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Photo by Annie Spratt

The “Values Hack”

February 11, 2016
By Jodie Richardson, PhD, Psychologist

My clients send me the most interesting articles and last week, true to her nature, one of my clients sent me a thoughtful piece on some possible limitations of mindfulness. I read through it and was happy to see that the author was not just trying to find something wrong with a now very popular practice, and thought he made some interesting points about the limitation of mindfulness in helping people make meaning out of things. This point reminded me of a discussion our team had a few months back after one of our mindfulness training sessions, and triggered my desire to write this post. After a 45-minute meditation in November I asked my colleague Natsumi (who I teasingly call my mindfulness guru) “What about making meaning out of things?” “What do you mean?” She asked in her inquisitive, soft, non-judgmental tone. I was struggling with how to integrate this thing that I do which I (again lightheartedly) call a “Values Hack” into my attempt to live mindfully. To clarify things I will define them both.

Mindfulness helps us notice, be present, without judgment and practice being with whatever comes up without trying to change it or make it go away and to do so with compassion and kindness for the self and others (in a nutshell and from my junior yet consistent mindfulness practice).

A “Values Hack” on the other hand is about changing the present moment by changing your mindset to create moments of meaning out of otherwise stressful, boring, or tedious situations.

  • Step 1. Know your values (i.e., what is important to you). A helpful way to learn what is important to you is to think about the people who are living the way that you want to live. Please see my first blog post for some tips on doing this (you can scroll all the way down to the second to last paragraph if you wish to skip the rest). For example, some of my values include, curiosity, learning, connection, kindness, humility, hard work, courage and gratitude. Some come naturally, some I have to really work at cultivating.                        
  • Step 2. Remember your values on a daily basis and call on them to guide your actions and your mindset, especially in difficult situations. This might sound easy but it is incredibly hard because a lot of times we have these voices in our heads yelling just the opposite of what our values may stand for.

How is this different from mindfulness? Let’s take an example.

Your friend just came back from an amazing trip to Barcelona and is excited to show you all her pictures! You didn’t have the money to go on vacation this year and are feeling tired and overwhelmed with work. Well, you might quite automatically feel jealous, angry, or sad because it feels unfair that she gets to go on vacation and you don’t, you feel so tired and are wondering when you’ll get a break.

In my experience mindfulness would have you notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations that come up in this experience, accept them without judgment and possibly practice loving kindness towards your friend and yourself.  This is useful and would likely stop you from saying some passive-aggressive comment to your friend about how you heard Bora Bora is better than Barcelona at this time of year.

The values hack is different in that it really is about changing your mindset about the situation — remembering your values and making meaning out of an otherwise unpleasant situation. So, for example taking this as an opportunity to learn about a different culture, or to connect with your friend while sharing something important to her, or to practice gratitude for what you do have.

My colleague Lisa told me she hacked herself when she found she could not get on her treadmill because she had so many boxes stored on it and was procrastinating about cleaning it off – she changed her mindset to view the cleaning as part of the exercise process, giving meaning to lifting those heavy boxes and cleared the space for her exercise that day. This “values hack” has helped me more than any other tool I’ve ever come across. I helps me get things done, make moments of meaning out of otherwise stressful or negative situations and ultimately live more in line with what is important to me. When I have tough decisions to make they are so much easier because if it’s in line with my values I can more easily choose to just move forward with it despite the insecurities, judgments, and what-ifs in my head.

So, I come back to the question how does this integrate with mindfulness? I think some people more naturally gravitate to acceptance and being present and others, like me, more naturally want to find some sense of meaning or control. This was so well exemplified one day when Natsumi and I were driving in the car together back from a conference and stuck in major traffic. Both of us had some stress because we knew we had to be back for something at a certain time but we both managed not to get on that stress train and fill the car with useless negativity about something we couldn’t control. When I asked her how she coped with the traffic she said she took the opportunity to be present and was noticing how beautiful the world around her was (the clouds, the trees). I on the other hand, I had used my values hack to see this as more time to connect with Natsumi & learn from her as I knew she would be leaving us soon to explore the world and then move to the other side of Canada!

So, coming back to this conversation we had in which I asked Natsumi how I could integrate my values hack with mindfulness, her response was perfectly mindful in that she was curious, non-judgmental and… did not give me an answer. And I love her for this. Losing her made me realize how much I need mindfulness in my own life – sometimes it’s about making meaning out of things and that does give me a much needed sense of control but sometimes it’s about noticing what’s going on without trying to change it or control it in any way and that is so much harder for me to do but it is what I love and find so reassuring in other people. So, try them both on for size, see which one fits you most naturally, see which one might seem foreign or new. Practice them both and see what you think. I think I hacked myself because I added mindfulness to my list of values to practice. I have my suspicions that it’s not just another value but a different layer entirely. I’ll meditate on it… 

For more on mindfulness see Natsumi’s blog posts:

Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide

Three Simple Mindfulness Practices For Coping With Difficult Experiences and Emotions in Day-to-Day Life

For more on your values check out:

The Upside of Stress, by Kelly McGonigal (it’s packed full of research about changing your Mindset and the first half has a lot of values-based exercises)


Baumeister, R.F. (2013). The Meanings of Life, aeon.

The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) Website