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Tips for Values Based Living

Tips for Values Based Living

by Spencer Lee, MSW Intern

Personally, one of the worst feelings for me is when I want to do something but just can’t make myself do it. This discomforting feeling is called cognitive dissonance and it occurs when our goals, beliefs, or values do not align with our current behaviors. For example, let’s say I’ve been wanting to start exercising routinely. I wake up and think about going to the gym. Then, I start thinking about how comfortable my bed is and how nice it’d be to sleep in, and on and on and on. Knowing that my goal is to exercise regularly (or just make it to the gym) and then choosing not to creates that sense of dissonance between goals and behavior.


At this point, it’s so easy, and sometimes the default antecedent, to beat yourself up. “Why am I so lazy?” “Why can’t I just get up?” “You’ve been wanting to do this for so long and you put it off every day, let’s go!” “You said last night today would be the day!” You may even use these thoughts as an attempt to motivate yourself into reaching whatever your goal is.


Well, the simultaneously good and bad news is that… our brains follow the dopamine (anything that feels good); that’s basically the premise of all human behavior. We have much less “willpower” than we think we do. So, what can feel good about behaving in a way that negates our goals?


Even though this cognitive dissonance feels yucky, there is a piece of comfort in the behaviors that oppose our values that keeps us from making change. The comfort = dopamine. In my earlier example, the comfort can come from a couple of factors: 1) I can stay in bed and be physically comfortable, and 2) I don’t have to face any perceived judgment at the gym which protects me from emotional and cognitive discomfort.


The good (and not simultaneously bad) news this time is that we can trick the brain into following a dopamine trail to our goals. A good first step is to examine our current behavior and figure out what comfort and dopamine we’re getting out of that behavior. The next step is to practice self-compassion and remember not to beat ourselves up too much since our brains fundamentally lack willpower.


Here are some tricks I’ve found to make dopamine and our goals or values one and the same. By using these ideas, we can exemplify values-based actions (doing the things that are important to us). I’ll be using the same example of going to the gym; however, these ideas can be applied to any goal you’re struggling to make progress toward.


  1. Just get up and do it. I know, I know. This does not seem like the magic pill fix of a trick as I hyped it up to be. However, there is some data backing up this method as being effective. “Just doing it” is a behavior therapy called “behavioral activation”. The idea here is that we force ourselves to go to the gym (or complete any goal you have) and once we finish, the pride we get from actually doing it will motivate us to do it again.


  1. Just do one thing (wink). This is a great trick when the goal or task seems overwhelming. Going with the same example here, let’s say going to the gym and doing an entire workout seems too daunting. Instead, I’ll just put on gym clothes or maybe I’ll just walk to the mailbox. Setting an easier task allows us to quickly reach it and get a burst of dopamine that will motivate us to keep going. It is likely that after walking to the mailbox, we might start to jog or get in the car and drive to the gym. Even if we don’t end up doing anything more, we will likely feel better than having done nothing at all.


  1. Create a routine. One of the things that often accompanies comfort and bad habits is that we’re used to it-it’s consistent. It’s the same old behavior that we’ve often been doing for far too long. Changing our behavior (even if we know it’s for the better) can be scary. Making our desired behavior a routine will accomplish three different things. 1) the scary factor will be replaced with the comfort of consistency, 2) the new behavior will require less motivation and could even become an unconscious habit 3) we gain confidence in our ability to reach the goal as time goes on.


  1. Incorporate the fun stuff. When we’re having trouble with motivation for reaching our goal, it’s often because the desired behavior not only seems difficult to achieve, but it’s also just not any fun. Plan some exciting activities before and after the thing we’re dreading doing. Meeting friends for coffee before the gym gets us up, out of the house and can put us in a positive mindset. We can also plan to reward my post-gym self with a walk on the beach or a really good movie.


Even the most “motivated,” “efficient,” “healthy,” or what have you kind of people struggle at times to reflect their goals through their behaviors. We’re all just human beings looking for our next hit of dopamine. With that being said, be sure to show yourself understanding and self-compassion in these moments. Try out some of these methods and see if you can infuse your values-based actions with a bit of dopamine to get you there.