Society can make you feel like you need to value almost everything, but carrying too much can make it hard to move forward.

The hardest kind of creative task is one where you have no limits and you can do whatever you want. It’s the ‘dizziness of freedom’ or ‘paralysis of choice’ phenomenon that a blank page or a white canvas presents. When you think about what you might want to do with your entire life, the possibilities stretch out so far that setting up some intentional values and goals can be very difficult . You also need to be somewhat selective. If you try to take everything along, you won’t be able to go as far.

Note – by ‘values’ I mean the things that you place importance on, not your principles

Working in strategy, I was often posed with similarly vague challenges. Often, executives would just ask for ideas for the organisation ‘to do something’ in a particular sector with no further details on the brief! A common way to approach this kind of potentially limitless task is to workshop ideas as a team. You are encouraged to consider the extreme ‘bookends’ of scenarios, think outside the box and not be restricted by existing circumstances or things like budget. Once this ‘ideation’ stage is complete you can then focus on what is realistic, or start to create your own parameters around what you need a project to deliver. The best workshops don’t just start with a blank piece of A3 however, a creative exercise is often used to kickstart the thinking process.

I felt I needed something similar to help me frame what I want in life in the long-term and give myself some direction. It helped me to get rid of the ‘blank page’ feeling, by being able to set out a draft of what I wanted, knowing that the details can be filled in or changed at any time as circumstances change.

Consider your ideal life

The first thing I did was to think about what I pictured as my ideal life and what I valued most. I got this idea from the book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne, and found it a good starting point to think about what I wanted. I have set out a downloadable ‘cheat-sheet’ of questions to ask yourself, to help build out your ideal life and then find your values from this.

I considered six main values; contributing to society and the environment, living peacefully, being financially independent, pursuing hobbies and personal projects, being fit and healthy and maintaining good family and partner relationships. Your values should be personal to you and you should summarise why they are important to you. This might take some deep thinking and you should interrogate your reasoning as much as possible.

If you have a what answer, you need to keep asking why until you have the fundamental rational and can assign it to the right value. For example, ‘working in a job’ is not a value but ‘having comfortable finances’ or ‘contributing to society’ might be the values that your job supports.

I then thought about how I would want to fulfil these values. I didn’t include any specifics, but did set out as much detail as possible in terms of the parameters around each. For example, ‘living peacefully’ didn’t mean ‘moving to New Zealand’ but did mean ‘living in a rural location’. I didn’t constrain myself by what my current life looks like, and tried to think about what I wanted long-term rather than short term or ‘holiday’ visions. Perhaps most importantly I was really honest with myself about what I wanted and didn’t put down things that were expected of me or that other people wanted for me.

Rank your ‘ideal’ components

I then went through what I had described as my ideal life, and considered how important each element actually was. I critically analysed which aspects were show-stoppers, and which were just ‘nice to have’ or wouldn’t really factor into any big decisions. Do I care more about the number of hours that I want to work or the sector that I’m working in? Do I care more about living close to a city in a nice apartment or not having any debt?

I ranked each item according to its importance in my ‘ideal life’ and gave it a number. You don’t need to agonise over this ranking as you can always come back and re-jig things when you review, but I found it helpful to compare each aspect against the others to decide what was really critical. Some things I found that I really didn’t care too deeply about, however I didn’t delete them as I find them useful when I come to review to check on whether they have changed in their details or have become more important.

Look at how your ideal life parameters intersect and come up with a cohesive framework

Consider how some aspects of your ideal life might complement and reinforce each other, and how some directly work against each other. Use your rankings to help you decide which things are non-negotiable, and which could be modified to make room for something more important.

For example, living in a four-bedroom house in inner-city Sydney and being financially independent might only work if you are in a high-paying job and willing to work long hours. Conversely, being fit and healthy will complement a hobby of hiking and camping.

Keep going until you have something that looks cohesive and achievable. Try and think outside of the box for perhaps unconventional ways of meeting your values (or set up tasks to research them). Do you need permanent employment or could contract work or consulting better enable you to achieve your goals? Do you need to own the suburban house with the big mortgage or will the flexibility of renting tick more boxes?

Set goals for each value

Once I had settled on what my ideal life looks like for each value, I then set up a new spreadsheet to plan out goals. For I value I set out why it is important, how I plan to achieve what I want and a set of goals that describe what I need to do to get there. These are not meant to be set in stone for the rest of your life, but it does help detail out how you can achieve what you want and highlights the kind of day-to-day decisions and sacrifices you might need to make.

The first row sets out the why to remind myself of the rationale behind the value, and I also put a little inspiring picture at the top of each one. I then summarise how I plan to realise this value in a single sentence that includes all the important parameters, leaving out anything that I had decided wasn’t important. I then set out 1-year, 3-year and 5-year goals in order to reach this end-goal, and how I am going to track and make progress towards the first goal. For example, for my financially independent value I might track saving goals through a savings plan, and make progress by doing a budget every pay day. Or for my being fit and healthy value I might track progress through my regular ‘things to pay attention to’ checklist, and make progress by setting out gym sessions in my weekly routine. It’s fine to leave as much of this blank as you need to, but if you find the why box blank you should really consider whether or not it is one of your values.


Include a review of my values and goals as part of my regular monthly checklist. It helps me keep on track with any regular habits by reminding me why I’m doing them in the first place, identify any tasks or commitments that are not contributing to a value, and consider whether my values still hold true. I also review the parameters for how I am going to fulfil my values, and what the goals need to be.

Further reading

What strategies have you used to focus your values? What stayed in and what did you let go? Leave a comment and share your story!