On a recent trip to my neighborhood library, I rediscovered Choose Your Own Adventure books. Remember those colorful childhood paperbacks? They pulled readers in and challenged them to interact with the story, ultimately altering the narrative.
What a clever dress rehearsal for real life.
Every day is a choose-your-own-adventure experience. We advance by evaluating options, considering outcomes, and choosing accordingly.
But there’s one other thing at play when we make decisions: our values.
Whether we’re aware or not, values—the principles or ideals we uphold—play a significant role in making decisions. Sometimes they fly under the radar but regardless, values influence choices.
So if everyday simplicity is the goal, it must also become an everyday value. Only then can it influence our decisions and guide our narrative.
This is why it’s important to slow down and get real with our personal values right away. In order to build a solid foundation and cultivate sustainable lifestyle changes—ones that frees us to live simply and impact others for good—we’ve got some big-picture work to do.
The Choices We Have
This week’s dispatch is a bit dense but completely worthwhile. We know you’re up for it.
First, some words on choices.
“The more choices you have, the more your values matter.” — Michael Schrage
Cycle or snooze.
Cookies or kale.
Convenience or the extra mile.
Each decision charts a plotline. These everyday choices, big or small, accrue and construct our stories: identity, career, relationships, self-esteem, health and so on.
Of course, sometimes our only choice is our attitude. Life happens. Most of us can agree though: When it comes to our situation, responsibility falls on us for making good choices.
If our choices align with the ideals we uphold—our aspirational values—we experience a sense of satisfaction.
The opposite is also true. If we spend our days passively making decisions that oppose our values, stress and dissatisfaction come knocking. I think we can all agree stress is the last visitor we need when faced with 70 choices a day.
Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister coined the phrase “decision fatigue” to label the noticeable decline in our ability to choose well over time. In the face of stress, we often default to a proverbial easy button.
Choosing Your Values
The best defense? Get ahead of the stress cycle. Slow down. Work on strategic offense. When we’re in touch with and inspired by our values, decisions almost take care of themselves.
The sooner we identify our values, the sooner we reap less stress and more simplicity. Sound good? Let’s get to work.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The goal with this 20-30 minute exercise is to isolate your top 3 values. Sure, you’ve got more. This activity is intentionally simple. It’s a high-level assessment.
Grab a notebook and a pen. A few sheets of paper will do fine too. If you prefer your device of choice, by all means. You do you.
Read the list of values below and scribble 12 that resonate. Take your time. Notice simplicity is not on the list. We figure that’s a given. It circles back a bit later.
- Inner Harmony
- Meaningful Work
Next, trim your list in half. Remember, the values you part with now still matter. We’re just putting them aside to make way for more important ones.
Finally, remove three more values. It’s difficult, we know. Take your time.
You should be left with three, three words that stir your heart and cause you to sit up straight. These represent the aspirational values you prize at this stage in life. Add simplicity, and you’ve got four.
Now that you’re done, it’s time to assess if these values shape your present reality.
“Show me your bank statement and calendar, and I’ll show you your values.”
My friend Toby is a straight-talking shoot-from-the-hip ex-cop from London. This is one of his catchphrases. He will happily call anyone’s bluff with a twinkle in his eye when discussing priorities.
You say you value community? Great. How are you choosing to spend your time?
You want to give generously? Terrific. Do your spending habits line up with your intentions?
It’s a reliable litmus test. The way we allocate resources—specifically our time and money—reveals the values that influence our decisions, for better or worse.
The Value of Consistency
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown makes a distinction between what we say we value and what we demonstrate with our actions.
“The space between our practiced values (what we’re actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think, and feel) is the value gap…We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be.”
The key is paying attention. Not judging, not criticizing. Just paying attention.
We say we want simplicity, but we’re not quite there, right? There’s a value gap somewhere. Are we prepared to build a bridge? Close the gap? Let our truest values steer our choices and influence how we spend our resources? Now’s the time to evaluate your top three aspirational values, plus simplicity, one by one.
“One is often so busy doing life that it is easy to avoid evaluating whether you are putting your energy in the direction you value most.” — Deborah Day
If you’ve got a journal, you might consider dedicating an entire page to each value. The goal is to explore how you invest your resources in living your values. Remember, self-awareness is the goal. No shame allowed.
We’ll do each of the four values in three steps.
- Assess – take stock of what we practice
- Identify the gap – look for discrepancies between values and actions
- Imagine – consider possible opportunities to embody aspirational values
Work through each of these steps before moving on to your next value.
Step 1: Assess
As you ponder your first aspirational value, ask yourself these questions:
- Does my calendar support this?
- Does my bank account support this?
- Do my digital habits support this?
For example, Sally values friendship. Here’s how her assessment plays out.
- Does my calendar support this? No. I have gone three weeks without a legitimate face-to-face connection. I can’t spend large amounts of time with friends right now. I’ve said yes to a big volunteer project.
- Does my bank account support this? Yes. I recently bought a gift for a friend’s new baby. Pink onesie. Super cute.
- Do my digital habits support this? Sort of. I’m able to maintain friendships in other time zones, but local relationships are lacking. I have to catch up on work at night when I could otherwise be connecting.
Don’t forget also to assess how you live up to valuing simplicity.
Step 2: Identify the Gap
This stage happens naturally. Listen to your gut. Jot down your thoughts. Most likely, something’s gotta give.
Step 3: Imagine
Where are the possibilities? There’s no need to plan and execute. We’ll get there eventually. For today, simply escape to your thoughts and imagine.
If we run with Sally’s example, here’s what she might dream up.
Can I loop a friend into volunteering with me?
Sneak in a brief lunch visit or an early morning coffee?
Maybe fall back on simple tools to monitor screen time?
Possibly plan an evening commitment to step up the urgency at work?
Your turn. Repeat until you’ve completed all four values.
Simplifying Your Life
Ironically, simplifying life is laborious at first. Modern society specializes in peddling unsatisfying values and profiting from decision fatigue, literally and figuratively. If we’re stuck in a stress cycle, it’s painfully easy to live by default, not design.
But there’s a way out. It begins by articulating our personal values. Next time we connect, we’ll put them to work.
The road to simplicity and satisfaction might feel like charging up a steep hill after a long day but, in the end, the reward makes it all worthwhile. Messy, but worthwhile.
If life is the sum of choices, the goal is to make each one with aspirational values at the helm. We’ll know we’re on track if we’re spending resources accordingly. We’ll need grace—lots of it—but we’ll get there one day at a time.
We’ll make space.
We’ll say no.
We’ll say “I don’t care for those values. I’d rather use my own, thank you very much.”
It’s your adventure. Choose well.
. . .
Elissa Joy Watts is the Managing Editor of Simplify Media. She believes in sincere community, radical kindness, and piping hot coffee. She channels the power of red lipstick and her love language is almond croissants.