How to Define Your Non-Negotiables—and Get Others to Respect Them

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin shares the secret tool for living an authentic, happy life and accomplishing your dreams

One powerful effect of living through the pandemic is the change in people’s views about what they find truly important, what they want to do with their lives and what they consider non-negotiables—values they will not compromise.

Researchers call it the Great Realization, and data from a recent survey by Northwestern Mutual backs it up. Eight out of ten respondents said they were planning at least one major life change in the next two years, with the top choices being traveling for an extended period of time (30%), purchasing a home (27%), having kids or growing their family (21%) and starting a new passion project (21%). But perhaps the most telling statistic is that nearly 70% said they worry that if they don’t start acting on their life goals in the next 12 months, their dreams might never happen.

Does that fear feel familiar? One way to ensure that you feel happy and fulfilled in your life is to define and enforce your non-negotiables, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, who partnered with Northwestern on The Great Realization. Establishing non-negotiables is a powerful and essential tool for accomplishing your dreams. They can also help you learn how to be happy by teaching you how to say no, how to set boundaries and how to enforce a healthy work-life balance.

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What are non-negotiables?

“At their core, non-negotiables are any deeply held beliefs that are so important to you that you will not compromise them,” says Rubin.

These uncompromising beliefs can apply to any area of your life, including work, hobbies and daily habits. But perhaps where they are most important is in interpersonal relationships with friends, family, partners and other loved ones.

Non-negotiables are based on your personal values, defined by your priorities and applied and maintained through healthy boundaries.

Examples of non-negotiables

Seeing examples of what other people consider non-negotiable can be very helpful when learning how to make your own list, says Rubin.

“For example, when I was dating, one of my personal non-negotiables was my goal of starting a family and having children, and that wasn’t something I was willing to compromise on,” she says. “So anyone I dated needed to also share that priority.”

Clearly stating her non-negotiables in a relationship helped her find a partner who could meet that need and reduced conflict later on. It’s one reason she ended up with her husband, Jamie, and two beloved children.

Of course, non-negotiables aren’t just for romantic relationships. Even if you’ve committed to the single life, you can use non-negotiables in relationships with friends, family and co-workers.

Other common examples of non-negotiables include:

  • Where to live
  • Whether or not to have pets
  • Religion or spirituality
  • Travel
  • How to save and spend money

Everyone can benefit from crafting a list of their uncompromising values—even celebrities have non-negotiables—so start by coming up with those that hold the greatest meaning for you. The five expert-approved tips below are a great place to start.

How to determine personal non-negotiables

Yellow toy brick blocks on yellow backgroundphotograph by dorisj/Getty Images

While this concept can be simple to understand, it’s harder to put into practice because many of us aren’t used to thinking about our value system this way, says Rubin. Many people act instinctively and then determine whether or not what they did was congruent with their beliefs, but having non-negotiables teaches you to focus on your values and priorities first and then act authentically from that place of self-confidence.

Break out the goal-setting vision board, folks! It’s time to figure out your non-negotiables.

1. Write a ranked list of your core values

All your goals and priorities start with understanding what is truly important to you. This may include things like finding a purpose in life that’s larger than yourself, being honest, helping others, adding to your field of work, learning new things, discovering or exploring the world, showing patriotism, maintaining family connections or practicing spirituality. (It can be useful to do a digital detox during this time so you’re not distracted by less important things.)

2. Write a list of your top 10 priorities

Once you understand your values, you can make a list of things you prioritize in your life. These should be directly tied to one or more of your core values. For instance, if helping others is important to you, you may prioritize becoming a volunteer. (Bonus: There are a ton of great benefits of volunteering.) If exploring the world is important to you, you might make traveling to 25 countries before you die one of your top priorities.

3. Make a list of goals to help you achieve each priority

Just as your priorities support your core values, your goals reinforce your priorities. If traveling to 25 countries is on your top 10 list, you’ll need to set some solid goals to make it happen. Maybe you need to save a certain amount of money and retire by a certain age to travel as much as you want. Maybe you need to learn a new language. Or perhaps you need to move into a career that would allow for more travel. On another note, while we’re talking about money, here is the real answer to whether money can buy happiness or not.

4. Define what is non-negotiable about each goal

When it comes to the goals that support your priorities, you’ll need to be open to a little give and take. You may be willing to compromise on some things—like salary or language lessons, in the travel example above.

But as you think through your goals, you will find certain essential elements can’t be compromised, like a life partner who shares your passion for travel and trying new things. Those are your non-negotiables.

5. Share your lists with your loved ones

We don’t operate in a vacuum, and our relationships definitely influence our values, priorities and goals. It’s important to discuss all these things with your partner and family.

You don’t have to base your non-negotiables entirely on their wants and opinions, but if they are important to you, then you should consider their thoughts (or consider changing the nature of the relationship if your values and priorities don’t align).

How to live by non-negotiables

Planning ahead and creating firm boundaries are the two most important steps when it comes to living authentically and honoring your non-negotiable values, says Rubin.

Once you know what your non-negotiables are, it’s essential that you look ahead for situations that might challenge them and come up with clear boundaries that will help you stay firm. For example, if you know you need to retire by 60 to achieve your travel goals, you may have to set financial boundaries with your spending to make sure that is an option.

Not only do you need to respect these boundaries, but you also need to make sure your partner or family is in agreement with your goal.

Easier said than done, right? Boundaries can be easy to lose in the moment, particularly if you’re prone to people-pleasing. Practicing your boundaries through journaling or role-playing can help you feel confident, strong and prepared.

When to modify your non-negotiables

If that all sounds a little uncompromising, that’s because it is. Non-negotiables are, by their very nature, hard lines. But life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and there are events that may necessitate changing one or more of your non-negotiables.

These could include a serious illness for you or a loved one, a natural disaster, a job loss, a divorce, the death of a loved one, a big move, the birth or adoption of a child or other major life changes. These big changes may lead you to reevaluate your priorities and alter your core values. And that’s OK. In fact, that’s how it’s supposed to work!

The point of non-negotiables is to help you live your best life and be happy, not to confine you to a prison of your own making. “Ultimately, we are happiest when we are living our lives in line with our values, and knowing your non-negotiables is a way to help you do that,” says Rubin. Next, learn how much your clothes can affect your mood.


Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.