The goal of self-improvement is always to create a better future, whether you state that as your target or not. That’s why many of the approaches on offer make the link between behavior and results. They tell you to act in a certain way and imply that the results you want will surely follow.

There’s a problem with this way of thinking. No one can tell what events and challenges the future will bring, so deciding to behave in a certain way—in advance—limits your flexibility to respond. It also ignores the most potent sources of change: your values and your unexplored emotions.

It’s tempting to limit your thinking to behavior because it’s easily observable. There seems to be an obvious link between cause and effect. What you do or say produces a result and that creates the future, doesn’t it?

Not really. Our experience of the world is formed from more than external events. How we feel is important to our understanding of what is going on around us. So are the assumptions we make about the meaning of what we experience. What about where we place our attention? Or our automatic patterns of thinking? What we believe? All of these are part of our experience.

Who are you?

Before you choose any approach to changing the way you act as a person, it’s a good idea to understand as much as you can about the mechanisms that make up that complex and continually varying creature that is you. These are also part of the material you must work with, even though you probably rarely think about them in any conscious way.

There’s the essential problem. You don’t think about them. You think about your skills, your capacities, your hopes, dreams, and fears, but you almost never direct your attention to the ways your mind and emotions come together to create all these. You’re so used to them—they’re so much a part of who you are—that you take them for granted. Yet they, together with chance, are what will decide your future; and all your other actions and plans will count for almost nothing if these essentials don’t co-operate.

It’s worth taking time out to stop and think about who you are, what you want from life, and whether the way you’re behaving today is the best way to get there. Take this time for yourself. You’re worth it. Consider your values—don’t just list them in your head and pass on, really think about them. Do you live up to them? If you don’t, quit blaming yourself—or anyone else—and try to work out why that should be. Maybe they aren’t truly your values? Maybe other values are more important to you?

What really matters to you?

Don’t let yourself be confused between values as ideals and values as choices. These are distinct categories. One contains the values that people aspire to (and talk about). The other holds the values people live by (and don’t usually draw attention to). The two are rarely precisely the same.

The values people aspire to—let’s call them talk values—get most of the attention. They appear in lists of desirable qualities for life, leadership, and organizations. The values people use in everyday choices—I’ll call those action values—are rarely mentioned or explored, though they’re far more important.

How can you make your hopes come true?

In fact, most people are not even aware of the impact their action values have on everything they think, say, or do. Each time you face a choice, those values tell you what feels right. Since most people choose emotionally and justify their decision rationally afterwards, what they choose is largely determined by their action values, not by reason or logic.

Many people read inspirational books, or listen to speakers explain the benefits of positive values, then give up when they can manage a few, halting actions based on the changed outlook. Gradually, they slip back into their old patterns, maybe emerging as a fresh book or conference gives them a little more motivation. Why did this happen? Because they were working mostly on their talk values. They didn’t integrate their learning into their daily action values, so any alterations in behavior stayed at the level of hopes and aspirations. Talk values count for little until they make it through to the level where they become habits.

If you want to change your life, you need to understand and work with making your aspirational, talk values and your everyday, action values line up. Try focusing on what you do, not just what you believe you should do. People’s actions better reveal their true values than any number of fine words. Only repeated actions stand any chance of changing your life.

Take all the time that you need and do it right. This is your future that you’re working on.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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