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To Live by Your Deeper Values, Ask This Question

By February 21, 2024No Comments


There is one quality, more than any other, that leads predictably to greater success and effectiveness in the world: the ability to choose between short term pleasure/avoidance of pain on the one hand, and longer-term goals and values on the other.

People who have a strong capacity for delaying gratification like this are more successful academically and professionally, earn higher incomes, have better relationships, and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior or destructive personal habits.

We can deliberately grow this quality in ourselves.

For most of us, most of the time, this comes down to a question of consistency around more subtle day to day choices: Do I spend this next hour focused on my work project, or scrolling social media? Do I go to a somewhat challenging social event or stay home? Do I get up and do a workout, or sleep in? Do I make the effort to spend time connecting with my spouse or allow myself to get distracted with other things?

I’ve been working with people as a teacher, Marriage and Family therapist, and coach for over 40 years now. I have worked – and continue to work – with people all over the world via phone and video. In all that time, across many different cultures, there’s one question that I’ve found more effective than any other in clarifying these choices, so that the better decision stands in stark relief.

Here is that question:

“What will I be proud of tomorrow?”

(When I use the word pride, I mean a healthy pride, not boastful arrogance. I mean that good feeling we get when we’ve earned something, when we’ve done something challenging, and come through it well. But pride can have a negative connotation for some people, so if you prefer, you can say it as: “What will I feel better about having done – or not done – tomorrow?”)

  • If you’re wondering whether to save and invest that extra money, or spend it on a short-term impulse… what will you be proud of tomorrow?
  • If you’re not sure whether you should let your spouse know how much he or she means to you… what will you be proud of tomorrow?
  • If you’re trying to decide whether to cut corners on your work project, or spend the extra time and energy to do it right… what will you be proud of tomorrow?
  • If you’re more on the introverted end of the spectrum, and you feel like staying home instead of getting together with friends… what will you be proud of tomorrow?
  • If you don’t know if you should accept a challenging new opportunity, or stay within your comfort range… what will you be proud of tomorrow?

Too often we put our short-term impulses up against an abstract goal far off in the future:

  • I want to lose weight and live healthier so I’ll be able to be active when I’m older, maybe a few decades from now… but this double bacon cheeseburger with a side of doughnuts is calling to me right now.
  • I want to retire with a good amount of money, but this new car would be so much fun to drive right now.
  • I want to build a great relationship over the years with my spouse, but I’m too busy this week to make time for a two-hour date.

When our long-term goals are too abstract or far away, they are no match for the pure emotional pull of our impulses toward pleasure or away from pain or struggle. Our future self that far away might as well be a different person entirely. It’s too distant to experience a strong sense of ourselves emotionally so many years from now.

That’s why this question is so powerful. We’re not imagining years or decades from now; we’re imagining tomorrow, a single night’s sleep away.

Tomorrow we’re pretty much the same person as we are today, same feelings, same experiences, same hopes and dreams. So if we can imagine how we’ll likely feel tomorrow having made one choice, or having made the other choice, we should be able to discern a clear difference between the two.

If we imagine which choice will bring us, with the next sunrise, more positive emotions, including a healthy sense of pride in having made the right choice, that emotional clarity can help us to make the better long-term decision.

Looking at how we will feel tomorrow gives us enough distance from the immediate impulses of pleasure or avoidance of pain so that we’re not ruled by those impulses.

It also gives us an emotional window into our deeper values and priorities. It helps to connect us to the kind of person we want to be.

  • If I will feel proud of myself tomorrow if I exercise today instead of sleeping in, that tells me that living fitter and healthier matters to me.
  • If I will feel proud of myself tomorrow if I carve out 2 hours for a date with my spouse instead of putting it off another week, that tells me that my love relationship matters to me.
  • If I will feel proud of myself tomorrow if I put in the extra effort on a work project now instead of cutting corners, that tells me that doing an excellent job matters to me.

Every life is a story. We organize our experience into a story, with triumphs, disappointments, comedy, tragedy, pride, regret – and a world of other qualities. The clearer we are about the kind of person we want to be, and the more effectively we can frame our choices day to day, the more likely we’ll be to choose the kind of words and deeds that reflect the kind of person we want to be.

Another way to approach this is to ask the following question in the morning:

“For me to make my life story one that I can be happy with and proud of, what do I need to do today?”

Then when you come up against what feel like important choices – big or small – during each day, ask yourself, “What will I be proud of tomorrow?”

You may still choose that double bacon cheeseburger from time to time; perfection is rarely a useful standard. But by keeping this question in mind, the larger patterns of your life will move you toward the kind of person you want to be.

PS: I currently have some openings available for life coaching. Go to my website to sign up for a free 30-minute initial conversation.