it’s a struggle to make himself go to bed. So he ends up playing for another hour through sheer inertia.

The next day he’s irritable and his work suffers.

At present, he’s valuing short-term pleasure above health, work, or family relationships. And yet he’d claim his priorities are the other way round.

Lack of awareness

Bill isn’t really aware of what he’s doing. His behaviour is largely mindless; on automatic pilot. As such, he’s sleepwalking into disaster.

Bill doesn’t consciously decide to stay up till the early hours. In his eyes, it “just happens.” He hasn’t counted the cost of his actions – yet. But a reckoning may be coming soon.

Mindful or mindless?

With a little thought, Bill’s life could head in a more positive direction. He’s realising he needs to make a deliberate choice to notice what he’s doing, and to define what’s important to him.

Keeping up good health or good relationships doesn’t just happen. We have to make conscious decisions to choose our values.

How we act is important

But that’s not enough. We need to also act in ways that align with those values. And that means being mindful of what we’re doing, rather than acting mindlessly. Remember: it’s never too late to use your values to live with greater intention.

1 Deciding not to decide

The opposite of living with intention is hoping that everything will work out on its own. That’s actually a decision of sorts. It’s deciding not to decide. You don’t try to choose ways to make life better. Perhaps you think any attempts will be useless; another “failure.”

So you fall back on wishful thinking, and hope you’ll fluke a good result.

2 No intention

So you don’t have a plan. There’s no sense you’re acting with intention to reach a valued goal or lifestyle. 

But without mindful choices, you’ll flounder around. You might try this or that. But as soon as an obstacle pops up, you’ll give in.

And that’s really discouraging.

3 Lack of intention = lack of success

The worst of it is, you tell yourself you tried everything and nothing worked. But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realise you haven’t given any one strategy a real chance.

Why do we do this?

If you want to break this cycle, you need to clarify why changing is so important for you. For example:

What positive values are you trying to live up to?

What negative values are you trying to shed?

And why does this matter?

How will this make a positive difference in your life, or to others?

Once you work this out, you may realise the true reasons that make you want to change. Every goal you have is driven by the values you hold. And you can use your values to live with greater intention.

Bill’s values

So where is Bill headed?

Can he see the consequences if he keeps going down the track he’s on? Can he see that his actions conflict with what he says he believes in?

Just how important is rebooting his health and relationships?

Only Bill can weigh up whether these are more important than the short-term gratification of his video games. If he does follow a healthier lifestyle, having strong values will act as a brake when he’s tempted by old habits. 

They’ll remind him of why he’s trying to change. With luck, he’ll use his values to live with greater intention.

2 What about Josie?

Josie lets her partner Rob do most of the financial and household chores. Instead of helping, she goes out most evenings with her friends.

Similar to Bill, Josie is putting her own pleasure and interests ahead of her relationship. Not only that, she devalues empathy and cooperation. She also seems oblivious to Rob’s wish for companionship and intimacy.

Yet, she claims to value her relationship and wants it to continue.

Now, it’s fine to enjoy life and pursue your own interests. However there needs to be a balance within a relationship, so that both people feel valued.

No balance

At present, Josie is totally ignoring Rob’s needs or wishes. Her choice to prioritise only self-interest is leading her life down one path.

However, imagine if she were to also focus on values that would enhance their relationship. Think how different their lives would be in 10 years’ time, compared to where they’re going now.

It all depends if Josie’s willing to work out what’s really important to her. Then, she could focus acting in ways that match those values. But at the moment, she’s not living with intention.

Actions don’t match stated values

On the contrary, Josie’s acting in direct opposition to her stated values. She’s floating around, following any whim that promises fun.

Now if that’s what she intends to do, that’s her choice. If so, she needs to acknowledge that her values have changed.

But perhaps that’s not really the case. More likely, she hasn’t really thought through what she’s doing. Or perhaps she avoids intimacy for a range of reasons, and is scared of getting closer to Rob.

Actions have consequences

But does Josie really understand the likely result of her present actions? And is this what she really wants?

For instance, Rob may leave if he despairs of Josie changing her behaviour. Josie may be shocked by his actions. At present, she may be coasting along, feeling secure that Rob loves her, no matter what.

Perhaps she doesn’t realise how Rob interprets her behaviour. Perhaps she feels he doesn’t take enough notice of her. Or perhaps she really doesn’t want to be in this relationship.

No matter why she’s acting the way she is – she needs to take stock soon. If they go to counselling together, they may be able to work out their issues. Then Josie could clarify her values, and from that, what kind of a life she wants to lead.

At present, she’s hoping it will all work out regardless. But that’s not reality.

Sooner or later, the mismatch between her presumed values and her behaviour will force a crisis. 

Mindful intention

So living with intention involves both knowing your values, and being mindful of behaving in line with those values. 

If you know what kind of a life you want, you probably know the values you want to live by. But it’s helpful to state them clearly to yourself. Then, to achieve the life you want, notice each decision you make, no matter how small.

This awareness can help you see if you’re moving consciously in the direction you’ve chosen.

If you’re unaware or mindless, you’re drifting aimlessly. It’ll take much longer to get to where you want. You’ll run down many dead ends, be more frustrated and waste energy.

So mindfully choose to use your values to live with more intention.

See how Bill uses mindfulness to stick to his study goals, and learns to overcome going to bed so late. And if you’re not sure how to be mindful, start your journey here.

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