How to Use the Power of Non-Negotiables to Set Your Days for Success

They’re the balm of comfort in times of chaos.

Winston Churchill was one hell of a man. He served the British government for over six decades. As the Prime Minister of the UK, he led the country to victory in the Second World War. He held key positions like the minister of defense, and chancellor of the exchequer. On top of this, over the course of his lifetime, he went on to:

  • Give twenty-three hundred speeches

  • Write over forty books

  • Write close to ten million words

  • Make five hundred paintings

Finally, he fought against totalitarianism well into his twilight years. To say that he had a productive life would be a grave understatement. So the question is — how does one produce extraordinary pieces of art, in large quantities, while fighting Nazis and taking care of the government?

Perhaps Paul Johnson had the same questions lingering in his mind when he wrote his book, *Churchill. *Unlike many historians who write about Churchill, Paul Johnson actually met him. When Paul asked him,

“Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”

Without hesitation, Churchill replied,

“Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down.”

And then Churchill drove away in his limo. The sentence appears to come from a lazy person who would ensure he’s never moving his body any more than it’s required. But Churchill wasn’t talking about only his physical energy — he was talking about conserving energy in general — physical, mental, and emotional. Let’s have a look at Churchill’s daily routine.

He would get up at eight, take a bath at exactly 98 degrees, slowly cranked up to 104. Then he’d read for two hours, before addressing his political duties. Around noon he would see his wife and start writing. Early afternoon he would have lunch and walk around his estate feeding his swans and fish — which he considered as the most enjoyable of all. At 3 p.m he took a two-hour nap, followed by family time, and another bath before dinner. After his formal dinner at 8 p.m, he wrote some more before bed.

The routine may seem too rigid or unbelievable for a person of such a high position. But for him, it was a constant. He’d not give it up even on Christmas! And so the secret behind his “conservation of energy” is what I like to call his “Non-Negotiables” in life.

Clearly, his routine — writing, reading, walking, etc — was non-negotiable. Come what may, if he did the above, he’d be satisfied.

Why You Need Non-Negotiables in Life

Back when I was a fat (perhaps obese) high-school kid, I decided to start running. Running, I reckoned was one of the easiest ways to start exercising — it’s something any of us can do (because some kids, like my past self, can’t even do one pushup).

Yet, I was irregular in my practice. I overslept some days, made excuses about how much homework I had, and completely gave it up when exams were due. All this while, I saw one man going to the park every day, rain, shine, or freezing. I never went up to him and don’t know his name to this day. But to me, he was a shining example of discipline.

Inspired by what I saw, I too made it a habit to stick to my running sessions no matter what. I didn’t care if the exam was due in hours or months. I didn’t care if I’d slept or not. I didn’t care if I’d collapse on the bed after coming back home. I just ran.

Gradually, my morning run became a non-negotiable in my life. Everything was fine, until, I got my morning run in. In fact, to this day, it’s the single most important thing I recommend to junior students who ask me the secret to getting good grades — “Make it a priority to exercise daily.”

As we get busier, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos and lose focus on what’s important in life. By committing to things that add meaning and give us joy, we establish order and routine.

Everyone has their own set of non-negotiables. There are things which if you don’t do, you feel off the whole day. For some, it’s their morning coffee. For others, it’s exercise. For me, it’s meditation and exercise followed by writing. If I do these three things every day, I’m set.

And that’s the power of your non-negotiables. They’re not habits or routines. They’ve become a ritual — it’s sacred. It’s your daily sabbath. These activities are leisure, not work. They’re the pole you hold on to when life is kicking your ass. In uncertain times, they give you the certainty you crave for.

No matter what was going on in his life, Churchill took a bath, wrote, painted, and did tons of other things which people dismiss as a waste of time.

Most people think rituals become boring. Doing the same thing every day is not for them. They want fun, excitement. And so they wake up thinking what to do. Should I take the car or the bus? Should I write first and then take a bath? Should I workout now or later? Should I go to this meeting? And so on.

It’s no surprise that living without a structure is a complete nightmare. The best amongst us know that there’s no joy in complete freedom. And if you don’t hold on to something, you’ll get washed away when the tsunami hits. If you don’t stand up for something, you stand up for nothing.

This self-discipline is what is required to succeed in any field. As Jocko Willink says, discipline breeds true freedom.

Sticking to Non-Negotiables Is Easier Than You Think

Before you tell me it’s not for you, that you don’t have the willpower or the discipline to follow through with these non-negotiables, let me tell you one thing — you really don’t need as much discipline as you think.

You see, we act on non-negotiables because they make us feel good. And **every non-negotiable routine or practice is driven by a core value. **These core values guide our decisions and behavior. Let’s say you value your family more than anything, then it’ll be no trouble for you to be back home early instead of eating dinner with friends.

My non-negotiables include meditation, exercise, and writing. This morning, I was too tired to do any of those. But I still did them — because there’s a core value behind each of them:

  • Meditation → Core value: spiritual progress

  • Exercise → Core value: wellness

  • Writing → Core value: creativity

Every activity you make non-negotiable means something to you — otherwise, you wouldn’t do it at all. The underlying value propels you to take action every day, even though you don’t feel like it. Because when you truly value something no excuse justifies inaction.

How to Use Non-Negotiables in Your Life

“We all have our lesser selves and impulses. I love chocolate croissants. And if I left my entire schedule to whim, I’ll just eat chocolate croissants all day long — Tim Ferris.

The successful ones find freedom in constraint. They structure their life to avoid making extraneous decisions. These habits and routines, help create a safety net against their own self-defeating habits.

Obama, when asked about why he only wears gray and blue suits said, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Steve Jobs did the same.

Terry Crews prepares all his vitamins for the day the moment he wakes up. Then he heads to the gym, does a 5-minute workout, and puts on an audiobook. He has his workout defined for every day — sets, reps, weights, runs — everything. He shaves his head in the exact same way every day. He has a go-to lunch ready in the fridge every day. All-day, every day.

The point is this. These are some of the highest performers of our times. There’s a reason why they’re building routines. You will not find them thinking about what they’re doing next. They preserve their thinking for the things that matter. This is exactly what Churchill meant by conservation of energy.

Defining your non-negotiables starts by defining your core values. List what’s important for you in life — love, creativity, community, family, spirituality, friendship, honesty, service, wellness, etc.

Choose the five most important ones from the list. Then ask yourself — What are the things I absolutely won’t negotiate on regardless of the date, season, or conditions?

The most important piece of advice is, to be honest with yourself. Keep it simple without adding too much to your plate. It can be just one activity. Once you know your 2–3 non-negotiables, make time for them every day.

The more you do them, the more scared they become. They are your pillar of support in this chaotic world. Choose them wisely, and keep up with them as long as you can. Then, watch how your life expands with meaning and success.

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Written on March 15, 2021