“Are you busy with purpose or just busy?” Using values to get more meaning and joy from your to-do list

Living your values to find meaning in your to-do list. Image: Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

In a meritocracy an individual’s progress is based on their talent, energy and achievement, as opposed to say social class or wealth. That’s a good thing but it’s not all skittles and rainbows.

Merit-worthy achievements are determined and recognised through various social structures (parents, friends, social media etc), not necessary by ourselves. This is a slippery slope to a busy but unsatisfying life.

In modern society, merit-worthy status and achievement is far too often linked with hustle, long-hours and exhaustion. These things hold status in themselves, regardless of what the task was that kept us away from our friends, family or bed for a good night’s sleep. If you tick these boxes, go to the top of the class in the meritocracy. You are achieving, you are productive. Yay for productivity!

But how are YOU feeling when you do this? Are these achievements leaving you exhausted, uninspired and dreading tomorrow?

I love being productive. I love ticking things off my to-do list. Feeling productive is so important for the sense of self, but it’s important to pause and question what meaning the activities hold for us. Are we keeping ourselves busy and productive, but doing activities that hold no meaning for us? Is the status bestowed by the meritocracy upon productive people enough to keep us satisfied? From my experience it sure is seductive, but the answer is; no.

So let’s dig a little deeper and re-examine our to-do lists.

How can you tell if you’re busy with purpose or just busy?

“Living Your Values” is the difference, and your body’s response to your to-do list is a good place to start to check how you’re going.

When you look at your to-do list, is there anything on there that sparks joy (sorry Ms Kondo)? Are there items that may be challenging but that hold a meaning for you that makes them worthwhile?

Or is the list long and dull, and set to repeat week after week?

Take a moment and a few breaths. Feel any sensations that come up in your body (not your head) when you consider your to-do list. Sensations are captured with descriptive words and perhaps even a bodily locus like; fizzy in my tummy, tight in my chest, lightness in my shoulders, tingling in my fingers, heaviness, calmness etc.

If you find yourself using descriptors like anxious, excited, bored — these are coming from your head — your analytical mind is giving you conceptual descriptions. Take one more breath and see if you can pick up any sensations in your body.

Don’t worry if you can’t discern anything; just noticing that is an awesome place to start.

If your to-do list has you feeling nothing or a bunch of negative sensations then there is a good chance you might be able to get more pep in your step by consciously introducing one or two activities that are aligned with your values — or tweaking the ones already there to make them a bit more spark-inducing.

But what are my values you might ask?! A fair question given many of us spend years if not decades pursuing goals that we never even knew we could question: getting a degree, taking that job/promotion, getting married, starting a family. Our values are as unique as we are.

Values shape the kind of person we want to be, and are our guide posts to what brings meaning into our lives and where we need to focus our efforts to create the change we want to see in our lives.

You can better align with your values right now, and start getting a bit more of that warm sense of meaning.

There are many ways to identify your own values. One I’ll share here requires a little imagination on your part. Imagine you’re at your 100th birthday (still looking fabulous). When you hear the speeches from your family and friends you feel great contentment because you have lived a full life rich with meaning. What are some of your attributes mentioned by family and friends in their speeches (TIP: look for character attributes, not goals achieved)?

This little exercise is a playful way to start uncovering your values. Looking at your to-do list, do these values relate to anything on your list? Can you embody any of these values in the tasks you’ve identified? For example, paying the bills may not light your soul on fire, but it may well align with a value you hold dear, such as caring for yourself and family, or being responsible. When these otherwise mundane tasks are re-framed with values, it is easier to hold space for the unpleasant feelings they invoke (perhaps in the case of paying bills these may be feelings of boredom or annoyance). And along side these unpleasant feelings you can tap into the more positive drivers of your values, helping you to get through your to-do list without the struggle.

Having identified some of your values, you may also now target your efforts on what activities to add to your to-do list, or remove from it if you are able to. This will turbo charge your efforts to create a life with more meaning and joy. I spent years trying to create change in my life by trying new jobs that all ended up being the same. I fell into that trap because I was using a set of criteria in my decision making that didn’t align with my true values. I was being guided by a bunch of “shoulds” I’d picked up from external influences that I thought were the recipe for success. It wasn’t until I questioned this framework and starting truly following my values that I started to get busy with purpose, rather than just busy.

Life Coach, speaker & blogger helping people feeling stuck or confused in their professional or work routine. Follow her @jengwynnjonescoaching