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The Key to Reducing Stress & Gaining Clear Direction

During the 1990s, a cluster of Stanford University students returned home for winter break. Over that period of time, they’d been given an assignment to keep a daily journal. The journal was to contain entries about their most significant, personal values, and then to explain how their regular activities were connected to those values. The task was simple but profound.

A different collection of students was tasked with documenting the positive experiences they had had over their break. Nothing about any values.

When both groups of students returned to school, the researchers analyzed their responses and were shocked by the results: overall, students who had written about their personal values were in better health, experienced less sickness, and had better stamina and attitudes than the group of students who wrote about the positive experiences in their lives.

This was intriguing to me—so I dug a little deeper.

Over the years, these findings have been duplicated in dozens of other studies. Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal writes in her book, The Upside of Stress:

It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

Wow. Those are some tangible benefits to writing out our values.

Three Simple Steps to Get Started

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The next time you’re with a cluster of students, why not lead them in this exercise? Let me get you started with some simple steps I’ve taken over the years.

  1. Identify the Values in Your Life

Take a few hours and write out the words that describe your most important ideals and principles—the values that define the person you want to become. They can be nouns or adjectives. Then, add a statement that defines exactly what you mean by each word. Limit your list to six values. Let me offer some guidelines as you write:

  • Values can be defined with simple words describing what you deeply believe.
  • Values are words that explain what you live by or what you want to live by.
  • Values describe who you are and are guidelines for your big decisions.
  • Values are stronger than thoughts or opinions. They stir the heart.
  • Values are ideals of you at your best.
  • Values are the inner-based principles that will fuel the direction of your life.
  1. Include Those Values in Your Decisions

Next, post your values where you can see them every day. Memorize them. Whenever you have a significant decision to make—one that’s not black and white but perhaps a bit gray—consult those values. Do they guide you? Can you let them act as a consultant in the choices you make?

  1. Implement Your Values in Your Routines

Finally, come up with actions that enable you to actually embody the values in your daily habits. This will help you immensely when you get outside of your daily habits. Your subconscious will take over and steer you in the best direction. You will naturally choose wisely.

Kelly McGonigal concludes:

In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with goals from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping. In many cases, these benefits are a result of a one-time mindset intervention. People who write about their values once, for ten minutes, show benefits months or even years later.

Grab some students and let’s start writing.

P.S. To go deeper, you’ll find guides for this exercise in Habitudes®: The Art of Self Leadership and Habitudes for the Journey


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The Key to Reducing Stress & Gaining Clear Direction