In a world in which success means rising in the ranks of a Fortune 500 company or starting your own industry-disrupting business, it is easy to lose sight of qualities that bring meaning to our existence. Too often the virtues we admire are the ones whose development we put off for later, until we catch a glimpse of the impatiently awaited triumphs that, instead of helping us pause, infuse a rapacity for more, and more, and more. Why not incorporate values as the leading principles in life and career?

Having a foundation that guides how we approach life matters: it provides clarity, encourages focus, and drives improvement. Consistently living the values we cherish is not easy, especially as the stress of day-to-day struggles sets in, so establishing daily routines that are both practical and sustainable comes in handy.

What to remember when embarking on a journey of living values? 

The practices outlined below are examples of routines that many have used to keep their values at the forefront without abandoning life or career goals. They aim to let go of the past in a healthy way, notice the goodness around us, take charge of what is in our control, and remain focused on becoming the person we desire to be. 

As you try these practices, tailor them to your needs, and keep in mind that not all of them may resonate with you. But before you give up on any of them, remember that it takes time to develop new habits. Have fun with them!

The journey is never easy, don’t march alone. Living values is an inescapably social activity. It is easy to trip on the bricks spread across a path when we are not attentive—even the most attentive of us sometimes fall. Sharing values with significant others motivates us to live up to the beliefs we hold by encouraging a greater understanding of values through conversations. It also enables those around to help us stand up and keep going when life gets difficult. Giving and accepting help are strengths that many feel uncomfortable with but engaging in this reciprocal process accelerates progress.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” 
— John Donne, Meditation XVII

Know your why and reflect on it often. Having clarity about why we are doing what we are doing is beneficial. The why refers to a greater purpose beyond ourselves and it is tied to values: contributing to a grand cause calls for a principled approach. The why helps bring our best forward while the how sets standards for our demeanor.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Incorporate values in the schedule. Listing what we intend to do not only unburdens us but also increases our chances of accomplishing it. While making a list of things the night before, insert short commentaries—statements or questions—that will relate the chosen value to life. Here is what a list may look like: 

A sign on a table

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Background by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

These reminders can relieve stress and later provide guidance for reflection: Have I expressed humility to the best of my ability? What have I done well? What could I do better next time? How do I train to embody humility more fully?

Set reminders throughout the day. I set 1-3 alarms per day that help me reground and proceed to live my values with conviction. The cue that reminds us to pause and assert values brings us back on the right path. The message—a word, a question, or a quote—should point towards behaviors that would bring us closer to who we desire to be. For example, before meeting with a person whose ideas differ greatly from ours, a reminder may read: Listen & Learn. Prior to a trip with a friend, it may be: Practice generosity, offer your time and presence. Whatever it is, it must resonate.

Use the ability to focus wisely. Focus is about the centering of attention on a single stimulus. When we are torn between competing objects of attention, performance suffers. I am reminded of this every day on a tennis court: while keeping track of several aspects of my game breaks it apart, selecting a single focal point builds it up. Choosing the thing that requires most attention and sticking to it is the answer. But how can you tame the mind that restlessly wanders?

Mindfulness offers an effective solution. It is a practice of training focus by redirecting the mind from distractions to (1) a chosen object of attention, often a breath (single-point meditation), or (2) passing thoughts, without getting caught up in any of them (transcendental meditation). The true practice lies in recognizing the wandering mind and bringing the attention back. The benefits, including a significant increase in the ability to focus, have been documented. A man who knows about focus tells us:

“Only through focus can you do world-class things, no matter how capable you are.”
— Bill Gates

Source strengths from stones. On a small stone, write a value you would like to practice and take a few minutes to reflect on it. Allow thoughts and images to arise without directing them, using only the word as your anchor. Then, write the word on the top line of an index card and list all ideas that arise without censoring. If possible, carry the stone for the rest of the day so each time notice it, you will be reminded of the value; this will help redirect you to what is important. Dr. Kate Powers, a retired professor and Shakespearean educated at Brown University, who has been practicing this method for years, explains its benefits: 

“This method allows access to mind levels that are not usually available, depths that are often the place of creativity. The lack of censoring offers self-knowledge, which promotes and supports integrity. Index cards may be a source of future inspiration, as well as the grounding any of us need at times to keep balance.”

Make time for gratitude practice. Gratitude is about taking in the good. It has many benefits, including improved mental and physical health. Value-oriented gratitude practice prepares us to recognize, reflect, and engage in actions that match our values. Writing down what we are grateful for helps make it concrete. So, whether in a gratitude journal, calendar, or social media post, put it out there. A common format is to include what happened and the feelings that surfaced, remembering that feelings are to be felt. For example, generosity: I am grateful to Alex for sharing an apple pie with me, it made me feel cared for. The more we experience positive feelings, even if only for a few seconds at a time, the greater our ability to develop a positive mind. Gratitude teaches us that what we need is already within us, it just takes practice to unleash it. We can offer ourselves the care we need in moments of distress.

“I appreciate the spherical shape of the Earth: I don’t dream of a journey to the end of the world because that end is right beneath my feet. I know that to be able to notice the beauty around me, I have to stop.”
— Jerzy Fiuk, consultant and implementer of Lean Management

Send out loving-kindness. This practice, despite the soft sounding name, strengthens our ability to deal with challenges. It helps us recognize the uniformity of human needs, thereby creating an opening for better relationships. It frees us. Loving-kindness relies on sending good wishes to ourselves and extending them to others as well, if that feels comfortable. It is not always easy to wish wonderful things to others. Sometimes it may bring discomfort but even then—to me—it carries lightness, as if with every wish the ice of pseudo-toughness slowly melts away, making the heart more receptive to the surrounding goodness, more willing to offer the gift of values. Dr. Brandon Nappi, a mindfulness facilitator and founder of Copper Beech Institute, shares these loving-kindness phrases:

“May I | You | All Beings be free from suffering and distress.
May I | You | All Beings be safe and protected.
May I | You | All Beings know love and true belonging.” 

Choose self-forgiveness. Beating ourselves up for not getting something done is easier than forgiving ourselves for shortcomings, but with effort we can move closer towards the latter. Self-forgiveness requires taking responsibility for our limitations and amending the mistakes. Having a clear plan to rectify errors helps us turn away from rumination and focus on the improvement steps instead. Miroslav Reljic, a leadership coach and author of Insights into Effective Coaching, shares his forgiveness practice: 

“I work on self-forgiveness daily. Here is the model I use: I forgive myself. I forgive myself that [the what?]Finish with a positive sentence. For example, I forgive myself. I forgive myself that I didn’t finish writing the report yesterday. That is OK, I will finish it today. This can be 4-5 different statements following the same structure. Or it can be just one.”

Keep self-compassion close. As described by a pioneer in self-compassion research, Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion rests on three pillars: (1) self-kindness implies acceptance of imperfections and difficulties with gentleness as opposed to judgement; (2) mindfulness helps notice and experience what takes place without over-identifying with it; (3) common humanity surpasses isolation with a recognition that suffering is universal. Self-compassion does not make us complacent but rather assists us in getting back on track. The ability to shake off failures and face challenges over and over again, with the self as a friend not an enemy, is as rewarding as it is difficult. Kristin Neff offers sample statements that we can use in difficult moments: 

“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.”

Journal about the important things. Stories and ideas that we record can be a powerful way in which we teach ourselves. It is easier to make sense of all that comes through our minds when it is in front of us. Writing down thoughts and feelings helps organize them and begin a healing process of letting ourselves experience whatever comes up. While avoiding negative feelings makes them linger and circulate within us, opening up to these feelings allows them to flow and exit. Piotr Piasecki, a mental performance consultant, openly lays out his journaling practice:

“I try my best to journal before I get the day started, that way I can set myself up for success. I journal for about 20 mins. I usually start with a flow of thoughts regarding the outlook on my day. I also write down three things I’m grateful for, three things that would make today great, and then a few affirmations for myself. With this structure I’m able to create my day before it even happens. This intentionality grants me the benefit of being locked in when I may get distracted. Additionally, journaling provides me a space to express myself and how I feel about a certain situation that I will encounter that day, whether it’s a meeting, a difficult conversation, or simply a project that I’m struggling with.”

Experiment with blending different practices. An effective morning routine starts us off right: it establishes a focus for the day and prepares us to act on the most important values. Two years ago, I adapted a routine taught by Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and top Olympians, which relies on a combination of mindful practices to raise resilience. Despite taking only two minutes, this routine reinforces focus, infuses optimism, and helps me be grounded. Here is what this practice looks like:

I start with a full breath followed by an intention with which I want to approach the day, e.g. be humble: recognize an inherent value of each person. Next, I express gratitude for something that connects to my intention, which primes me to act in accordance with it. For example, I am grateful to Tom, a more advanced tennis player, for treating me as his equal. This made me feel respected. By taking a few seconds to let the good feelings sink in, I am gathering the resources necessary for the future. Lastly, I put my feet on the floor and allow myself to feel grounded.

Final thoughts about aspiring to a life of values

The described practices are interconnected, they build on one another. We run a greater chance of turning them into habits if we commit to the activities we choose every day at the same time, or attach them to another task performed daily to serve as a reminder. Adhering to these practices may also require approaching them with curiosity: 3 minutes of practice with interest is better than 30 minutes of practice on autopilot. 

The payout is generous. We will pick up on events we are grateful for, we will recognize the humanity in others, and we will exude our top values daily. We will also go to bed at night knowing we have done our best and, likely, wake up in the morning with a passion for life: awaiting the challenges and goodness that a new day has to offer. 

“Pooh: What day is it?
Piglet: It’s today.
Pooh: My favorite day.

May values be with you! 🙂

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