Non-Negotiables: The Foundation for Everything Else

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. - Stephen Covey

Last week I wrote about a yoga retreat I attended last fall and one of the big lessons I took away from that weekend: the necessity of starting where you are.

The second big thing I took away from that weekend was the concept of “non-negotiables.”

The teacher, Seane Corn, talked about how in her life there are a handful of things that are absolutely non-negotiable. They are not things that are nice to do, when there’s enough time, money, space. They are not things she does now and then or when in an emergency state. They are daily doings. Every day (more or less) practices. They are the core things that sustain her, allow her to stay sane, centered, and most importantly, to do her life work and serve others.

And if they go by the wayside, shit starts to fall apart, quick.

For Seane, they are: asana practice (the physical practice of yoga), meditation, prayer, good nutrition, sleep and therapy.

Many of us might look at that list and think, Well, that would be nice. If I could do yoga every day, cook perfectly nutritious meals and the extra hour or two each week to go to therapy my life would be… someone else’s life.

What about those of us with kids, really demanding jobs, rough travel schedules, ill health, or a spouse or a kid with ill health, mental illness, financial issues, no time? What if our “non-negotiables” are showing up to work, feeding our kids, taking care of our sick parent and paying the bills? In other words, what about the rest of us?

The thing is this: the circumstances of your life don’t exempt you from being a human being with physical, mental, spiritual and emotional needs. Ever. No human on earth is an exception.

But we forget this. We are so caught up in doing our lives that we forget who we are, all the time. The non-negotiables are all about remembering who we really are, daily, so that we can help others do the same. It’s really that simple. Could there be anything more important than that?

“Remembering who we are” can sound squishy and privileged, but it’s the exact opposite. Remembering who we are is the underlying mission of all good self-help, spiritual and religious texts since the beginning of time.

It is the real purpose of yoga (not to have a nicer ass or be really bendy) and talk therapy and meditation and creative expression and relationships.

Remembering who we are is really about remembering who we are not. We are not the big job, the alcoholism, the failed marriage, the sexual abuse, the cancer, the mother, father, the various roles we play as parent, child, wife, friend. We are all those things but they are not who we are. Who we really are is timeless and perfect and whole already. Who we are is “the diamond in the shit,” as my friend and teacher Zoe Wild puts it.


We are not human beings  having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


(Side rant: The thing I loved most about Seane’s workshop is how not woo-woo it was. While in the past decade we seem to be churning out yoga teachers by the hundred-thousands and it’s all very pop culture to be carrying a yoga mat around and practicing “mindfulness,” Seane was doing her thing long before all that. She’s a New Jersey girl with a foul mouth, a fierceness and urgency in her delivery, and a passion for social justice. Her shtick is that this work – the business of twisting our bodies, balancing chakras and deepening our awareness – that some of us get to do on the mat is an utter gift and it’s our responsibility, our duty in fact, to carry that work into the world. To raise the collective vibration. Not so we can all ohm and hold hands and hug while we sip coconut milk lattes, but so that we can save the earth and each other in a very real way. Hunger. Child prostitution. Poverty. Violence. Addiction. These are the things she tackles.)

Hearing this concept allowed me to solidify my own non-negotiables, and more importantly, gave me permission to have them. I’ve also taken notice of the myths we have about a concept like this in observing myself and talking to others about it.

For the record, my non-negotiables are: prayer, recovery (meetings), physical activity (I must sweat), alone time, creative time (usually writing) and sleep. The recovery process has laid a good foundation for this type of thinking because I’ve learned without staying sober, everything – like, every single thing – will fall apart. The starkness of that has forced me to prioritize, but I’ve also learned that being “sober” isn’t just the absence of booze. It starts there, but also includes emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, which is where the other non-negotiables come in.

Before I got sober I would have told you “me time” was one of my non-negotiables, and my version of “me time” was going out and drinking and shutting the world out (or being at home and drinking and shutting the world out). But real non-negotiables don’t have downsides, which I cover below.


So here’s the deal with non-negotiables. 

  • THEY ARE NOT LUXURIES. It is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Women, especially a lot of the moms I know, feel like they’re pampering themselves if they “take time for me.” BULLSHIT. Buuuuulllllshiiiiit. You must take time for you. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself; it’s selfish not to. When I don’t take care of myself the version of me that other people get – especially my daughter - pretty much sucks. I repeat: it is not a luxury to take care of yourself. Okay?
  • THEY'RE NOT COMPLICATED. Non-negotiables are almost always very, very simple. Difficult, maybe, but not complicated. For example, it’s difficult for me to sit down and write most of the time, but it’s never complicated. It requires a pen and a paper or my computer and some attention (the difficult part). It’s definitely difficult for me to run some days. Never complicated. They are the building blocks for your foundation on which all else can be built. James Altucher, one of my favorite nutty writers and thinkers, covers his version of non-negotiables in what he calls The Daily Practice. He attributes all his failures and successes to whether or not he's follwing his Daily Practice (He is great and funny, I recommend.)
  • YOU HAVE TIME. You do.
  • THEY BELONG TO YOU. Your non-negotiables are yours. They don’t belong to your partner, your kids, your co-workers, or your mom. Your list might involve them (e.g. time with your children) but I would argue you could explore that part of the list. Is time with your kids or partner really part of your non-negotiable list, or is it something you put on because you feel guilty if you don’t? I love and need to spend time with my daughter but she’s not on my non-negotiable list. My list – and your list – is about filling up your own tank, putting on your own life preserver. Your list belongs to you.
  • THEY ARE NOT SELFISH. This is related to all the points above, but worth stating on its own again. It is not selfish to take care of yourself.
  • THEY ARE DAILY (OR CLOSE TO DAILY) PRACTICES. These aren’t things we do only in an emergency. I have a good friend Matt, who when he was going through a really rough period, got into meditation. It helped immensely, along with other things. A few months later he came to me feeling like shit again. I asked about the meditation, and he said he had got away from it when things got better. This is so common; I do it all the time. But it’s funny, right? And so indicative of how we live. We only pay attention when we are in an extreme state of despair or discomfort, and then the second we escape that state we go right back to what we were doing before that got us to that point. Hellooooo, wine *raises hand*!

Which brings me to my last point.

  • REAL NON-NEGOTIABLES HAVE NO NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS. Aside from the perceived side-effects of opportunity cost and possibly disappointing others by taking the time, real non-negotiables don’t have a down side. Even if they cost money (e.g. travel). Real non-negotiables are not about pleasure, although they can be pleasurable. They are about happiness (what we often confuse with pleasure as Mark Manson so defly points out). You might say sex is a non-negotiable – and perhaps it is – but I’d challenge you to examine what it is about sex that you need every day. The connection with another human? Physical contact? The stress release? Maybe it’s sex, but maybe what you need is to feel your body. I don’t really know. But I’d stretch to say that if we really dig down our real non-negotiables don’t rely on other people. They may involve them, but not rely on them.

That’s it, lovelies. Consider your non-negotiables. Write them down. Commit to them. Take them so seriously. You are amazing. I love you.

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

Me, not negotiating. BTW, that weird circle on my back is my necklace ;).

If you missed part one of this, where I talk about the necessity of starting where you are, it’s here.