How to Maintain a Value Orientation in Action

Image of a modern cozy workspace in a home: a maple work desk with laptop. documents, jar of pens, a wall of books, and comfortable seating

In previous articles on "What is a Value Hierarchy?” and "How Values Form,” I teased readers with the idea that you can strategically reprogram your value hierarchy and I promised to write more on that topic. But first, there is a foundational skill that you need to understand if you are to direct the process.

If you want to reprogram your values, you need to consistently motivate all action by reference to values rather than to threats. You need to maintain a value orientation in all phases of goal-directed action.

In this article, I will explain how you maintain a value orientation before and during goal-directed action. In the next article, I'll describe the skills you need in order to maintain a value orientation after taking action toward a goal, especially if you need to cope with negativity and failure. And in the third article in the series, I'll show how a consistent value orientation in all phases is essential to reprogramming your subconscious value hierarchy so that it reflects your consciously chosen values.

Choosing a Value Orientation During Goal Setting

When you set a goal, you have a choice about how you conceptualize your reason for pursuing the goal. If you  want to maintain a consistent value orientation, you need to be very particular about how you do it.

For example, suppose you want to declutter your house. Off the top of your head, the reason that occurs to you is it's a mess and you hate having piles of stuff around.

This is a perfectly logical reason for decluttering, but it orients you to what is bad for you: the mess and piles that you don't want. This reason will trigger threat-oriented emotions: aversion, fear, guilt, irritation, etc. These emotions may get you to clean up the mess, but they will also add unpleasantness to the task. When you think of a task as a chore, you are probably justifying it on the basis of getting rid of something bad rather than achieving something good.

In order to maintain a value orientation, you start with this perfectly logical reason for decluttering but you don't stop there. You ask a series of logical questions to reveal the underlying value. Threat-based motivation is superficial. Something is bad or a threat only in relation to something that is good. If you want to get to a deeply meaningful reason for doing anything, you need to dig deeper until you get to the deep rational values that underlie it.

"Why" and "how" questions can help you get clearer on the deeper values that underlie your reasons. For decluttering, you might ask questions like:

  • "Why don't I like the mess?"
  • "What does the mess stop me from doing or having?
  • "Why do I hate these piles?"
  • "What would I have when the piles were gone?"

In answering these questions, you don't settle for "I don't know" or "I just do.” Instead, you take the opportunity to poke around further to understand what really matters to you. There is always something and it is always personal. Given the same starting place, different people could get radically different answers.

One person might want to declutter to have a more beautiful, spacious place to live. This one resonates for me. Specifically, I routinely tidy up my office because I value a spacious, clear place to work.

Another person might be motivated at root because he wants to invite people over more often. He wants to get the house in shape so that he can enjoy a potluck with friends at any time, without needing a frenzy of effort to make his living space into an inviting, practical place for a group to enjoy each other's company.

My mother had a different reason for decluttering. Over the course of ten years, she emptied a 12-room farmhouse with an attic, a garage, a shed, and a 40'x80' barn. When you have a barn, members of the family give you items they don't know what to do with, including everything from the grandparents' homes that no one particularly wants. All of this storage space had filled up over the course of 40 years.

One reason she cleared it was that she didn't want to saddle us with the work after she was gone. Looking at that from a value orientation, she did it as an act of love and support for me and my siblings — for which we were very grateful before, during and after. On the other hand, she also wanted to make sure that her valued items got good homes. This is why she took ten years and did it in stages. She valued these objects and the role they had played in her life and our whole family's.

It's important to identify the value you are after in order to prioritize your effort selfishly.

For example, if you want a serene place to work, you prioritize the office. If you want to entertain, you prioritize the living room. If you were my mother, you'd prioritize clearing the barn, because it had the largest amount of stuff with the least sentimental value and therefore the easiest to disposition and see major progress.

Maintaining a Value Orientation While Pursuing a Goal

A value-oriented goal is critical to taking action. Keeping the value in mind as you move forward enables you to see and enjoy your progress and/or catch that you need to correct your course to maintain your momentum. This is particularly important when you have a large task that will need to be accomplished in more than one block of time. You will need to start, stop, then start again — and that is sometimes the hardest part of pursuing a long-range goal. A value orientation ensures that you get pleasure during the whole process, making it easier to keep going.

For example, my goal in tidying up the office is to get a spacious, clear place to work. I appreciate the serenity it gives me. When it's cluttered, I find that I am constantly distracted by wondering what is in the piles. I can concentrate more easily in a tidy space. Because this is a value to me, I have two desks. One is for administrative and computer work. The other is for writing. This helps, but when I am deep in a writing project, the admin desk gets piled up with papers, mail, books, and other detritus.

Often, I have very limited time to get admin work done — not enough time to disposition everything on the desk. My process in those situations is simple and focused on the value at stake: I zip through everything, filing and tossing what I can, and putting everything that is difficult to disposition in its own pile on the floor. I continue until the desk is empty of everything except what I am about to do. In this way, I get a clear space to work. The piles are behind me where I can't see them and they don't bother me while I do the admin.

In contrast, if I held the task as "clean up the study," I would feel I failed. The piles on the floor would be a reproach instead of a creative, efficient solution for getting what I need to do the work. When I didn't have time to fully clear the study, I would feel like I was facing failure either way: If I didn't clear the study, I would not be very efficient at doing the admin. (This is an accurate prediction.) If I did clear the study, I would never get to the admin. In either case, the admin wouldn't get done. How discouraging would that be?

Instead, when I'm done, I see I have organized piles on the floor and I can decide what do with them. Often, if I don't have time, I stack them on the desk until I need it again!

Seeing your own progress is essential to maintaining momentum. It is your success with the first steps that makes you eager to take the next steps. This is only possible if you know what the real value to you of your effort is, so you can see yourself and feel yourself succeeding as you go.

What Happens Without a Value Orientation

This is why other people's "great advice" often fails. It doesn't sufficiently reflect your values.

For example, you may know about a popular book on decluttering called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō. This book has many virtues. Anyone interested in decluttering will learn things from it. However, the process contained within it is designed for a particular group of people: those who want simplicity and spaciousness in their physical environment. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution for decluttering. If simplicity and spaciousness are not your primary goal, then the advice could backfire on you.

For example, if you want to declutter so you can have gatherings in your home, you will find the first step in Kondō's process to be a poor fit. She has you empty your closet of all its clothes, clean it, and then put back only the clothes that you love. Your closet is a great starting place for learning how to retire your values. It can be difficult to let go of things that you loved once, but which are not important to your present or future. Learning to say goodbye without demonizing them is a skill that Kondō teaches in her book, and clothes are a logical place to start.

But learning to retire values may not be the top skill you need to develop. And decluttering the closet won't help make your house ready for friends to come over. No one looks in your closet.

You might think, “Well, if I go through the whole process, by the end the house will be wonderful and I'll be able to invite friends over." This is the error of deferring all rewards to the future. Right now you need to suffer and do chores, but at some unspecified time in the future, after you have dispositioned all of your papers and memorabilia, then you'll have a wonderful place to invite people over.

Fat chance.

You might be able to buckle down for a while and do the first few steps of the process, but it will be a chore that is not particularly meaningful to you. It will be a slog. This sets you up to burn out and lose your momentum and stop — and likely feel guilty for not sticking with the plan. In the next article, I will talk about how to regroup and focus on values when you fail.

But the point of this article is to head off that kind of failure by staying oriented to your values from the beginning and throughout action! Adapt the ideas in the book to help you get your top value, not the author's. You could figure out how to use Kondō's methods to make your living room easy to maintain. If you did, you would be motivated to do it and eager to invite friends over afterwards. Then you might be so delighted with the results that you would be inspired to use her methods on other rooms, à la the Pierced Ears Principle that I wrote about recently. You would set up a virtuous cycle.

There are many different ways to break down a task into smaller steps. All of them may be perfectly logical. You should choose the plan that will be the most motivating. A plan that gives you partial rewards sooner rather than later will be much more motivating than one that benefits you only in the distant future. Moreover, it sets up a virtuous cycle in which you not only gain the values, but you strengthen them so that you are more motivated — not less — to take similar actions next time.

As you can see, maintaining a value orientation before and during action takes effort. It doesn't happen by chance. In the next article, I will explain the more challenging case: maintaining a value orientation after you have finished, especially if things didn't go well.

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