So, in my last post on the theme of ‘Designing your life’, I’d like to talk about the activities, habits and practices which I believe you’d do well to make a part of your daily routine, particularly at times when you feel like you’re starting to lose, or may have already lost, your mojo.

I’d hope that everyone reading this post gets up every morning and, without thinking about it, questioning it or internally debating it with oneself, brushes their teeth.

(If this isn’t true then I don’t want to know about it.)

Why do you find this so easy and why do you never talk yourself out of bothering to do it in the same way as you might do for other activities which benefit your well-being, like going to the gym?

The very obvious answers are that:

  • it only takes a couple of minutes;
  • it doesn’t hurt or require much exertion, and;
  • the cost of not doing it is pretty high (you’re likely to become a social pariah)!

I admit that teeth brushing is a very simple example of a daily non-negotiable. But what I find interesting is that it’s both the strongest (rarely broken) and most universal (everyone that I know does it) habit that I can think of – so therefore I wonder what can we learn from it.

But before I come on to that……..

Why do I think that daily non-negotiables are so important?

Essentially what I’m talking about here is a specific type of habit. One that you do every day. One which, no matter how small, holds a lot of importance to you. And, hence, it’s something that you will always choose to do, unless there are extremely exceptional circumstances.

Some of your daily non-negotiables will be hygiene activities, literally and metaphorically – you may not take any pleasure in doing them but you effectively make a conscious choice that they have to be done regardless.

Other non-negotiables will be much more unique to the individual, based on your preferences and priorities – you recognise that something is so important to you that you make a conscious choice to make it happen every day.

The beauty of habits is that, once you’ve done the difficult bit of investing the energy to repeat them enough times (depending on who you believe, somewhere between 21 and 66 days), they become unconscious. They become something that you can do on autopilot, without using up any of your precious mental energy, and without wasting time procrastinating about whether to bother or not or what rationale you might be able to justify for not doing it right now.

You don’t think. You just do.

Now I’m not going to kid you that, once you’ve made it a habit, an activity like going to the gym magically becomes a breeze. The activity of exercising will, of course, still require effort but it will be physical energy during the workout that you’ll be expending, not mental energy in advance to make the decision about whether to bother or not.

Many of you will know that the decision to do something is often far, far harder than doing the thing itself. Once you’re in the gym, you just get on with it. And then, at the end of the session, you find yourself thinking “I actually really enjoyed that, why did I waste so much time and energy thinking about whether to do it or not?”.

Mood stabiliser

In addition to the obvious things which we all know are good for us, what about the power of daily non-negotiables in stabilising our mood?

I know that when I’m on good form, with fully charged mojo, there are certain positive activities or daily choices that I will make without even thinking about it and, in doing so, I’m further fuelling my positive mood.

However, when I’m not in a good place, or even when when I’m transitioning between low and high mood (and back again), I a) seem to forget about the things which are good for me and will help to make me feel better and b) don’t have the willpower/motivation/mojo magic to choose to do them.

In some ways this feels like I’m relinquishing control of my mood – allowing it to make the choice about which direction I’m likely to head in.

I’d like to work a bit harder to focus on consistently practising the habits which I know give me positive energy so that they become really strong daily non-negotiables. And so that, when the grey clouds start to drift my way, I know there are some supporting behaviours which I can automatically turn to which get me ‘back to basics’ and help keep things on a relatively even keel.


The flipside

I’ve just realised that while on this topic, and since I also talk a lot about balance and flexibility, it’s worth saying that some people may already have a lot daily non-negotiables and might do well to do a bit of an audit of that list.

Some people love a habit and a routine – they need the structure and sense of control to reassure themselves daily that they are ‘doing well’ at life.

But both thinking and doing take time and we’re all constrained by the same number of hours in a day.

Therefore, it’s really important to be conscious and very selective about the habits you adopt. And then to also be aware of how and when those habits need to be updated and modified over time as your preferences and priorities change.

So, if the first part of this post made you think ‘Duh, yeah, I’d freak out if anyone got in the way of my 213 daily habits!’ then it might be worth having a think about how well they serve you, whether they’re all still relevant to your current priorities and whether you might be able to find a way of loosening the reins on yourself a little bit.

What can we learn from brushing our teeth?

How can we design an activity so that it becomes a daily non-negotiable?

  • (As my dad would say) Keep it simple stupid.
    • As these are daily and non-negotiable, you aren’t meant to have lots of them.
    • Break the activity down into the very smallest component part.
    • At first, focus only on that very first step that will move you towards mastering a bigger habit.
    • Work on one new habit at a time.
    • Make it as convenient as possible – time and location.
  • Visualise the opportunity and the cost.
    • Get real and get honest with yourself.
    • What could happen and how you might feel if you do or don’t follow through on building the habit.
    • Connect with that feeling (the upside should feel amazing/inspiring, the downside should be undesirable) and come back to it whenever your commitment wavers.
  • Make a commitment.
    • Write it down and keep track of times of what you are/aren’t doing – see this article for apps to help you with habit tracking
    • If you miss a day then have a think about what got in the way and how you can modify the habit to give it a greater chance of success.
    • Share it with someone else and give them permission to follow up with you on a regular basis.
  • No excuses/exceptions approach.
    • When you’re not on top form, that’s the most important time to come back to the habit.
    • Value yourself enough that you always place your non-negotiables above, or at least alongside, the demands of others.

So, in the spirit of practising what I preach, here are my daily non-negotiables:

  • Brushing my teeth (sorted)
  • Appreciating the activity of walking my dog (pretty sorted)
  • Drinking enough water (significantly improved)
  • Reading something nourishing (work in progress)
  • Taking a moment to notice what’s going on with my inner voice (work in progress)

Over to you……what’s going to make it onto your list?