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Goals vs Values


When committing to a new course of action it’s useful to distinguish between goals and values because they have different motivational properties.

1. Goals can be achieved. This is why they motivate – we enjoy the feeling of purpose and progress they bring. Yet, once the goal is achieved what then? Very often we revert to our previous behaviour. This explains the diet industry and also why it is hard to get a taxi in New York in the rain*. In contrast values can never be achieved, so they can be more effective in motivating long term behaviour change.

2. Goals can’t be achieved right now. So they can be bad at motivating people when they need it most (i.e. now). For example, I have a SMART goal to lose a half stone in weight in the next 2 months. The trouble is, I have had that goal for about 3 years…. The problem lies in the fact that whilst I cannot meet the goal today, what I can do is eat a piece of cake.

So, when I see a piece of cake a question arises in my mind; can I eat the cake and still meet my goal? This leads to some uncertainty; maybe I can have both? Minds hate uncertainty and they will do almost anything to get rid of it. So what do you think I do next? In contrast, values can be lived in each moment. So whilst I cannot meet my goal right now, I can make my values – for example health – important right now.

3. Goals are powerful motivators. Humans are intrinsically goal oriented and we like the feeling of purpose which goals bring. Yet goals can be set without us really examining why. Once set, their gravitational pull can pull us away from the things we truly value. In contrast, values are what we most want to stand for in life. They are how we want to be remembered and what we want to stand for in life. When we act in line with our values we act authentically and in alignment with our deepest motivations and aspirations.

So many people spend their lives pursuing meaningless goals before realising that life is a musical thing – and we are supposed to sing and dance whilst the music plays.


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