Why Non-Negotiables Are the Secret to a Terrific Life

What you tolerate is what you get

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 would:

  • Give twenty-three hundred speeches

  • Write over forty books

  • Write close to ten million words

  • Make five hundred paintings

As the cherry on the cake, he would fight against totalitarianism well into his twilight years. To say that he had a productive life would be a grave understatement.

So how does someone produce extraordinary pieces of art, in large quantities, while fighting Nazis and taking care of the government?

“The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position”, says Paul Johnson in 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.

How exactly do we conserve energy? Does Churchill only speak about the physical aspect? Or is it something deeper?

A man at a high position like Churchill needs to conserve not only his physical energy but also his mental energy. To face all the adversities he did, he needs mental strength. No matter how well-rested the body is, the reluctance and weakness of the mind can tear it down.

The secret behind his ‘conservation of energy’ is what I like to call his “Non-Negotiables” in life.

Churchill famously had a particular routine that he stuck to even on Christmas.

He would get up at eight, took 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.

For him, it was non-negotiable. And this routine, which may seem too strict, was a major reason behind his sanity in turbulent times.

Your Non-Negotiables Are Sacred

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, its 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 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.

Soon this discipline breeds true freedom, as Jocko Willink says. Freedom to relax, to be still. It gives you the confidence to face every situation.

Structure 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.

Let’s look at Jocko Willink. He knows he has to work out. He has to post the picture of his watch at 4:30 a.m on Twitter every morning. How does he do it? He keeps his clothes beside the bed the night before and he has his coffee brewing when he wakes up. There’s no imaginable hurdle that he has between opening his eyes and heading for a workout.

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.

I can go on and on. But 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.

And you must too. Go now and get your desk in order, your clothes in order, and your tasks in order.

Limit your inputs, ritualize, and enjoy your new-found freedom today.

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Written on August 8, 2020