I’m big on values and principles as an approach to automating decision making. When I first read Getting Things Done by David Allen I seem to recall feeling there was an idea that identifying values and principles was not seen as helpful while you’re being overwhelmed; vacuuming while the house is on fire.

There’s definitely something to that.

Having said that, knowing where north is and having it written down beats all hell out of trying to find it in the dark. In early 2021 I decided to leave a project I was on despite not having another place to go and the client wanting me to stick around. This was something of an existential crisis for me.

The conversation in my head boiled down to two things:

  1. You’ve never given up before.
  2. Why this time?

So, I went to the documents that describe who I am in terms of values, principles, practices, and tools. And, in a few minutes, I knew exactly why I was determined to leave that gig.

If I didn’t have those things captured outside myself, it might have taken longer. (In fact, to be honest and transparent, it took me a day or two to go look at those documents—just not something I do regularly in crisis.)

The Motivators exercise can help you uncover and articulate your own character sheet. The exercise was inspired by Dan Pink’s work in the book Drive, Gary Chapman with the The 5 Love Languages, and some generation-based research.

The exercise comes in a short version and an extended version. Let’s start with the short.

You take a list of motivators and sort them in priority order for yourself from most motivating to least motivating. Here are the motivators:

Having a master-level understanding of the endeavors you pursue.
The freedom to choose your own adventure; what you do, when you do, how you do, and so on.
The reason or “why” behind things.
Relationships with others (The 5 Love Languages).
The order and formal nature of things.
Negative consequences for your actions.
The facts and figures of things (includes money).
The appreciation and recognition of others or a label that implies more responsibility or respect (office manager not secretary, custodial engineer not janitor, and so on).

Now, just put them in order. Here’s mine as of this writing (I review it about once a year):

  1. purpose,
  2. autonomy,
  3. mastery,
  4. connection,
  5. numbers,
  6. process,
  7. prestige, and
  8. sticks.

Here’s the thing, the order just ensures one thing is greater than the other. If you want, you can lay them out linearly on a scale to show the distance between them.

For example, my top four are pretty close to each other. “Sticks” though has a lot of distance between it and prestige; almost to the point of being able to say I’m anti-stick. You wanna threaten to hit me with a stick? I’ll probably let you hit me just out of spite; check out the movie Good Will Hunting when they’re talking about abusive parents.

Anyway. Let’s see what the expanded version looks like. Basically we’re going to replace “connection” with each of the five love languages. My extended version looks like this:

  1. purpose,
  2. autonomy,
  3. physical touch (I’m big on hugs and high-fives),
  4. words of affirmation,
  5. quality time,
  6. mastery,
  7. numbers,
  8. acts of service,
  9. receiving gifts,
  10. process,
  11. prestige, and
  12. sticks.

From this exercise I can start to get a sense of some basic values: purpose and autonomy, for example. This self-knowledge can help me reflect on practices and tools I use; are they in keeping with these values?

And this is how I find identifying your values, principles, practices (or habits), and tools goes. It’s nonlinear. You don’t need to figure out your life’s purpose before determining your values before stating your principles and so on. Instead, you can start by cataloging your practices and asking yourself why that’s a practice. Or start listing tools you use and ask why you use that tool.

Feel like another example is in order. I use pen-and-paper (tools) for capturing todo items (practice) because I don’t want to forget and I don’t want my mind cluttered. The last bit is in keeping with the principle: Your mind is for having ideas, not storing them. Further, the last bit is in keeping with my value of integrity (keeping my word to self and others).

There’s more but I want to keep it simple; another value I have. Hopefully it demonstrates the non-linear nature and how the simplest starting point can roll you into other things.

The Motivators exercise is a way to get away from the writer’s block often comes from being asked to figure out what you want to be if you grow up.