As the author of 25 published books, a full-time professor, consultant, wife, and mother, people always ask me that question. My response is always the same, “Writing is a non-negotiable practice for me, just like brushing my teeth, exercising, and eating vegetables.”
On the other hand, I used to wonder how so many people manage their nonnegotiables, such as cooking a nightly meal or going out every weekend. Then I figured it out.
Everyone has their own non-negotiables, activities, or practices in their lives that they won’t give up, for instance, spending time with friends and family, playing a sport, or playing with their dogs. Perhaps we don’t think of those activities or routines in our lives as such, however, they are there–integrated into our lives without negotiations, no self-arguments. And, none of these require a cue. Think of all those people who go for a run no matter what, move more and sit less, or get enough sleep.
Bad habits are often challenging to break, break down, or change, but I didn’t have to tell you that–we all have our dragons to slay. But a good non-negotiable routine or practice (call it whatever you prefer) is easier to add to your daily or weekly practices.
Four elements lead to habituated or routine behavior.
- A goal. What do you want to achieve? Why do you want to practice this activity or behavior?
- A gap. What’s missing in your life or work? In your relationship with yourself, others, or in your career? Be as specific as possible in determining and describing which missing piece you want to fill.
- The gain. How will you benefit from this new behavior or activity? Be specific regarding your life, career, thinking, or attitude. Why do you care about this? If there has been some emotion or obstacle keeping you from achieving this benefit on a non-habituated basis, acknowledge it and then encourage yourself to resolve it.
- Engage. Consider the journey to the endpoint. Determine where and when, and how long. Is it a daily non-negotiable, such as exercising 10 minutes in the morning, or a monthly behavioral change, such as reviewing your finances.
The point of establishing non-negotiables is twofold–1) you don’t waste time debating whether you will do it, and 2) you inject it into your routine so that it becomes habituated.
To keep yourself on track, I suggest rewarding yourself or giving positive feedback to yourself in the short term when you actually do what you’ve decided to do. How you reward yourself is, of course, up to you. However, I heartily recommend telling yourself that you did well, just as you would tell a friend or family member whose efforts you are trying to support. Positive feedback helps make you more committed to a goal, according to Ayelet Fishbach, University of Chicago.
Which non-negotiable will you add? Add just one for starters–the main behavior or lack of action that’s getting in your way. Remember–you don’t need a complete makeover! By adding one good non-negotiable, you learn to be your own behavioral coach.
“We think we do most things because we make decisions or we’re asserting willpower, but instead, our research shows that a lot of human behavior is repeated often enough in the same context to form habits,” explains Wendy Wood, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Southern California (USC).
In a study, Wood and other researchers found that the self-regulatory benefits of habits were apparent in the lesser feelings of stress associated with habitual than non-habitual behavior.
If there is something you’ve wanted to do that can be added to your routine, let’s make it happen. Perhaps it’s an activity that will help you achieve your personal best or behavior that will make you a greater leader or expert in your field.
What are your non-negotiables? Why are these important routines for you to keep? And what do you want to attend to right now?
Writing routinely is a non-negotiable, but it’s also a dedication to something that gives my life purpose. It allows me to investigate my thinking and better myself. No one is going to do that for me.
Next time you see me, ask me if I’ve managed to make not eating cookies a non-negotiable.
Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known “creativity guru” and a best-selling author of books on creativity, design, and advertising, including The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.”