How to Bring Your Life into Line with Your Values

The world, it seems, is going downhill fast. Everyone has a take on what’s wrong: liberals over-regulating everything, conservatives decimating the principles of governance, immigrants refusing to blend in, racists bashing immigrants, poor parenting, non-family-friendly policies, corporations bound to short-term profits instead of long-term social responsibilities, activists hampering corporate innovation, and of course the Jews, always the Jews. You name it, someone’s upset by it and the negative effect it causes in the world, by the sheer affront to decent people’s values that the world poses.

The problem is, the problems facing the world today are so huge, so global in their reach, that most of us are simply overwhelmed by them. We feel we should do something, but what? On top of that, we’re so busy just trying to stay afloat in the roiling seas of modern life that even if we did know what to do, we don’t know how we’d find time to actually do it.

Bummer, huh? Well, it seems to me that the same principles we apply to our own personal productivity can be applied to the problems of the world. In short, we can “GTD” the world’s problems.

How? The same way we approach our own problems — set a goal and then figure out what the very next action is that we’d have to take to get there.

Just like you can’t “install cable” (to use one of David Allen’s examples), you can’t “end racism” or “fix the environment”. What you can do is figure out what one thing you could do to bring you — and the world — closer to that goal.

Here are some things you might put on your @world next actions list:

  • Look up Senator’s office phone number/email address
  • Get voter registration form online
  • Research local organizations that need volunteers
  • Buy 6 compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Put three canvas bags in car trunk for next shopping trip
  • Talk to kids about global warming
  • Call Reverend Hassan about starting a church auxiliary group
  • Knit blanket for homeless shelter
  • Look up regulations for running for local office
  • Join school parents association
  • Research organizations to donate money to
  • Check local library’s website for upcoming meetings

These are just examples; none of them might apply to whatever your own personal values are. The point is, just as with any other project, if you want results you have to be prepared to act — and you can’t act on big, grandiose, world-changing goals. You can only act on concrete next actions.

Now, first steps are hardly enough to fix the world’s problems. Still if everyone took just one baby step, that’d be something, at least. But I’m not advocating you find one little thing to do, do it, and spend the rest of your days feeling smug about the great thing you did that one time.

The goal here isn’t to take a step, it’s to take the first step. As I mentioned recently, we humans tend to be strongly guided by inertia. Once we set on a path, it’s often easier to just stay on it than to change it. That first step, that very next action, is meant to do two things:

  1. Disrupt the current inertia of your life, and
  2. Set you on a new path that, with time, will be harder to stop than to stay on.

Which means that, once you buy that energy-saving light bulb or find out about a group worth joining, it’s time to cross that off your list and think of what the next next action is. And then the next one, and the next one again after that.

You may not change the world. In fact, you probably won’t change the world — although, imagine the influence you just might have on the people around you, the opportunity you’ll have to share your own values not just by talking about them but by demonstrating them on a day-to-day basis.

But changing the world isn’t the immediate point here. The point is changing your relationship with the world. Here’s the thing: I look around, and I see people who are profoundly unhappy, and they don’t know why. They look at, say, the rampant consumerism in society, they’re depressed by it, they feel powerless and overwhelmed by it, and maybe they think “Oh, this world is messed up, that’s why I’m unhappy. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, best to just worry about myself and try to make it as best as I can.”

But that’s wrong — you can’t make yourself happy by making room in your life for whatever’s making you unhappy! In my interview with Liz Strauss on Lifehack Live in January, she talked about bringing our heads, hearts, and purposes in line as the key to a successful life, and I agree — when you live your life at cross-purposes from your values, you’re bound to be unhappy.

I’d like to see you, me, and everyone else living their values, whatever those values are. Sure, there are bound to be contradictions, conflicts, disagreements — but we have those already. What we don’t have is a society filled with people whose lives clearly express the values they espouse, not because they’re hypocrites but because they haven’t figure out the need to turn abstract values into concrete actions — just like many of us struggle to turn the various projects in our lives into doable next actions. 

The idea of a society filled with people who have figured that out makes me incredibly optimistic. Because that’s a society that, with all it’s disagreements, can get things done. And maybe, just maybe, in the long run, that’s exactly what it might take to start fixing the big problems — people who feel truly led by the values they choose to live by.

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