Unlocking the Key to Genuine Living: How to Bridge the Gap Between Your Values and Actions

Photo by Bruno Gomiero

Ever catch yourself wondering, "What have I been doing with myself? " Or perhaps you’ve found yourself looking back on your week on Saturday and realizing you didn’t accomplish any of the things you set out to do the Sunday before. You're not alone. These sentiments often reveal a misalignment between our actions and our values. It's a subtle but profound disconnection that can leave us feeling adrift, with little to show for our efforts. When I hear clients talking about lost time, I know we need to take a step back so we can realign their daily actions with their overarching values.

When Our Thoughts Don’t Match Our Actions

Have you heard the term cognitive dissonance before? It’s when we experience an unpleasant state when our thoughts don’t match our actions (Festinger 1957). We then either change our behaviors or we change our thoughts since either will get rid of the negative state of mind. For example, if I value meaningful connection with my best friend but then realize I’m spending much of our time together scrolling mindlessly on my phone, I’ll either find ways to decrease my phone use and increase connection (change my behavior) or I’ll rationalize my phone use by thinking, “I’m in the middle of a big project right now,” or “She’s on her phone too so it’s not a big deal,” (change my thoughts).

When our values and actions aren’t aligned, we usually experience some level of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps you notice some sort of inner conflict because you value courage but haven’t yet asked for a raise at work. Or maybe you value adventure but feel constant anxiety because you’re spending all your free time binge watching shows. You might even find yourself justifying your behaviors to yourself or others (“My boss is too busy to talk to me about a raise”). You may realize you’re seeking the approval of others and when they affirm your actions, you feel some relief.

We all go through cognitive dissonance for different beliefs, values, and thoughts. It’s part of being human. But when we notice that we’re not living the life we want or that we’re consistently experiencing inner conflict, anxiety about our actions (or inactions), justification of our behaviors, or approval seeking from others, it’s time to deal with it and face it head on.

Time to Bridge the Gap

Photo by Henri Pham

To realign our values and actions, I like to walk my clients through the following steps. Some take longer to do than others, but if you take the time to get clear on your values and accurately assess how you’re spending your time, you’ll find it easier to create the change you desire. Grab a notebook or journal to get started. 

  • Get clear on your core values. Core values are like a filter through which you make decisions. They offer guidance on whether something is good fit for you. Start by creating boxes for each of the most important areas of your life like professional (which includes school and/or work), relationships (which includes family and friends), physical health (which includes exercise), and hobbies/leisure (which includes anything you do for fun or recreation). Use the following list of values to identify your three core values in each of the areas of your life.
    Core Values list: Excellence, Passionate, Collaborative, Respect, Progressive, Integrity, Adventure, Courage, Adaptability, Creativity, Compassion, Achievement, Honesty, Commitment, Freedom, Authenticity, Beauty, Friendship, Wisdom, Determination, Gratitude, Fairness, Balance, Equality, Boldness, Community.
  • Do a time audit. Using your planner, calendar, or memory, write down everything you did for the last two days, from the time you woke up until the time you went to sleep. Include all the little things too, like scrolling, reading a few pages in your book, listening to a podcast while commuting, responding to emails, talking/texting with your sister….
  • Categorize each task/activity with the area of life it corresponds. For example, listening to a podcast might fall under leisure while responding to emails might go with professional. You can categorize by putting a “P” for professional, “R” for relationships, “PH” for physical health, and “H/L” for hobbies/leisure next to each activity.
  • Do a values audit. Next to each activity, rate how aligned it is with your core values in that area. Using a scale of 0-10 where 0 means it’s not aligned at all and a 10 means it’s completely aligned, rate every single activity. For example, if one of my professional activities was “respond to emails” and one of my core values for my professional area of life is Passionate, I’d rate that as a 1 since it’s not something I’m passionate about doing. If one of my hobbies/leisure activities is CrossFit and one of my core values for that area of life is Adventure, I’d rate that as a 6.
  • Reflect on your numbers. What patterns do you notice? Perhaps you notice that many of your professional activities are rated low while your hobbies/leisure activities are high. Where are you spending most of your time? For instance, are you spending most of your time in low value activities or high value ones? Is your day balanced between the different categories of life or is much of your time in one area? Make any notes about your observations.
  • What changes do you need to make? Considering your observations, where do you see the need for biggest change? If you’re overwhelmed because it seems like a lot of change is needed, focus in on one thing first. Which change would have the biggest impact? And if that still feels overwhelming, consider one small step that you could take immediately that would lead you towards change.

Evolution and Metamorphosis

Acknowledging and tackling cognitive dissonance is crucial for attaining harmony between our values and actions. It is not uncommon to experience internal discord, unease, and rationalization when our behaviors stray from our closely held beliefs. But through deliberate introspection, we can kick start the journey towards reharmonization. Therefore, whenever you catch yourself reflecting on wasted time or scrutinizing your choices, recognize it as a chance for evolution and metamorphosis. Embrace it wholeheartedly and set off on the quest for genuine and intentional living. 


Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Recognized nationally for her expertise, Dr. Melanie has been invited to the White House to discuss the paramount importance of teen mental health. To learn more about cognitive dissonance and mental health, check out Dr. Melanie McNally's Therapy Bootcamp.

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