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Guiding Principles First, Goals Second.

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

I was exhausted when I arrived back at my room in El Tunco, El Salvador late one evening in 2018. Luckily, I still had leftovers from a nutrient rich meal that I prepared two days earlier. Sitting down to eat, I simultaneously opened the map for the trip planned for the next day; an almost 20-hour long journey to Nicaragua through Honduras. I finished my meal and began to pack my bag, only to realize that I didn’t have any fruits, seeds or oats left (nor had I prepared a meal) for the long trip ahead. There was still one small store open in town, yet it was a 30-minute walk away and by this time I was already comfortably settled into my room for the night.

‘What to do?’ I thought out loud. Although I knew from earlier bus trips through Central America that it was unlikely there would be a quality food place on any of the stopovers, I convinced myself to stay in bed and avoid the uncomfortable walk to the store.

No surprise, the next day of travel there was no nutrient rich food to be found. Since fasting wasn’t embedded in my system by then, I had no other choice but to eat what was available; processed and deep fried ‘delicacies’ that I was able to find on two stopovers. This was a day I highly regretted later. My body was not only exhausted from the travel, but the lack of high-quality nutrition did nothing to improve my mood or physical energy. While this situation turned out to be even more stressful than the initial walk to the store the previous night would have been, fortunately it also served as one of many situations that have helped me clarify what matters most. This, my friends, is what I want to talk to you about today.

Unexpected situations, challenges and discomfort are inherent to life. During moments like this most people become highly vulnerable to losing sight of their goals, which can cause you to act in impulsive, detrimental ways. In ways that might seem reasonable in the face of discomfort, but which you will probably regret afterwards. This is exactly what happened to me on that long bus ride through Central America I just described. The thing is, it does not have to be this way.

The question is, how exactly do you prepare for the unexpected, when by its very nature it cannot be anticipated?

Avoiding stressful, unpredictable events and uncomfortable situations altogether is not the solution. Not only is this impossible, it is also undesirable. Short bouts of stress, also known as acute stress, increase physiological resilience and enhance cognitive performance due to the release of the adrenal hormones DHEA-S and cortisol (Quinn et al, 2018) (Shield et al, 2016). Further, acute stress or discomfort is a natural companion to goal attainment and overall self-development. It is a mandatory part of the process if you are someone who sets high standards and above average goals.

So, if stress is necessary and avoidance of uncertainty is not the solution, what then is the antidote? Like many things related to self-development, the answer is not found outside of yourself, but rather through internal adjustments to how you interpret acute stressors and discomfort.

One extremely potent strategy to adjust your internal interpretations and management of stress is something I call clarifying your guiding principles. This is a strategy that I personally use and one that many of my clients have had success in working with during their transformation process.

The strategy of clarifying your guiding principles is inspired by the research of Stanford University Psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal. McGonigal does a beautiful job illustrating the powerful effects of knowing your personal core values in her book The Upside of Stress. In reference to the results of a study conducted in the early 1990’s, which has since been replicated several times by other scientists, McGonigal writes:

“It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied. In the short term, writing about personal values makes people feel more powerful, in control, proud, and strong. It also makes them feel more loving, connected, and empathetic toward others. It increases pain tolerance, enhances self-control, and reduces unhelpful rumination after a stressful experience.

“In the long term, writing about values has been shown to boost GPAs, reduce doctor visits, improve mental health, and help with everything from weight loss to quitting smoking and reducing drinking. It helps people persevere in the face of discrimination and reduces self-handicapping.”

With so many powerful outcomes from such a simple act as defining your core values, you may be asking yourself how this could possibly be the case. This is a great question.

One reason why defining your guiding principles is so effective is because it offers you the opportunity to assign meaning to unexpected, challenging situations and stressful events. For instance, it may be the case that you want to meditate daily for the next 90 days or transform your eating habits by the end of the year and have set these as goals for yourself. The truth is however, that getting yourself out of your warm bed to sit on a meditation cushion for 40 minutes in the morning, or committing to making your own nutrient rich meals daily is not always easy. For that reason, simply setting a goal is usually not enough to create the conditions necessary to achieve it. When you clarify (and reaffirm) a strong ‘why’ for the goals you set, you will increase your capacity to withstand the discomfort that your goal related endeavors bring along.

Framed differently; the strategy of clarifying your guiding principles will help you to transform discomfort, stress, pressure, and challenge from otherwise burdensome hassles to natural companions of your goals. And this friends, is alchemy.

Choosing Your Guiding Principles

Before going any further, let me define what I am referring to when using the term guiding principles, also known as core values.

Guiding Principles/Core Values: a set of fundamental, internal beliefs or ideals that serve as a foundation for how you want to conduct your life, and which can evolve throughout your life process.

You see, one of the main sources of discomfort or unease in most people’s life comes from a misalignment between external actions and internal beliefs. This is sometimes even more exaggerated for those who don’t have a clear comprehension of what their guiding principles are. But the truth is, you have guiding principles, whether you have clarified them or not. If you have not clarified them, odds are high that you are being steered not by what you wish to be guided by, but instead by bodily compulsions, outdated habitual patterns and subconscious childhood conditioning. Hence, clarifying first, and then moving into alignment second, is essential if you desire to eliminate ongoing dis-ease while simultaneously increasing the degree of (internal) balance in your life.

When your actions and decisions are in line with your consciously selected fundamental beliefs, you will feel more at ease and content with ‘yourself’. Clarity and cohesion between external actions and internal beliefs is not merely relevant for ongoing momentary choices, it will also help you to select (and follow through on) quarterly or yearly goals more effectively.

From Guiding Principles to Intentions and Goals

While identifying and listing your guiding principles alone can be transformative, it is even more favorable to take the process a little further. Translating your principles into intentions will super charge your decision-making process, performance, and quality of life even more.

An intention is a commitment to yourself about how you intend to show up to all of life’s (uncertain) events and situations. Intentions represent a determination to act with a particular quality as you face the unique needs of every new moment. They are powerful reminders that you can live up to your guiding principles in every situation. When you couple intentions with guiding principles, you set yourself up to be successful NOW because intentions represent an inner quality that is directly accessible. Thus, and unlike goals, they are independent of external situations and relate to how you want to ‘be’ or show up as a human being, rather than what you want to do or achieve.

How to nurture this mind-set transformation

An effective way to get started with your own clarification process is by planning a date. You don’t need a dating app or another human being for this date, just yourself, a pen and paper (or computer) is good enough. My suggestion is to schedule at least a block of three hours. An entire day would be even better. The preferable setting for this process would be a forest, hills, mountains, a quite beach, or any other natural setting. A natural setting like this will allow you the necessary space to contemplate, define, and write down your guiding principles without a flux of external distractors.

We believe that the process of clarifying your guiding principles is so important that we have chosen to share with you a tool that we use in the Ultimate Wellness & Performance Program with our students. This activity will support you in your own process of clarification, which will directly affect your perception on current/future discomfort and challenge. To access this FREE tool, follow the link here. Once you complete the activity, the results will be automatically emailed to you.

As a recap, the importance of clarifying your guiding principles is a highly valuable practice for success in work, life, relationships and beyond. Listing, reflecting on and evaluating your guiding principles and intentions regularly will help to improve your moment-to-moment decision making, enhance performance and increase quality of life. Especially if you have just started (or are about to begin) your transformation process.

If you want to go even further and are willing to take the necessary steps required to transform your life and move towards ultimate well-being, you will find a variety of tools, practices, and personal guidance options to assist you in your process at

As a final note, the strategies described in this article are meant as a support to help you start self-reflecting and living more congruently with your ‘true self’. Before you say that you lack drive and discipline, ensure that you have clarified your guiding principles and intentions. It is important to keep in mind that all change, and ultimately transformation, will be in some sense challenging and uncomfortable. However, the same applies for reliving your past and repeating conditioned (detrimental) patterns.

The question is: what kind of discomfort are you willing to tolerate? The kind that leads to growth, or the kind that keeps you locked in the same ongoing repetitive cycles?

Until next time,

Niko Sati Nikolić


Quinn A, Robinson S, & Walker D 2018. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA Sulfate: Roles in Brain Function and Disease. Sex Hormones in Neurodegenerative Processes and Diseases. DOI:10.5772/intechopen.71141

Shild G, Lam j, Trainor C & Yonelinas A 2016. Exposure to acute stress enhances decision-making competence: Evidence for the role of DHEA. Psychoneuroendocronoligy Volume 67.

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