Values at war: when you want two conflicting things at the same time

10 Jul

This article is part of the series “31 blogs in 31 days” during July 2017 on

During a recent “Happier” podcast by the wonderful Gretchen Rubin, she mentioned, almost in passing, that very often when people can’t brig themselves to do something, can’t make a successful habit change or can’t implement a new routine, conflicting values are at play. I find this thought fascinating.

I want to save money but I love going out. I want to eat healthily but I also love pizza. I love exercising but I also love reading. I want to give everything to my job – and to my family. 

Those conflicts are quite common and I think most people can relate to them. They may sound somewhat trivial, but they point to our underlying values. We don’t usually spend much time consciously thinking about our values, or if we do, we tend to do it in a more theoretical (what I think my values are or what I wish them to be) rather than practical way. Anybody closely observing our daily lives for just a few weeks can probably give a pretty accurate description of how we really live our lives, the decisions we take and hence the values we are actively living. And whether I like to hear it or not, if I eat junk food 4 times a week, a healthy body probably isn’t one of my core values. As much as I would like it to be that way.

We need to know ourselves pretty well, when we want to actively change something in our life that involves going against one of our values – as glamourless as they may seem (I like going to bed early). If I have been a lazy sod up until now, this means that I have probably never seen much value in exercising, or at least I have seen more value in spending my time otherwise. Introducing regular exercise into our daily lives then means confronting those “otherwise more convincing values” to avoid a conflict. Because those conflicts can have a paralysing effect. We end up not doing anything and we have a global bad conscience. Suddenly we feel guilty about everything and can’t enjoy anything anymore.

So what to do with such a conflict? Say it’s about money – I want to save some but I seem to go out too often to then have enough to put aside. Clearly my wish to go out and be social is at least as strong as my wish to save money. The first step is acknowledging both values as such, without judgment. It is as it is. Re-framing the situation from “I am failing to do xyz” to “These two values are in conflict here” may put me in a better place to deal with the situation.

Because I have to deal with it. Many people make the mistake to think that they have more than 100% to give, to play with. 100% is the maximum.

So, the second steps involves negotiating. Say, it’s about EUR 100 per month. If I want to put this all aside, the consequence is that I don’t have anything to spend on going out. I may then have achieved one particular goal, but something else had to give. And quite a lot. If I decide to chose “all or nothing”, this means one value gets all and one gets nothing. Realistically that can only be successful for a short period of time. At some point, I will most likely feel unsatisfied and start breaking that rule. Then I will not achieve my goal, I will feel bad for breaking my own rule and chances are I will go over-budget on top of it. Once the seal has been broken, why stop now? If I break the rule, I may as well break it properly.

Or…. I decide on 50/50 (or whatever %). That means half the budget goes to saving, half goes into drinks. That means I will take longer to save a particular amount, but on the way, I still get to have a social life. This may look fair and doable, but it still holds the potential for frustration. Because up until now, I have had twice the amount to spend on going out. This is a 50% cut! If I end up getting frustrated, I can go see if the framework Love it, Change it, Leave it helps me out. Perhaps it’s not a 50/50, but a one month this way and another month that way. Perhaps it’s odd days this, even days that. Perhaps I set an interim milestone goal until which I try out “all or nothing” and the I re-evaluate if my values are still active and still at war which each other. Whatever works.

I don’t think that there is a rule that fits everybody, but the more clarity I have about my various values, about the motivations behind and consequences of my decisions, the more concretely I can formulate a goal, the more realistic my chances for conflicts to be addressed in advance and the more realistic for me to successfully cater to all my values, to achieve my goals or to implement that change.

Picture: geralt via Pixabay / CC0


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