Prioritizing Our Personal Values

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” ~Annie Dillard

Deep down we all know what we value in a vague sense, but very few people stop and consider what their core values actually are.  Recognizing what they are can usher success; not being aware of them can cause strife both internally and in relationships.  There are a lot of personal development books that address this awareness and prioritization of values.  Knowing what your values are can help you to arrange and spend your time in a manner that is most stimulating and rewarding for you.  If you’ve never really stopped to consider your values, do so now.  Some examples of what different values might be are as follows:

  • Love
  • Creativity
  • Success
  • Family
  • Spirituality
  • Passion
  • Fun
  • Athleticism
  • Wealth
  • Balance
  • Happiness
  • Growth
  • Faith
  • Achievement
  • Security
  • Health
  • Peacefulness
  • Power
  • Boldness
  • Charity
  • Freedom
  • Honesty
  • Adventure
  • Gregariousness
  • Activeness

You get the idea.  This list is as diverse as the people that make up the world.  Most of us value all these things to some extent but certain values will float to the top for you.  Try and list your top 10 values.  Doing so will allow you to learn something about yourself.  Then focus on the top 5 values and try to prioritize them.

If the way that we’re spending our days is not feeding our values, that is when we start to feel out of sorts and frustrated.  For example, if you love adventure and creativity, then working at a job that doesn’t allow you to live either value is going to cause some resentment.  This resentment may cause problems with your boss and/or co-workers and with the quality of your own work .  On the other hand, if you’re feeling frustrated by all the demands of home life, maybe it is because your values of freedom and balance are being tested.

You should also note the order of these values and determine what your most important value is to help you prioritize and understand your actions.  For example, if you’re having trouble committing to a relationship and two of your top five values are intimacy/love and freedom, you might be able to see where this struggle is stemming from and then can think in an honest way about what is more important to you.  If your top value is family and your second value is success, you can come to understand why you feel so upset at having to explain to your boss that your child is sick today, yet again, and you won’t be able to make it in.  Knowing in your heart that family comes first makes it easier to deliver the news without feeling guilt.

The other way the value hierarchy can manifest itself is strife between two people.  It’s helpful to know what your family members, partner or friends value so you can see where they’re coming from when you’re at odds.  For example, if one spouse is always craving to have people over for parties or loves going to big matches and events (values = excitement, gregariousness, competition, activeness) and the other spouse’s idea of a good time is taking a bath and reading an interesting book (values = peacefulness, personal growth, balance, tranquility), it’s hard to see eye to eye on whose activity will eventually win out without understanding where the other person is coming from.  If one person continues to “win,” these can stack up and build animosity.  It’s easier to discuss from a place where people can talk about their values.

As an example, I keep my top five values in a list on my phone.  They weren’t easy to pick and I realize they could change if my life circumstances changed.  I visit them nearly every day.   They are as follows:

  1. Health
  2. Love
  3. Security
  4. Peace
  5. Adventure

There are days I feel pulled in too many directions.  My friends or family suggest one thing and I want to do another.  Other days, I feel frustration as to what I’m doing at the office instead of at home doing passion projects such as tending to my garden, cooking up a storm, and writing a novel.  I question why I choose to sit under buzzing fluorescent lights 40 hours a week when I have the means to experience exciting adventures and relaxation in the great outdoors.  But then I realize how important security is to me.  I am one of those people that needs a reliable source of income and saving for the future is very important to me.  I strive for self-sufficiency and independence which are associated with my security value.  I can see that this need for security and this need for peace and adventure are something that I have to focus on balancing so that I feed portions of my day with all of them.

There are days I wake up chiding myself because I over-indulged in wine the night before and feel crappy.  The reason I’m upset with myself is that even though I love adventure (and these hangovers are usually born of a grand exercise in spontaneity, adventure and companionship), I realize that I compromised my values of health and peace.

There are times I feel guilty about having to leave work early or take some time off.  I am doing that to tend to my health, find peace or adventure, or to exercise my value of love to Chief and to Dove or to visit my family and friends.  If career success and achievement were in my top five values (instead of only my top 10), I might be there at the office with the workaholics who value success, pride, or status above all else, watching my precious Paid Time Off hours going unused.  I generally imagine that they just don’t like their home life as much as I adore mine, but who knows?  Perhaps family is at the top of their values and they are caring for their family the best way they know how.

There are days these values shift.  Some times you have to put one in front of the other for the short-term.   But it at least becomes a tool for recognizing why I am feeling torn on those days.

These values tend to be fairly different for genders, generations, personalities and for cultures.  I recognize that and I am at peace with that and am content to be who I am.


  1. Natasha November 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm · Reply

    Excellent post and oh, so wise! Since my husbands cancer battle this year, we have definitely had to think seriously about our priorities in life and are making changes. But I love the idea of having your top values on your phone as a daily reminder. Thanks for a great post!

    • Emily November 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm · Reply

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Natasha. I think about you and your family often. I am really proud of you for fighting for what is important to you and living your values. Your ability to balance it all is truly admirable.

  2. Karoun November 18, 2012 at 12:40 am · Reply

    Interesting. It’s not something people put out there very much, their top 5 values. I think security fell off my list when I left ExxonMobil, ha, but I can understand more now than ever why it is so high on people’s lists.

    I was just thinking about how much I value freedom. The teacher I’m studying with right now does her own practice for three hours every morning, and she is an incredibly dedicated and inspiring teacher as a result. I have such a hard time even contemplating committing to something like that. It makes me feel trapped to even think about it. But then I wonder, to what extent am I committed to being the best yoga teacher I can be? It’s definitely a question of values. I’ll have to take a look at them more closely at some point, though freedom is clearly at the top for now.

    • Emily November 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm · Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Karoun. I do think about you often when considering the security one. I remember having a conversation not too long after you left about how full of freedom and peace your life had become but giving up that steady income maybe also brought a little bit of anxiety. It’s funny because the security value manifests itself in a lot of different ways in my life. Part of feeling secure for me is simply being debt-free and independent and also being around people who make me feel safe. The other part of it financially is knowing that I have the money to spend on seeking adventure and peace via travel and a comfortable life. It seems like so often in life we have time or money but rarely both. I’m constantly seeking the right balance of having enough of both to feel that I’m living with relative abundance.

      In regards to the comment about being committed to being the best yoga teacher you can be, I guess some times it all boils down to what does energizes oneself and usually it is living according to our values. If this other person is exercising hers by means of practicing three hours a day, she probably is doing her best. If something like that would drain you, instead of inspire you though, than that might not be the best thing ultimately.

  3. Meghan November 18, 2012 at 3:12 pm · Reply

    I really loved this. I’ve heard of writing down a list of values important to me, but have never considered how they interact (and sometimes conflict) with each other. Very nice.

    • Emily November 18, 2012 at 11:16 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Meghan! I’m sure that you understand some of the conflicts yourself pretty well. The hilarious stories on your site regarding the vanpool you ride are funny but also strike a cord about how we decide what is important to us. Obviously there is a reason we’re up before dawn to leave home to arrive at work at 7 am. I guess values are the common denominator!

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