To Achieve Your Aim, You Need to Know and Apply Your Principles

personal principles and values
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

How do you live up to your standards and values?

I watched the target intently. I could see the picture rise and fall in my sights as I breathed, the crosshairs tracking a vertical line as my lungs expanded and contracted. Having positioned myself carefully, I aligned my body so that I naturally achieved my point of aim. My rifle was held securely, nicely balanced, but without any tension in my muscles. Feeling calm and focused, I let the crosshairs sink once again, then held my breath as they came to rest on the centre of the target. I increased the pressure on the trigger, never letting the crosshairs move from their position. There was a jolt, as the shot released, but the rifle settled back into position, aligned to the midpoint of the target. I was hundreds of metres away, but I knew that I had hit it dead centre. I knew because I had applied my marksmanship principles, and everything had been in balance. It felt right. 

Understanding and applying principles

Target shooting can be very satisfying but, as I found out in my military training, that does not mean that it is easy. That is because even though the principles of shooting are simple, maintaining those standards takes focus and practice. In that way, shooting is a metaphor for other areas of life. Even when we know the theory of how to do something the practice can be hard.

It is particularly hard if we do not know the fundamentals in the first place. Without understanding the key principles of shooting I might never have become a good marksman, no matter how much I tried. As Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool point out in their book Peak, there is an important difference between practice and effective practice. If we want to get better, we need to focus on doing things correctly, according to the appropriate standards.

So, what are the right standards? How do we know the principles to live by? This is the focus of this series on understanding values. The more I teach decision-making, facilitate leadership courses, or coach people through life’s challenges, the more I see the importance of understanding and acting upon our personal values. 

The need for balance and alignment

Much of the importance of values comes down to balance. There are so many reasons that we need balance in life. Whichever aspect of our existence you look at – such as work, relationships, or health – it is a lack of balance that causes problems. 

We need alignment in each area of our lives in order to flourish. To lead we need integrity; a boss needs to walk the talk if they are to be truly effective. To make effective decisions we need to make sure our choices fit our values. It is similar to our wellbeing; to be happy our expectations cannot be too far removed from reality. Our self-esteem is also dependent upon balance. We need to behave in line with our principles and live up to our standards. This is why it is so important to know our values and understand how to monitor them.

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance. 

Brian Tracy

How to work out your values and monitor your principles

I regularly take time out to re-examine my values and reflect on them to make sure they are captured accurately and to measure how I am doing against my principles. I also tend to look at my principles first before I go about setting goals. As with target shooting, you must point in the right general direction before you home in on a specific target.

It may be that you already have a clear idea of your values, or it could be that you have never really considered your personal principles. Either way, here is a good exercise to go through to identify, refine and test your ideals. Here are the steps to follow:

1. Identify a long list of values 

2. Prioritise the list 

3. Assess your principles against your actions  

1. Identify a long list of values 

First, write out a long list of words that sum up your personal values. There is no limit on how many phrases to use at this stage. It is worth doing some brainstorming and thinking about the words that best sum up your principles. The choice of words is important as our interpretation of language is nuanced and personal. The terms you choose must connect with you and express both your head and your heart.

Remember, as noted in my earlier post on why what we value matters,

  • Values are principles. They are ideals, truths, or propositions that we aspire to.
  • Values are standards. They are the formal and informal precepts, regulations, and rules we live by.
  • Values are judgements. They are the benchmark, the plumbline, the compass that informs our decision-making.
  • Values are beliefs. They are the tenets, convictions, and ideas we put our faith in.
  • Values are priorities. They are our motivations, the things that take precedence, that we give importance to and affect how we use our resources.

Once you have a list, or if you are struggling to think of the right words, then you can use example inventories of popular principles as a prompt. You can find such examples in What Are Your Personal Values where I have listed over 150 common values.

2. Prioritise the list 

Once you have a comprehensive list of values the next thing to do is to prioritise the list. Initially whittle it down to ten, then aim for five or fewer. The reason to do this is to identify the most important principles, the ones that dominate your decisions and behaviours. To do this you may want to take your initial list and score each value out of ten. If you still need to reduce the list then do direct comparisons between the words you have chosen, ask yourself, if I had to choose between x and y which would be the most important?

Once you have your top five values then take some time to write out what they mean to you. As mentioned earlier, the exact meaning of a term can be very individual so write out a short sentence to define what that standard means in terms of informing your actions and decisions. This is very important. The value does not exist as just a conceptual ideal, it must be understood in relation to your thinking and behaviour.

3. Assess your principles against your actions  

The next step is then to assess each of your top principles against your actions. Here you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Reflect on your day, your week, your month and give yourself a score from 0-10 in terms of how close you lived up to your standards. Also, reflect on other big life moments and decisions, or when you were particularly happy or sad, how did you align with your values at those key times?

Examining the gap between the values we espouse, and our actual behaviour can be very revealing. Here are some common things to look for:

Continual misalignment

If there is a continual misalignment then we must ask ourselves if we really hold to that principle. It might be that we think we value something because it is a standard upheld by our culture, family, or organisation. It may well be a good precept, but it may not drive us personally. If that is the case, you might want to go back to the prioritisation exercise and see if there are other values that better describe your actual choices.

Temporary misalignment

Often, we find that we have strayed from our principles in a particular choice or fallen short of our principles in a given situation. This is not a long-term trend, more of a temporary blip. These can leave us feeling unhappy or anxious until we resolve the issue. Once you have identified the instance where there was a problem you can reflect on what you need to do to bring things back on track. Is there a decision that needs to be changed, a relationship that needs to be mended, or a goal that needs to be set? Whatever it is, work out what action will restore your balance. 

Apply your principles and maintain your aim

If you want to achieve your aim it is not enough just to know what your target is. You are unlikely to hit the target if you are facing the wrong way. Therefore, you need to know your guiding principles if you truly want to succeed. 

Whether you want to achieve a goal, get a better balance in life, develop as a good leader, or improve your decision-making, all these things are dependent upon understanding your personal values. The better you understand your own standards, the happier and more effective you will be. 

So, take some time to:

  1. Identify a long list of values 
  2. Prioritise the list 
  3. Assess your principles against your actions  

Seeing how close you align with your principles is foundational to creating a meaningful plan for any self-improvement. So, check your values today but then frequently take time to see how you are measuring up to your standards. 

Apply your principles, maintain your aim, and you will hit the target!

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