Habits aren’t just the processes we use to achieve our goals. They are a way of living our values. When we separate our habits from our values we develop a disconnect between what we say is important and how we actually behave.

Why do we so often behave contrary to our values? Because immediate relief from stress or pain is way more compelling than our rational self-interest. After a long, stress-filled day at the office, having a beer and pizza in front of the TV sounds way more enticing than an hour on the treadmill followed by sparkling water and a salad. All living organisms are hard-wired to move toward pleasure and away from pain. And in so doing, we allow short-term concerns to outweigh our own long-term self-interest. In other words, we behave contrary to what we value.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle / Will Durant

When we tie our habits to our personal values, we give them a more meaningful purpose.

We may be eating healthy to lose weight but WHY do we want to lose weight in the first place? Maintaining our healthy habits is easier (notice I didn’t say easy) when we keep what is most important to us at the forefront of our minds.

One of my dirty secrets – I don’t floss my teeth. Every six months, I vow to floss daily and lessen the torture of my semi-annual teeth cleaning. I never start on the day of my appointment. Why should I? Daisy just did it for me. When I decide to start a few days later, I can’t find the floss. Once I’ve located the floss, I feel like I don’t have time. In my mind, it takes a good 30 minutes to complete a flossing job worth doing. Well, I just took my kids to the dentist and heard them get admonished for not flossing. I realized at that moment I am not setting a healthy example for my impressionable offspring.

So, what does tying a habit to a personal value look like?

1. Determine what matters most to you. Personal values are often expressed in statements like:

I value ___________ (our relationship, my health)
I believe in __________ (hard work, God)
Nothing is more important than __________ (my children)

I value my health and I want to set a good example for my children.

2. Connect your habit to your value.

I floss my teeth every day because I value my long-term health. Here is my post-it note reminder:

Post-it note
My daily reminder to floss

3. Define the specific actions of your habit.

I will floss my teeth including the teeth impeded by my permanent retainers.

4. Define when, where, and how you will do these things:

I will floss my teeth with threader floss every night after I brush them.
I will start tonight.

5. Brainstorm the obstacles you might face and the actions you will take to prevent them.

Can’t find the floss – keep the floss in the top drawer of the vanity

Run out of floss – buy a second container now so I have a backup. Replace the backup container when the current container runs out.

Don’t have enough time – I know it only takes 2 1/2 minutes (yes, I actually timed myself). My long-term health is worth 2 1/2 minutes a day.

6. Turn your attention toward the process and away from the results. You are living your values.

It will be several months before I know whether flossing my teeth results in a less painful experience in the dental chair. I expect that it will but, regardless, I’m living like I value my health and I’m setting a healthy example for my children.

My next appointment with Daisy is August 15. I’ve noted on my calendar to update you on August 16. Wish me luck!

And so…

Remember that habits are processes that help us achieve our goals AND live our values.

When we tie our habits to our values we give them a meaningful purpose.

We all have habits – big and small – that we struggle to maintain. Pick one of yours. Tie it to something you value most in life. Use the habit strategies I’ve outlined in the past to help keep you on track. Then let go of the results and be joyful that you are living your values.

I’d love to hear your progress and thoughts along the way.

Originally published at stretchwithgretch.com