Value Journaling

by ProofOfLogic4 min read25th Jan 201717 comments


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I like to link to the Minding Our Way sequence on overcoming guilt a lot, but I've recently gone and added "information hazard" warnings to several of my posts which link there. Someone pointed out to me that the sequence destroys some people's current (guilt-based) motivation without successfully building up an alternative, making it a somewhat risky thing to try.

In light of that problem, I was thinking about what practices might help build up the kind of positive motivation that sequence is aiming at.

I was also listening to an audiobook on cognitive behavioral therapy. The book mentioned gratitude journaling, a practice which has proved surprisingly effective for boosting mood and getting longer and more refreshing sleep. The practice is simple: every week, write down five things which you were grateful for. (Once a week seems to be about right; writing more often is less effective.)

Gratitude journaling is the proven practice here, and if you want guaranteed results, you're better off trying it rather than the technique I'm going to describe here. But, we'd never have new techniques if someone didn't make them up!

I wanted to make a version of gratitude journaling which might be more suited to aspiring rationalists. I decided that it could be combined with the idea of value affirmation. Value affirmation (surprisingly) shows positive effects a year later, after just 15 minutes spent writing about what you value in life. Might it be useful to write about what we value more often? Perhaps repeating the value-affirmation exercise exactly would get old fast (since values do not change that much from week to week), but if we tie our values to things which happened recently, we get something which looks a lot like gratitude journaling.

That's the basic idea -- write about what you valued over the past week. What follows are my elaborations based on several weeks of trying it out.


Value Inventory

Over the first week or so, it seemed useful to me to do the values journaling almost every day. I was still doing a lot of mapping out of what I value overall. (I suspect the right frequency of writing is "however much you feel like" -- reduced/eliminated effect size when doing gratitude journaling too often is likely tied to forcing it when you don't have much to say. But, that's just my speculation.)

I started a list of core values, which I kept adding to when I noticed new things, and re-organizing whet I noticed values that could be clustered together. There's a risk of only putting down values which you reflectively endorse -- IE, things your system 2 thinks you should value. This could (imho) squish your intrinsic motivation. Try and figure out what you really want; what really motivates you. I took inspiration from an Agenty Duck post, The People In My Head Who Make Me Do Things. What she did was write down all the things she did over the past week matching the description "Doing What We Want Instead of What We're Supposed To Do". She then clustered those into drives, which she gave names to and personified.

I think that's a great way of looking at it. Uncovering "hidden" motives like this can be helpful in debugging procrastination and other habits. So, over my first week, I paid a lot of attention to activities I "shouldn't be doing" and what underlying values I was satisfying with those activities. I also ended up borrowing her idea of giving names to my core values and writing the value journal like a "weekly meeting" in which those personified values come together and discuss the week.

Don't let this stop you from putting values you "think you should have" on the list, though. These are legitimate wants, too. In my case, I ended up putting these "should" values on the list, but later collapsing them into more intrinsic desires once I recognized where the want was coming from more clearly.

The Role of Positive

So, my journaling evolved into a kind of "roll call" in which I tried to write down something from the past week connecting with each core value which I had identified, breaking out into little discussions between these personified values when it seemed appropriate.

Mentioning something positive for each core value, and keeping the tone of the journal mostly positive, is important for several reasons.

  • Keeping the practice of value journaling associated with positive feelings makes it more sustainable. If every time you do value journaling you're beating yourself up over what you should have done, you'll come to develop an ugh field around it and stop.
  • Criticisms are not sensible without positive alternatives. You might criticize yourself by saying you shouldn't do this or that, but this is not actionable without stating what it is that you would like yourself to do instead.
  • This is about connecting with your values. Even if you have an alternative (you're criticizing yourself by saying you should do this or that), clearly stating why you would like yourself to do this will tend to be more motivating than berating yourself. And clearly stating your motivation, rather than just what you think you should be doing, will tend to open up possible alternative solutions.
  • If you're not doing what you think you should be doing, there is probably some reason for that. Some part of you is motivated to do the thing which "you" think you shouldn't do. It will be more productive to identify (and personify) that other value, and then have a discussion between your several values to see what can best satisfy all of them. Labeling one motivating value as "bad" does not enable that kind of introspection. Be charitable toward your own actions and find your positive reasons for doing them before you try to impose better alternative actions on yourself.

The Role of Negative

Positivity is also good for a few other reasons. People like to be around happy people who say positive things. Maybe positivity also provides some safeguard against learned helplessness and stress. That being said, we also need the negative. Positive thinking alone can actually de-motivate you, as if some part of your motivation system is satisfied to sit back and visualize success. Mental contrasting, in which we visualize the positive outcome we want alongside the negative which we'd like to avoid, is more effective.1 Along similar lines, stoicism recommends negative visualization as a way to come to appreciate the things you have.

So, along with my appreciation of the positive things which happened over the past week, I try to also note the negative which was avoided. This actually makes it even more similar to gratitude journaling. I also do some self-criticism, so long as I can link it to positive motives as I discussed in the previous section. The value journal acts as a kind of weekly review, so it's good to do some debugging in there! (Again, I find discussions between personified values to be helpful there. This can become quite similar to a CFAR technique called "internal double crux", but I don't think there's a nice blog post summary of that technique yet. The basic idea is to double crux different parts of yourself which disagree.)


It's at least interesting to create a map of your values by spending a little time doing this. It's also a potentially useful way of connecting to your intrinsic motivations. You can use this information in further self-debugging. For example, if you do this for several weeks, you can start to identify values which don't get much attention or don't connect with things in your life right now. These may give you focus in looking for ways to improve your life.

You can also start to identify the motives behind your actions in everyday life in terms of the core values you've identified. Since you've made sure to identify the core values as positive things you want, this can change your self-model from things like "I'm being lazy" to things like "I'm making room for random exploration of the internet" or "I'm satisfying my need for self-direction, because everything else I did today was imposed by someone else". Having the underlying goals brought to the surface in this way can help you change your behavior, by thinking about whether it's a good trade-off in a way that doesn't ignore your true desires. Or, it can make you OK with your existing behavior in a way you weren't before.



1: Oettingen, Gabrielle (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking.

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