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Moving Toward Values-Based Actions

Four ways to engage with what matters to you.

Key points

  • Once we clarify and refine what matters to us, we can use different strategies to change our behavior.
  • We can use self-monitoring and behavioral plans to begin taking small values-based actions during the week.
  • When overwhelmed with emotions, we can consider values-based actions to take in the moment or over time.
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission
New possibilities
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission

In the last two posts, we have explored how to clarify what is important to us. Clarifying and refining our values is an ongoing, iterative process. However, once we have identified some directions and confirmed these are areas in which we can choose our actions, we are ready to start intentionally engaging in new values-based actions. This takes attention and effort because we have developed habits that have disconnected us from what matters to us. Now we have to begin developing new habits of approaching meaningful actions.

Noticing Opportunities

Too often, we have gotten used to not even considering values-based actions. For instance, we may have grown accustomed to avoiding any experience of social anxiety so that when someone asks us to get a cup of coffee or have lunch, we automatically say no without thinking about it. Or we may have become used to considering other people’s feelings so much that we do not even consider asking for what we want or need.

One way to address this is to begin monitoring or noticing when there is an opportunity to try out a new behavior that is consistent with our values. We can start by reviewing our list of value directions and choosing one or two areas that we want to pay attention to in the coming week. We may want to choose areas that feel particularly important to us or where we feel there is the greatest discrepancy between how we want to be living our lives and the choices we have been making. It can also be helpful to start with an area in which it feels like we are most likely to be able to make a change successfully.

Then we can use a notebook, an online form, or a notes app to jot down any time we notice an opportunity to meet this value. If we want to connect with others more, we might notice whether or not we spoke to someone in the elevator or at the coffee shop or whether we responded to a text from a friend or accepted a social invitation. As we notice whether or not we take these opportunities, we can also reflect on what gets in the way when we do not take a potential action. Often, just noticing will help us begin to take these opportunities.

Planning Behavioral Actions

Another approach involves choosing concrete actions to take in a given week. We can think through the specifics of when we can take a values-based action and what might get in the way of us trying it out. Anticipating what might get in the way can help us to prepare for those potential barriers. For example, we might expect that we will have thought that we should stay home and work instead or that feelings of anxiety will arise as an event gets closer. We can remind ourselves why the action is important to us, use our skills to address the anxiety, and remember that we can be anxious and still do things that are important.

It will be important to check in with ourselves later in the week to see whether we could take the action, what helped or hindered this, and how the action went. And whatever happens, we can practice compassion for ourselves. It is very hard to change habits, and it is very easy to fall into old patterns. Just trying something new and noticing what happens is important learning, even if we don’t take action. We can use these observations to help us plan new actions the following week.

Values-Based Actions During Emotionally Intense Times

A particularly challenging but very useful strategy is to turn to our list of valued directions, especially when feeling emotionally overwhelmed. We may first want to try some of the emotion regulation strategies described here during these times. Once we can get even a tiny bit of spaciousness around our distress, we can consider whether a value-based action is available to us. For example, if we feel overwhelmed in response to an injustice or inequity, we can first take time to notice, clarify, and cultivate compassion for our experience. Then we can turn our attention to what meaningful actions we want to take in this particular context, like naming the injustice, joining others working toward justice in this area, emailing a congressperson, or joining a protest.

Applying Mindfulness and Compassion to This Process

Continuing to pay attention in the moment and be kind to ourselves while we work to increase our values-based actions will allow us to understand better why we naturally respond the way we do and open up opportunities to respond differently and learn new habits. In this process, we will also notice external, systemic barriers to meaningful actions (such as economic challenges, discrimination, and other restrictions on our options).

Clearly seeing and labeling these barriers, practicing self-compassion in the face of them, and revisiting our action plans will help us discern options available while also appropriately grieving the restrictions we face. We can also choose actions that directly address these injustices. An ongoing compassionate awareness practice can promote the flexibility needed to navigate old habits and challenging contexts.

Over time as we develop a habit or muscle memory of doing what matters to us, it will become easier and easier for us to recognize opportunities and to turn towards value-based actions during times of distress. These practices and our observation of them will help us to clarify further and refine what’s important to us, further increasing our ability to do what matters to us mindfully.

And remember: any start is a good start, and any step is a good step when it comes to making changes that matter to you!

With appreciation to Josh Bartok for editing help.


Orsillo, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2016). Worry less, live more: The mindful way through anxiety workbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Wilson, K. G., & Murrell, A. R. (2004). Values work in acceptance and commitment therapy: Setting a course for behavioral treatment. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette, & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition (pp. 120–151). New York: Guilford Press.

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