The Power of Non-negotiables

Nobody’s perfect. We all have habits we’d like to break and new ones we want to start - basically behaviors that if we change them we will be more like the best version of ourselves we envision.

BUT some behaviors are more important to your success and well-being than others. When changing a behavior is vital to your success of well-being, you need to create a non-negotiable.

By “non-negotiable” I mean that 1 behavior rule you will not allow yourself to break no matter what. You are telling your future self that you will not be allowed to negotiate your way out of it.

Some people think of non-negotiables as behavior from others they won’t tolerate, like “I won’t date a guy who leaves his dirty socks on the floor. That's non-negotiable.” That may or may not be reasonable, but I am referring to the things that YOU absolutely, positively must do - or not do - yourself because it is important to you.

It is planting a stake in the ground. It's a line in the sand you vow not to cross.

For example, you may find you have slipped into the habit of browsing social media or using non-work-related apps during work and it is costing you productivity, credibility, and maybe money. You have been reprimanded by your boss and know you need to stop, but it’s hard. (In fact it is so hard that some are pushing for social media to be regulated as a drug because of its additive properties.)

So you set a non-negotiable: I will not use my phone during work hours for anything not related to work.

Deciding to do it is the easy part. Getting your future self not to negotiate on it when it gets the urge is the hard part. But labeling something as non-negotiable can help motivate you not to break it and the benefits can be great.

Giving you an “out”

Decision-making expert Shane Parrish knows that having a non-negotiable makes it easier for him not to go overboard on an unhealthy behavior. “I have a rule that I only have two drinks during the week. This way I don’t have to decide when I’m out with friends how many drinks I’ll have.“ He can say, Sorry - I’ve hit my limit.

Another example is my former high school’s drug testing policy. Several years ago the private school implemented a policy to randomly test students. It has worked extremely well and one of the reasons for its success is that it gives students an easy out. It removes peer pressure because it provides a reason not to participate in that behavior that is outside the student's control. It makes the decision-making less dependent on the teenager’s own under-developed judgment and hyper-active amygdala. The policy encourages students to make not taking drugs a non-negotiable by making it easier to do.

Choose carefully

Make sure you choose your non-negotiables wisely. A good non-negotiable is:

1) Important - it will have a great impact on you or others

2) Specific - like a good goal, it needs to be a specific rule which you will know you broke as soon as you break it. Instead of, “I will get to the gym more often,” make it, “I will go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, no matter what.”

3) Challenging - It is difficult to do consistently. If something is easy for you, there is no point in making it non-negotiable because you wouldn’t need to negotiate with yourself anyway.

For example, I knew it was important for me to hydrate more, so I set the goal of drinking a quart of water every morning. I didn't need to make it a non-negotiable because it wasn’t difficult. Once I started doing it, it became easy and mindless. If I had struggled at first, treating it as a non-negotiable would have helped.

Avoid overload

From recent experience I can tell you that setting too many new non-negotiables at once is a bad idea. It multiplies the difficulty and you are much more likely to fail at one or all of them. I found that it was a shock to my system to make too many changes to my behavior and habits at once, so I scaled back to just one and had much more success.

Caveat - Negotiating with others

Note that this does not apply to actual negotiations with another party. When the most important outcome is reaching an agreement and moving forward, then non-negotiables are usually a bad idea. If either side draws an uncrossable line in the sand, it makes a successful compromise difficult to achieve. You may still have points you won’t budge on but if you do, you must be willing to walk away from the table with nothing.

What if I fail?

Non-negotiables can seem daunting and scary but don’t confuse “non-negotiable” with “failure is not an option.” You may very well fail. Don’t let a failure convince you to give up without understanding why you failed.

Ask yourself what it was that knocked you off track. Was it a momentary lapse of will-power? DId you lose sight of why the non-negotiable was important to you in the first place? Is it still important to you? Maybe it no longer is as important to you as it once was.

If it is still important, re-boot. Optimize your environment to make it more difficult to slip up in the future. Set visual reminders. Remove triggers and distractions. Start each day with an affirmation about your ability to succeed.

Simple but not easy

Don’t expect keeping your non-negotiables to be easy. As I said, difficulty is part of what makes it non-negotiable. But if you identify your highest priority behavior change and treat it as a non-negotiable, you are more likely to get the results you want and improve your life.

Sometimes a seemingly small change can produce huge benefits.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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