The Importance of Non-Negotiable, “No Matter What” Rules

Behind all good intentions – the long-range vision, the ultimate goals, the short-term strategies or daily routines – is our bottom line. What is the least we are willing to accept from ourselves in a given day? This question is probably the most important you will ever ask yourself.

Experience tells me the biggest obstacle for people is their perception – their perception of their circumstances, their perception of time, their perception of their bodies, their perception of their potential. Anyone can dream up goals, but it’s how we weave our intentions into our daily reality that matters.

We go through the day perceiving our own intentions to be important but negotiable. Simultaneously, we consciously or unconsciously view others’ intentions for us (e.g. our time and energy) as fixed, non-negotiable. And there’s where the process falls apart.

Because here’s the deal… If all of our daily goals are negotiable, they’re all disposable.

I get it. We all have lives with moving parts. Work takes us out of town or well past standard quitting time. Kids get sick – or the babysitter does. Money is tight this month – or year. The weather isn’t cooperating. The car is in the shop. We get low on steam or enthusiasm. We hit periods of major transition in our lives that are sparked in a moment but drag on for months.

But these facts will never change. Life will always, always, always fluctuate. If we wait to begin a health commitment until things “settle down,” we’ll be sitting at the curb forever. If we tell ourselves we won’t have to negotiate away our intended action steps when we have an easier week, we’ll likewise forgo progress. Reality dictates that circumstances will encroach upon your time. People will ask things of you at the last minute. Your energy will feel depleted before you’ve gotten to your own priorities. And there’s where we decide if it’s up to us to let go of x, y or z plan we had for ourselves.

Life, to a certain extent, does require flexibility of us. If we clutch at predictability too much, we’ll either make ourselves and everyone around us miserable or we’ll dwindle our lives down to almost nothing. Additionally, there absolutely are days when skipping your workout, or otherwise taking it easy on yourself is the best decision you can make. (For those that caught my Paleo f(x) talk this weekend, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

We can, however, choose to draw our lines in the sand when we feel it’s important.

I’m talking here about a non-negotiable, no-matter-what rule you never break (barring only the most extreme circumstances).

At the end of the day, no matter how insane, what is the one thing you make sure you do for yourself? The fact is, if you don’t make an ironclad claim on your day, the rest of the world (with its limitless needs and predicaments) will be happy to swallow it whole for you.

I’m not talking about a pie-in-the-sky goal or even a goal period. Non-negotiable rules should be simple practices that you commit to every day, again, no matter what. I’m talking here about a least common denominator – a minimum effort you sign on for with a blood-inked signature. You mean business. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do more than this one action each day, but it’s the one you won’t ever go “below.” Going back to the introductory challenge, it’s the very least you’ll expect of yourself in a given day.

The key is setting a non-negotiable rule is to envision a single, straightforward objective that you will fulfill daily – no excuses. Think of it as a linchpin to organize your day around or even a mantra to live by. Either way, it will keep you directed toward your health every day.

For example, a fitness buff might say, “I make sure to sweat every day – no exceptions.”

Another person might say, I will meditate or do yoga for a half an hour daily.

You could say, I’ll always be in bed by 10:30 p.m.

Another option might be that you will walk 3 miles/1 hour/10,000 steps each day no matter what.

For a different person, it could be committing to 20 minutes of body weight exercises every day.

If you feel you need to see your non-negotiable commitment in a different light, you could decide you will never skip gym workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Even if you adjust the workout itself, you will get your butt on the gym floor those days.

If your focus is more on diet right now, you could commit to eating a certain amount of protein or fat or carbs each day.

Another choice around food would be to intermittently fast for a portion of every day (or the three set days a week), even if it’s just deciding you won’t eat anything after 7:00 p.m.

Alternatively, it could be eating one minimal carb meal a day.

The function of these rules, of course, is multi-fold. Sure, the immediate and obvious benefit is that you work in some kind of healthy behavior each day – and you establish a true, fixed cornerstone for your health commitment. In this sense, you never totally abandon your vision. Every day you take a step to thrive. However, you’ll also benefit from the impact of association: one positive choice empowers another.

If you know you’ll be doing one healthy action for yourself – particularly if you do it early in the day – you’ll automatically support a certain perception of yourself and of your day. I’m living the Primal Blueprint today. I just made Grok proud. Suddenly, you’re more motivated to keep the momentum going.

The examples above can seem very simple, even elementary. If they are, make your non-negotiable more ambitious, but remember that this is your bottom line, not your upper limit. Making a no-matter-what commitment doesn’t keep you from doing better because the fact is, you should nearly every day.

Likewise, our non-negotiable action can – and likely should – change. My non-negotiables are different now than when I was making the transition from elite training to Primal living. At that point, I was cutting my workout duration because more of my time was spent coaching clients. I was changing my diet and fitness to address long-standing inflammation related issues. I was recovering more and doing less. Today I’ve expanded my sense of health to a lot of things that have nothing to do with either diet or fitness, and sometimes I change my rule to reflect that priority.

The ultimate purpose of a non-negotiable might just be the practice itself. The better we get at seeing our own goals as essential and other demands on our time as negotiable, the more we come to value the commitment to our own vitality – and likewise the more creatively we adapt to filling our other obligations in novel ways.

We use our time and energy better, knowing we have to save something for our own no-excuses goal. We assess the time we spend with family or friends and ask if we’re really prioritizing the experiences that mean the most and draw us closer. We begin thinking about what really feeds the quality of work and relationships as well as how we can foster the health that allows us to give the most over time. In this way, think of setting a non-negotiable rule as a daily practice that begins with a minimal target but expands toward a much larger life impact.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are your non-negotiable rule? Share them in the comment board. If you don’t have one, make your commitment now. Have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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43 thoughts on “The Importance of Non-Negotiable, “No Matter What” Rules”

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  1. I never go more than 2 days without working out (unless I’m severely sick or injured.) I’ve kept that up for 3 years, even now that I’m 21 weeks pregnant!

    I also have to get at least 7 hours of sleep – preferably 8. I just can’t operate on any less. Non-negotiable!

    1. You know, the first part of your comment will soon sabotage the second part. 🙂

  2. I think my non-negotiable rule will have to be taking time to meditate each day. It always helps me, but for some reason I find myself making every excuse under the sun not to do it! I’m sure it’d be a lot more helpful to me than squeezing in a couple of games of Angry Birds into a busy day as ‘relaxing down-time’… :-/

  3. One of my most powerful realizations was, I can’t control the world, but I can control my response to it. Or it is what it is. No one is in control of everything. But you are in control of your actions.

    In our household I was the one to lead the way to Primal (as of the moment Paleo, currently doing 30 days dairy free, I was long overdue for my N =1 on that). I definitely remember thinking it doesn’t matter if my wife is on board at this moment or not, I am DOING IT. By doing it for me I didn’t know about Primal Blueprint but I started researching cutting out bread and pasta and junk snacks. Then just kept on keeping on.

    We both work full time, had a 2 year old at the time, were full time care givers for my uncle. It was actually because of all these things, not in spite of them, I was searching for a better way.

    You are basically only in control of your efforts, your intent, your commitment, your passions, your energy, your getting back up when getting knocked down. You are not in control of the world or even those closest to you. So make the things you can control your focus. And trust me those things I listed above are very powerful. VERY powerful. Powerful enough for almost anything to be accomplished. Regardless of the storm of stuff around you.

    1. Agreed Larry!
      In normal circumstances no one ever died because they didn’t get their wants and needs met the minute they expressed them. Other people’s urgency does not have to be an immediate call to action that supersedes our commitment to our own wellbeing.
      Everything deserves a hearing; not everything needs to actually be addressed.

  4. For me it’s working out in the morning, before work, so nothing can get in the way of it or cause me to change my plans. Plus, I feel awesome all day knowing I got my workout done, no matter what else I manage to accomplish that day 🙂

  5. As I see it, death is the only thing that isn’t negotiable. Everything else comes with a choice of some sort, even though that sometimes means choosing the lesser of evils. The only thing completely within my control that I consider non-negotiable is brushing and flossing my teeth. I’d have to be too sick to get out of bed to skip that.

    1. Yes I agree with you, but I think the trick is to make a meta-decision that X, Y, and Z will be non-negotiable. The choice is made in advance, when willpower is high. Then you don’t have to negotiate with yourself about those things in the moment, when willpower may be low.

  6. I do set these rules, but I’m such a good negotiator when it comes to talking myself out of them 🙁

  7. My conscious non-negotiables: Meditate for 10 minutes, add more time as needed. Kiss my husband good night and good morning, every time we are together.
    A new non-negotiable I’ve been building on the last year or so: stopping any auto-pilot stress response, like eating or drinking. I stop and think about my impulse to “fix” stress with food/drink (even “healthy” items). I put it on hold for at least an hour, then go back and think about what I want again. I’m particularly proud of this new habit.

  8. Thank God every day I wake up–He’s not done with me yet!

    Read MDA every day–especially Fridays personal victory stories!

  9. Mine is meditation. Doesn’t have to be a fixed length (I try for 20 minutes twice a day, though) but it always helps – and, unlike working out, I can meditate even when I have a migraine.

  10. To find peace in repose, to cloud-watch, and let the blue sky silence the mind into glimpsing life through the eyes of a child.

  11. Meditation has been my non-negotiable. Thiscommitment has really helped my life.

    I’ve also decided that being IN BED by 10:30pm needs to be a new effort for me.

  12. Play. I spend an hour every day just playing with my kids. The oldest is five, and they won’t want to hang around with me forever. I’m savoring the time I have with them before they learn how incredibly uncool I am. It doesn’t matter if we’re at the park or at home playing legos or building pillow forts. We play for at least an hour.

    1. +1 Dudeness. I’ve found that playing every day with my 5 yr old when he was younger, when whatever he wanted to play was super-boring, was worth the boredom. Now that he can do fun stuff, he still wants to hang out with me, and it’s only getting better. Glad to be past “playing trains”. (Of course the real benefit is to him, who knows by my actions I care and value him highly… Enjoying myself while doing that is a side benefit.)

      I first read that as “pillow farts”. That too could be a fun activity.

  13. 10 squats, first thing in the morning (as soon as i roll out of bed, so i don’t forget).

    sure, i may or may not do any other exercise the rest of they day (i usually have various classes scheduled, pretty much every day of the week), but at least i’ve always started with that. 🙂

  14. I think its best to start with an attainable non-negotiable and build from there. For me it was the meal time window of fasting from 7PM to 11AM. This has become habitual. However I do feel there is a provision for a “safety valve” or preset exception. For example, on Tuesday I went out for a long paddle, according to the Garmin Fenix II, 7.5 miles 1 hour 20 minutes. By the time I packed up and had the opportunity to eat it was after 8PM. I had to eat so I allowed myself a primal shake with 1 Tbs of spirulina powder. The non-negotiable reset is if I have to eat after 7 PM, a primal shake is OK. I recently gave up alcohol for the 21 day challenge and it has been great. I’m sleeping better, I am more motivated to complete tasks and dropping off my weight loss primal plateau. It’s the perfect argument for never having a drink again. That would be a great non-negotiable! However, that also has failure built into it(I know myself too well). In that case I have established a safety valve for when I choose to drink again. It will be to limit myself to two drinks on special occasions. Why deny myself a margarita on Cinco de Mayo or a glass or two of my favorite Malbec with a grass fed steak? One last note about a non-negotiable. Make sure it’s attainable, give it a non-negotiable safety valve, write it down and share it publicly. Reward yourself spiritually by sticking to it. I have found that incremental self improvement to be one of the greatest benefits of the primal blueprint.

  15. Thanks for the kick in the pants, Mark.

    I read the question and was hit with a bit of a sinking feeling and the realization that my answer to “what is the least you are willing to accept from ourselves in a given day?” was “not nearly enough”.

  16. Fantastic post and exactly what I needed to read right now in my life. Thank you!!!

  17. Non-negotible – Two mugs or hot water in the morning upon waking, drink while sitting in a full squat. Then after that to do/be my best at what I do.

    During stressful periods like I’m experiencing now, that seems to be “the best” I can do and it doesn’t add to my stress.

  18. My non-negotiable each day is to write down at least ten things that I am grateful for that day.

    1. Ha! That’s so awesome, Angela! And I bet one thing for today is this great post by Mark!
      I am betting that in general, you are very happy. I believe that gratitude is the key to happiness, and that mental exercise is a fast-track to developing gratitude.

  19. I find making a non negotiable adds stress for me so I simply prefer to see life as transient, my needs and wants are also transient. I also don’t buy into the idea of having to fulfill the needs and wants of others. This allows me to stress less and make decisions in the moment, I don’t berrate myself for a decision later or regret it because I understand it was simply what I did at the time, dealing with what I had and knew and fulfilling whatever I felt at the time. And interestingly I am healthier than I’ve ever been since taking on this view of life.

  20. Four things. Work, school, gym, sleep. There is no such thing as “not going to class”. Outside of injury or illness, whether or not to go to a workout is not a discussion I get to have with myself. All school work is to be, at a minimum, started weeks in advance – I will never back myself into an all-nighter. Work is work.

    Each gets earmarked its fair share of time. One does not encroach upon the other. These are the core. Everything else is just so much chaos.

  21. This resonated with me now, more than any post in MDA history. I don’ know why. Maybe it was the 20 years of verbal and emotional abuse from the man I dedicated my life to, maybe it’s that I just realized that I might have PTSD from all that abuse. (I am divorced and have worked amazingly hard for a degree in nursing) My non-negotiable, no matter what rules are…I am awesome! I am a hospice nurse. I help patients and families deal with dying. And I am fat! I have insulated myself from love. because love has hurt me. Twice. I don’t think I’ll marry again. Fluctuate, flexibility, I can do. I am going to eat a salmon patty and salad.We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

  22. I’m a single mom with a toddler – so most of you can understand “me” time is simply not easy to find. I however had this realization that I MUST take care of myself if I’m going to take the best care of my daughter. I am working out everyday…if I only have 10 minutes, that’s what I do. I put a workout DVD in, and if I have to pause 3x to get her a drink or help her find a particular toy…etc. That’s okay. It’s okay to not do it all perfectly with that hour block of time to yourself you would like to have in a perfect world. This, with primal, has made feel like a new person.

  23. As someone recovery from an eating disorder… my non-negotiable is to nourish my body everyday with plenty of good food! Period.

  24. Yoga practice. Every. Single. Day. (Minimum of 60 minutes….but, with rare exceptions, I practice 90 minutes in the morning plus 90 minutes in the evening–7 days a week.)

    Spending time with my partner. Every. Single. Day. (And, of course, saying “I love you.”)

  25. Help someone every day.
    That can be very dynamic though… Like I helped someone not eat mcdonalds by punching it out of their hand

    1. Your comment reminded me of a comment on a paleo Facebook group where the person asked: “Will going paleo help my gout or make it worse?”

      My reply was, “In my opinion paleo doesn’t make anything worse, except my ability to tolerate people who count calories like Jillian Michaels.”

      I don’t normally high-five myself but I did that day, ha!

  26. Not eating food while in front of a screen (i.e. computer or TV).

  27. My non-negotiables:

    Pack a healthy lunch for work.

    Say I love you to my husband every morning. Even if I’m pissed off with him. Because what if… (We lost my brother on 9/11).

    Take my grandson OUT for at least one whole day each week – to ramble and explore, to eat new (primal friendly) foods, to free-range (he’s 16 months and a bit too housebound the rest of the week for my comfort).

  28. This post has actually been somewhat revelationary in that I’ve realised I don’t have any daily non-negotiables. I mean, if I think about what I actually do every daily, EVERY day, it would only be spend quality time with my significant other (have fun, laugh, kiss him when he arrives home from work).

    Apart from that, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t meditate. I only exercise 2-3 times a week. I try to get 8 hours each night – and more often than not succeed (lots of sleep is very important to me) – so I suppose that could be considered one. But if I feel like I’m on a roll and want to stay up til midnight ironing or reading blogs then I will.

    Even eating primally isn’t even non-negotiable… I’ve never been sick, or overweight, and seem to have a strong tolerance for indulgences, so I would say most days I have chocolate (quality dark stuff ut still store-bought) and dairy (cheese or cream, but no milk), although I do try to avoid grains as much as I can.
    I know this post wasn’t intending to be worrysome, but now I feel a bit flaky for not having daily non-negotiables. I try to avoid feeling stressed over things and have become good at just letting at things go (if I eat the entire block of chocolate I don’t berate myself, just try to use that behaviour as a signal of what is going on that I need to work out emotionally) but perhaps that’s the problem – that I let TOO much go. Perhaps I need to be firmer in my beliefs and behaviour.

    I know they say ‘if it’s working for you, there’s no need to change it’, but I’m wondering how much of that is actually true versus how much that I just want to believe in order to justify my habits… food for thought indeed.

  29. Right now, mine are concentrated around food. My version of bullet-proof coffee in the morning and a very mixed green salad with walnut oil for lunch.

    Now, I need to add taking my medications every day (oops) and then maybe add an exercise one.

  30. I love this post! I hadn’t really thought about what my “bare minimum” was until I read over this. I realized that mine is: a shot of lemon juice + warm water + probiotics as soon as I wake up and 1 calf stretch.