Many people tend to use the terms “values” and “goals” almost interchangeably. But though your goals and your values are related, they are not the same thing at all.
Understanding the difference between your goals and your values can help you avoid or solve many problems with productivity. This includes problems as diverse as overcommitment, lack of motivation to follow through, and micromanaging with metrics.
Values are the more fundamental concept, so I will explain that first.
What “your values” are
By “your values,” I don’t mean some theoretical list of good things. I mean psychological structures you have created by your past actions, such that some things — your values — have been connected into your pleasure-pain mechanism. These things — your values — have the power to trigger emotions in you.
In an article from a couple of years ago on how values form, I explained that they are that which you have acted to gain or keep in the past, because you thought they were good in some way (whether explicitly or implicitly). One’s first values are formed in relation to biological needs; more complex values are formed in relation to previously established values.
Over the course of your life, you develop thousands and thousands of values. You have people you love, work that you find fascinating, fashions you prefer, exercise that you seek out. Whenever you feel value-oriented emotions such as desire, joy, love, and gratitude, the object of the emotion is a value of yours. By the same token, whenever you feel threat-oriented emotions such as fear, aversion, anger, and despair, the object of the emotion is a threat to some value of yours.
Since all of your values are interrelated with one another, you can think of them as being held in a hierarchy of values, but I defy you to map out all of the relationships. There are just too many, with too many complex means-ends relationships with one another. But if you are wondering what values you have, just think of the many varied emotions you experience. You see the world through the lens of your values, and the readout you get on that is your emotions. Every emotion you feel was caused by a value you hold. Okay, in unusual cases you can have emotions that are caused by anti-values — but those are definitely the exception.
How “your goals” are different
Your goals are rather different. A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. Unlike values, you can and should be able to list all of your goals, and some of them can be a little theoretical. Rather than being a product of past choices (as values are), goals are a choice you make now about how to shape your future. When you set a goal, you use your conceptual knowledge of yourself and the world to project different outcomes that you’d like to create by further intentional action. A goal is a conceptual intention that helps you remember to act differently in the future. The purpose of a goal is always to change the status quo in some way.
For example, some years ago I set a goal to learn to play tennis, prior to tennis being a value to me. It’s a bit of a convoluted story. From reflecting on a number of experiences, I had concluded that I missed out on learning something about teamwork because I never played team sports as a kid. I decided to remedy that by learning a team sport as a middle-aged adult. As a secondary gain, I would get exercise, from which I expected health benefits. So, I set that as a goal.
As my first step, I researched basketball leagues, but didn’t find any viable options for me. When I mentioned my goal to my brother, he suggested partners’ tennis, which had been his sport earlier in his life. He pointed out that you still need teamwork with just two people, but it’s less complicated. And of course, there are lots of tennis clubs for older people, so it’s easy to get lessons.
Therefore, as a strategic decision in order to pursue my goal of understanding teamwork better, I started taking tennis lessons. Teamwork was a value to me. Understanding teamwork was a value to me. Exercise was a value to me. Health was a value to me. But at the start, tennis was just a theoretical means to those ends.
I started to like tennis the first time I really thwacked the ball across the net. I came to love tennis as a result of the many interesting conversations I have had with my coach about the mental aspects of the game. Those conversations tie directly into my central purpose. That was fortuitous, because it turns out that to teach someone of my age how to throw, catch, and hit a ball is a slow process. It took a while for me to develop enough skill to play real games. I haven’t yet learned much about teamwork because I am still focused on just being able to hit the ball into the other court. But tennis has become my favorite recreational and exercise activity.
It turned out that tennis was not a very practical means to the end of learning about teamwork. But along the way my priorities shifted, and it became a big value of mine — a much bigger value than learning teamwork.
The relationship of goals and values
Just the choice to set a goal has an effect on your value hierarchy. When I decided to learn tennis, I immediately felt some desire to find a coach. All I had done was to connect it logically with two other values (exercise and teamwork), but that was enough to give some value-significance to tennis. The action of goal-setting makes the goal into a value, at least a small one.
This was enough to get me over a couple of humps. The first coach I worked with left the tennis club I had joined after my first lesson. I scheduled with a second coach. His schedule was too busy, and I never did get a lesson with him. I scheduled with a third coach, and fortunately, he was a gem who helped me create a virtuous cycle of improvement that strengthened the value of tennis to me.
The value of a goal is strengthened by the intentional actions you take to pursue the goal, if those actions pay off. Acting to gain and/or keep a value is what strengthens a value in your value hierarchy.
I exerted a lot of effort over years to learn tennis. It has become a strong value because that effort paid off in many ways. For one, I continued to feel pleasure every time I successfully thwacked the ball over the net. For another, every time I introspected my mental operations while playing, I was intellectually stimulated and got clearer on certain psychological phenomena that interest me. And perhaps most importantly — and thanks to a great coach — my lessons were at exactly the right level so I could see my own progress every time.
From a psychological standpoint, this shows the general relationship between goals and values. You set a goal because there is an outcome you want that won’t occur without your intentional effort. That is, if you just mosey along following your normal habits, routines, and daily processes, you won’t be motivated to put in the necessary effort. A goal is designed to change that status quo.
Initially, your choice changes the status quo by literally changing your mind. By setting a goal, you program the goal into your subconscious as a value. You will now feel some motivation to act to gain and keep the goal, maybe enough to get started. But if the goal is at all ambitious, you will need to exert effort to overcome inertia to get started and to get over the hump in the difficult parts. But if you are successful, your action will strengthen the value of the goal, and over time your value hierarchy will be transformed.
Tennis now holds a prominent place in my values. It is something I want to do. If my schedule gets busy, I want to make time for more games. At the moment, tennis is not part of any of my goals. Playing tennis is just part of my “standard operating procedures.”
Your standard operating procedures
Most of the values you gain on a daily and weekly basis are achieved, not by setting goals, but by means of your normal habits, routines, and daily processes, i.e., your standard operating procedures. What motivates these if not a goal? Your existing value hierarchy. At any given time, you have the values you have, organized in some way, with relative strengths. Your standard operating procedures function on the basis of those existing values, which serve to motivate many life-promoting actions, and gain many of the values you need to sustain your life.
Just take an inventory now. What parts of your life function smoothly if you just pay attention to your environment, including your calendar and your email inbox? For example, I have standard operating procedures for ordering cat food, for paying bills, for getting meals on the table, for scheduling Thinking Lab classes, for getting started in the morning. You probably have many standard operating procedures, too.
Your standard operating procedures don’t take too much effort, because when you see the need for one of your routines, the values you have already formed motivate you to take action. You just need to say, “Yes,” and you can run through the steps pretty easily.
In contrast, the pursuit of goals always takes extra effort. When you set a goal, your values are not already organized such that you expect to get this result easily. There is always inertia, sometimes resistance, and often temptation to do something else. Practically speaking, you will need to monitor your progress, course-correct, and sometimes pivot. You will also need to exert effort to get started and to deal with any setbacks and failures. You can expect some emotional ups and downs when you set goals because there is always some uncertainty about how to get them. Psychologically speaking, it is by working through the conflicts that you reprogram your value hierarchy to strengthen the values involved with the goal.
Over time, as a result of pursuing a goal, you can develop the knowledge, skills, and values so that you create new standard operating procedures. This happened to me with tennis. Playing tennis is now a value, not a goal per se. The desire to play tennis springs up spontaneously each week. I schedule games and lessons into my calendar as part of my regular weekly planning process. But I am not actively monitoring my progress or trying to reach a specific outcome. I just make it a part of my life and enjoy the rewards of recreation and exercise.
How standard operating procedures increase productivity
Understanding the difference between goals and values can help you be more productive, i.e., to get bigger results from your expenditure of effort. Some of these results are obtained relatively easily by low-effort standard operating procedures. Some are obtained less easily by pursuing goals. So a great way to become more productive is to set goals to create new standard operating procedures, which will then pay off with less effort for a long time.
For example, when people come into my 8-week Launch program, some fraction of them wind up using the Launch to create what I call a “Scheduling Infrastructure,” i.e., regular routines for daily planning, monitoring time, and weekly planning and review. I recommend a very simple system of less than 30 minutes per day, because you don’t want the scheduling system to take over your life and get in the way of pursuing your values.
It takes real effort for a few weeks to put such a system in place. But if your life had been rather disorganized, it pays off in spades. Suddenly you start doing systematically things you had been doing only ad hoc. You start doing things in advance that you had been doing late. You start fitting in activities that you wanted to do but never seemed to get around to.
A scheduling infrastructure doesn’t solve all of your productivity problems, but once established, it ensures that you take advantage of your existing value hierarchy to get more done, more routinely, with less effort. It also gives you a higher level of self-understanding so you can more accurately predict how difficult a goal will be for you to pursue.
How the distinction between goals and values helps you address productivity problems
You can also use this distinction between goals and values to analyze and address many productivity problems, such as the three I mentioned: overcommitment, lack of motivation to follow through, and micromanaging with metrics.
Overcommitment is a case where you have too many goals relative to your standard operating procedures. You have limited willpower; goals burn willpower up. If you really think you shouldn’t decommit from all of your commitments, then this is the time to step back and look at the problem strategically. Which of your values could be better gained by creating systems and routines that take less effort? This will change your priorities in the short term, but allow you to get more done in the long term. The scheduling infrastructure described above is an example of this.
Lack of motivation to follow through is a case in which you have not yet reprogrammed your value hierarchy to match your goals. This is a predictable problem when you first start working toward a goal, and the solution is to change the way you do goal-setting such that you build collateral gains into every step of the way. You become more strategic. For example, many people line up exercise buddies so that they have an appointment at the gym. This adds a social component to a workout, which makes them more likely to enjoy the workout and more likely to desire to go to it. This isn’t cheating. This is the logical thing to do when you are trying to achieve a goal that you believe is good for you, before your values are totally in alignment with it.
Micromanaging with metrics is also a case of trying to use too much willpower to deal with the fact you haven’t yet strengthened your value hierarchy. You do need metrics to keep track of your progress toward a goal, but it’s a mistake to equate “making the numbers” with achieving the goal. To keep putting forth effort, you need value-laden progress. You need to feel satisfaction with what you do. Or pride. Or a thrill. For a week or two, making numbers can provide that satisfaction, but tracking the same numbers quickly turns life into a hamster wheel. That’s when you need to get strategic to figure out what other values you are gaining or can gain by the necessary effort. It’s the collateral gains that get you through the hard work of pursuing a challenging goal.
For example, I had chronic fatigue from long Covid last fall. My goal was to regain my stamina. But the metrics on it were hopeless. I motivated myself by identifying many smaller successes, such as changing my sleep schedule and quality. I kept up my motivation by actively connecting what I was doing with my existing values. I came out of the experience with a new appreciation of the value of breathing exercises, new ideas for my own scheduling infrastructure, and much stronger values related to sleep routines. I had setbacks, but I was able to manage my motivation and keep all of my paid work going during the five months it took me to get back to normal. The goal was difficult, but my focus on values made it doable.
I hope you’ve gotten the general idea. Goals and values are not the same thing. Distinguishing them helps you analyze productivity problems and find creative solutions to achieve the goals you want for your life.