How to Discover Your Governing Values


Let’s start with a few facts.

Life is about choices. Every one of us has 1,440 minutes each day to do as we choose. If we decide to, we will spend several of those minutes sleeping. We may choose to go to school or work. We may choose to prepare meals, taxi our children, watch recitals, ball games, or TV. We will choose whether or not we’ll answer the phone or help a friend. We will even choose the way we’ll feel about our decisions.

Only you can define what it means to make the most of your day. It might mean that you make significant progress on a project around the house, or you spend quality, focused time with one of your children. It may even mean that you enjoy several hours relaxing on the beach or playing video games.

If that’s true, then why…

So, if all the things we do each day are things we’ve chosen to do, why do we sometimes fall into bed exhausted with nothing of value to show for our time—like we’ve spent the entire day running on a hamster wheel?

Hamster wheel days are interesting because all that running usually produces quality results, but you still don’t feel accomplished. That’s because those results have little meaning for you. On days like this, things of lesser value supersede things of greater importance—leaving you tired and frustrated.

How can we have fewer days like that?

The secret is to plan the things that matter most to you into each day, and place those items as top priorities. That sounds simple enough, but do you know what matters most to you? Can you list the things you value? What are the basic elements that govern your daily decisions? We call them governing values. A governing value can be a person, idea, principle, standard, ideal, or highest priority. Knowing your governing values can change your life immensely.

Let’s make a discovery.

Understanding your governing values is one of the most important things you’ll ever do, so let’s take a few minutes and discover yours. You can probably think of several things off the top of your head that are important to you. Write that list in your planner.

Be thorough. Don’t rush this.

Now imagine a 200-foot-long, steel I-beam on the sidewalk near your home. An I-beam is used as structural support in large construction projects. They’re designed with horizontal flanges on the top and bottom supported by a vertical section between them so they look like a capital I when viewed from the end. Let’s say this I-beam is eight inches wide. Would you walk the length of that I-beam for 20 dollars? Many of you would.

Now imagine that same I-beam is stretched over a section of the Grand Canyon six thousand feet above the Colorado River. Would you still walk the length of it for $20? How about $5,000? What if your child was on the other end and crossing it meant the difference between life and death for her? Would you cross the I-beam then?

Now take another look at the list you wrote in your planner. For which of those things would you cross the I-beam? Write that list separately in your planner. Those things for which you’d risk everything are the things that govern your daily actions—your governing values. They matter most to you. Remember, a governing value can be a person, idea, principle, standard, ideal, or highest priority. Your list of governing values could range from names of people you love, to ideals you hold dear.

Now and then we drift from our core values, sometimes we’re pulled away from them by some seemingly urgent situation. Most of the time we simply get busy doing good things—but these good things can get in the way of better things. Keep your list of core values in a prominent place in your planner. You may also want to keep it in your home where you’ll see it often and remember to focus on what matters most.

What do your core values mean to you?

Now that you have your list of core values, it’s critical that you know what they mean to you. Come up with a brief description of each value to clarify what it is and how you will implement it. For example, if patience is a core value, describe what patience looks like. Is it Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi, your own mother, or a mix of several examples?

Benjamin Franklin created his list of Thirteen Virtues after serious introspection. Early in his life, he found that he was not doing what he felt he could or should be doing. His Thirteen Virtues are the things he determined would help lead him over time to become the man he envisioned for himself. Rather that focusing only on the things that governed his current actions while in his 20s, Franklin was interested in the things that would govern his improvement throughout his lifetime. Clearly, ‘improvement’ was one of Ben Franklin’s core values. Here’s his famous list:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Clarity is the key.

Ben clearly and briefly defined his Thirteen Virtues so they became personal and meaningful to him. Look up any word in the dictionary and you’ll find more than one definition. Define your governing values so they mean what you intend for them to mean.

One reason why Franklin settled on 13 virtues was because if you multiply 13 by 4 you get 52. This meant he could focus on one virtue per week and he could practice each virtue for four weeks throughout the year. You don’t need to keep such a rigid schedule where you focus on a single value for a week at a time, but if you keep your list of governing values with you while you plan, you’re sure to see positive results.

As you plan monthly, weekly, and daily, make a focused effort to include actions based on your core values. Work to keep these tasks as top priorities each day, and you’ll find that you grow where you hope to grow, serve where and whom you want to serve, and you’ll become the person you hope to become.

Plus, you’ll spend far less time in the old hamster wheel.

2 Replies to “How to Discover Your Governing Values”

  1. Don\’t forget, Franklin later felt he\’d failed on Humility, which was a value suggested to him and not one he had selected himself. Take care adopting values suggested by others.

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