The Art of Subtraction: Building a Life that Aligns with Your Values

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a provocative tendency to quote Brené Brown in regular conversation. I’ve hosted three separate book clubs dissecting her work, so I consider myself an ambassador of sorts. Sure, no one is paying or even encouraging me to do such a thing, but I consider it my way of giving back…and occasionally feeling like I’m emotionally proficient. One of my favorite Brené quotes comes from her book Daring Greatly:

“We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with actions.”

This concept was particularly inspiring to me because it was practical, but when I read it for the first time back in 2015, I wasn’t entirely sure how to implement it. So when I was working with my life coach—forgive the maddening candor of that statement—almost two years later and she suggested a values worksheet, I realized that defining my values was the first step to aligning my actions with them. We only worked together for a few months, but Ming made a tangible impact on my life. Some people have the gift.

The worksheet started with 68 values, and Ming had me start by choosing ten, and then I had to narrow it down to five and then three. It took longer than I expected it to. Selecting the the values upon which you’ll base your entire life is heavy work. I didn’t have to keep these values forever, but knowing that I’m loyal as hell, I didn’t anticipate ditching them anytime in the near future. So what did I land on? In no particular order: Fun, Connection and Spirituality.

All of the words that I highlighted as potential values fell under one of those three categories. Hospitality? It’s a means of connection. Creativity? For me, it’s spiritual. Joy? Well, I was between joy and fun, but once again, I was enticed by the practical nature of fun. “Should I do ______?” That depends, will it be fun? There’s something about fun as a value that says Stop taking yourself so seriously.

After I identified my three core values, I started the mindful work of learning how to filter my life through them.

Thankfully when I finally got the hang of it, it was 2018, and I was working with a blank slate. Zach and I had just moved from New York to Denver, so we were literally building our lives from scratch. Let me preface that by saying I realize not everyone gets the opportunity to build their lives from the ground up, nor would they want to, nor do I recommend it. Whether it’s existing relationships, time commitments or career paths, most people will already be nestled into a life trajectory that they’re satisfied with. In that case, more power to you—that wasn’t the case for us. We’d spent the previous five years in work that was growing less and less true to our journey. We had very few existing relationships in Denver, and even fewer that withstood the “old relationship, new city” challenges. And as for time commitments? There were none.

With a blank slate, I decided to prioritize my values. In order to have more fun, I decided to do more things. Go on the hike, try the new restaurant, and yes, drink more of the beer. To create more connection, I joined a friend-dating app, met up with seven or eight girls, and then picked four to start a weekly Brené Brown book club with (you are sensing a theme, Brené ambassador here). And a year into the book club, I can confidently say it worked…I now have four new, wonderful, supportive best friends…shout out to all my cynics, there were quite a few! And finally, to prioritize spirituality, I walked away from nearly a decade of the predictable faith I had grown tired of and jumped face first into books, podcasts, practices and communities that have taken me so much deeper than I ever knew I could go.

In my lightly-educated, unspecialized, novice opinion, the path to living a life in alignment with your values begins with 1. Identifying your values and 2. Being over-the-top intentional with filtering your actions and priorities through them. It’s insane how many things vie for your time on a daily basis, things you didn’t even know you cared about.

Let’s start with step one: identifying your values. You can download the values sheet that I used here, or you can find other resources online. You’ll start by review the long list of values, and then asking yourself “What kind of person do I want to be?” as you select ten values from the list. Next, you’ll narrow the list down to five value words, and ultimately, just three. Why three? You’ll want to keep your list this short because the process gets complicated when you’re filtering an action through 31 different values—buying my friend lunch is definitely generous, but is it creative, challenging and courageous?

Step two of this process is being over-the-top intentional with filtering your actions through your new values. For me, it helped to break this intentionality down even further into practical (you are indeed sensing another theme) applications: Time, Relationships and Goals. You could argue that I’m missing some important categories like money, but I would contend that how you spend your money could be categorized under Goals. In fact, most things can be a sub-category of goals, so let’s go with that.

So if you’re looking for a practical way to begin aligning your defined values to the way you’re living, here are my thoughts.

Your Time

When you take a step back from your actual day-to-day schedule and filter your activities through your values, it’s shocking to see how much excess there is. Without margin in your schedule, it’s easier to act outside of your values due to stress, overwork, and unhealthy relationships. So here’s where you start, grab your planner and highlight everything that you spent time on that doesn’t align with your values. Pay close attention to how your activities actually apply to your values. If you’re volunteering for an organization in a role that makes you feel disengaged or even bitter, then that particular role probably doesn’t align with your values.

After you’ve identified the things you’ve got on your schedule that don’t align with your values, opt out. This part might take time, and it will also very likely result in some hard conversations. I’m sorry I can’t get coffee with you every week moving forward, your company makes me want to gouge my eyes out—just kidding, try to be nicer…that is, if niceness aligns with your values. If you’re committed to clearing your calendar of activities and commitments that aren’t life-giving, I predict that you’ll be shocked by just how much time you do have.

The final (and fun) part is making more room for the things that help you live the life you actually want to live. Be careful with time commitments in particular: don’t commit to anything unless it aligns with at least one of your values. The more margin you have in your schedule, the easier it will be to cultivate the self-awareness it takes to filter your day-to-day actions through your values. When you have twenty more things on your list for the day and your husband wants to chat i.e. connect, the lack of margin in your schedule will make you feel like your hand is being forced…or you won’t recognize the decision at all

This process isn’t necessarily sequential. For me, it’s been a learning process but having a mostly blank calendar to begin with after our move to Denver made it a little easier.

Your Relationships

There’s no guilt in dismissing people from your life who repeatedly make you feel inconsequential and under-valued. On the road to learning how to value yourself, obstacles to the process should be removed, and that means the people who reinforce the lie that you’re not valuable.

Additionally, John Maxwell explains in the 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth that the people in our lives can be categorized in three ways: those who give us more than we give them (givers), those who take more from us than they give to us (takers), and those who give to us as much as we give to them (equals). There are very few instances where relationships with “takers” are necessary, like with children or aging parents. So if you’re friends with multiple people who only take from your energy, odds are you don’t have much energy left for the rest of the people in your life.

One helpful exercise a mentor of mine had me do back in 2016 was create a list of every relationship in my life, and then write giver, taker, or equal beside their names. I had several givers, even more takers, and very few equals. This list helped me understand who was adding to my life and who wasn’t, and she advised me to have a conversation with a few of the “takers” on my list to attempt to equalize the relationship. This practical approach to such a very stick, very human, issue was revolutionary.

Your Goals

Simplicity is key to achieving the goals you’re here to achieve. If your goal is to start a nonprofit, then your dream songwriting career might have to take a backseat for awhile. This isn’t to say great people haven’t mastered a variety of industries, but keep in mind just how rare it is for someone to do it all well. And even worse, most get crushed by the sheer number of steps along the path to reach multiple big picture goals.

For me, it’s a family, a vibrant community, and a nonprofit. In order to do these three things well, I’ll likely have to let my other “dreams” fall by the wayside for now. If I find myself with margin to spare one day, maybe I’ll pick up my songwriting pen again. I once had a therapist tell my husband, a brilliant man who assumed 80+ hour work weeks were the only path to success, that the majority of CEOs, young success stories, and great artists suffer in other areas of their life because they’re actually obsessed with their work and, often, hiding behind it. She posed the question: Is that who you want to be? Or do you want to be the person sitting on my couch working toward a balanced life full of family, friendship, downtime, and space in your days?

This isn’t a goal-setting how-to, so I’ll leave that piece to the pros. Instead, I’ll leave you with this question: How could you simplify your goals in order to align your life more closely to the three values you’ve selected?

Let’s use money as an example. My husband and I have always lived on a well-documented, tightly-maintained budget. This discipline has allowed us to have more time freedom and entrepreneurial opportunities than most at our age, but it’s also required us to make trade-offs. But recently, I told Zach I would love to make room in our budget for eating out with friends more because I value connection (and love food), and eating out with people is a unique opportunity for closeness. We’ve since adjusted our budget to accommodate my connection value.

We don’t have to be perfect, but in order to be who we want to be, we have to identify our values and align our actions with them. Brené was right, but then again, who would ever in a million years doubt her?


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