“I have some bad news for you, you only have between 5–10 years left to live. The good news is that you won’t be ill, the bad news is that you‘ll have no notice of the day of your death. What will you with the time you have left”? “Would you change your life and if so, how would you do it?”
“I’d probably not work as much. I’d spend more time with my kids and I’d make sure everything is well organised so my family don’t need to worry. Oh, and I’d probably travel more too”.
I hear responses to the initially posed question a lot. But I don’t always see people take the actions that are consistent with what they are telling me.
We intuitively know life is (relatively) short and we know it’s certainly not a dress rehearsal, so why do we put off the things that are so important to us?
I think one of the answers is to do with how we perceive time. If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. This bothers us, in part, because money has value. Wasting it seems absurd. And yet we see others — and ourselves — throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.
Unlike the predictable reaction we have to someone throwing away money, we fail to think of the person who wastes time as crazy. And yet time is a truly finite, expendable resource: The amount we get is uncertain but surely limited. It’s even more insane to waste than money — we can’t make any more when it runs out!
So how can we re-centre ourselves to enable us to live better during our one and only precious life?
Questions are the answer
The question I use* (seen at the start of this post) is certainly a good start. It can help us think about our own mortality and therefore focus on what’s really important.
From my own personal experience, its better to have an objective, third party asking you the questions and getting you to think outside your natural thought processes and biases.
Last year, I hired a personal coach. What I noticed is that she didn’t tell me what to do. She just asked great questions and then asked more great questions. And then she listened, fed back what she had heard and let that sink in.
For me, this was invaluable and helped me refocus my efforts on the daily tasks that would improve my life and business over time. Not overnight, but incremental change over longer periods.
She also helped me see things from different perspectives. People who’d already achieved what I wanted to achieve. People older and wiser and even people who had a short time left to live.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Regrets of the Dying, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she says, “common themes surfaced again and again.”
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Ware:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
By seeing life from a different perspective and realising that our time is incredibly short in the grand scheme of things, we can start to think about ways to enhance the quality of our lives by focussing on the things that really matter.
Money decisions can feel incredibly difficult too. Especially when you are making a decision about the future which is largely unknown. Our human tendency is to go for things that give immediate gratification, so when it comes to choosing to save, invest or spend now, we go for the latter.
However, when we are clear on our intentions and we have someone fighting our corner — for me it was my coach — we can increase the probability of making better long term decisions and perhaps live life more on our terms rather than what we think we should be doing.
I’ll leave you with one more question to ponder, which hopefully will help you focus on what matters most and therefore what steps you must take NOW to accomplish those things;
What’s your greatest regret so far, and what will you set out to achieve or change before you die?
*The question at the top of this post came from George Kinder. Internationally recognised as the father of the Life Planning movement, the Harvard-educated Kinder is the founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning.