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Think about your death — often

Life is short … oh so short.

In the early years of primary school, a term felt like a lifetime and completing high school seemed like an unattainable event in the faraway distance. But as the years (and decades) have accumulated, I have learnt that although some individual days may pass slowly, the months and years fly by.

If I am fortunate I will reach old age, and that will come about soon enough. But my death may arrive sooner than that. It could occur today or tomorrow.

Thinking about death can be a valuable exercise, although it’s not meant to be morbid. Rather, it helps me make better decisions today.

The way I think about death is at the level of feelings and imagination.

There are a couple of exercises I like to do.

In the first exercise, I imagine my death is imminent and I am reviewing my life.

  • Do I have regrets?
  • Is there something I wish I’d done that I haven’t done yet?

I do this exercise because when older people are asked about whether they have regrets about the way they have lived their life, more regrets are expressed about what they didn’t do, rather than things they did do.

This sort of approach is also advocated by Steven Covey in his second habit “Begin with the End in Mind”. One of the exercises he advocates is to imagine your funeral and what four speakers will say about you in their eulogies. The four speakers are a family member, a work colleague, a friend and a community member. Would I be happy with what they would say based on where my life is currently at? If not, what do I need to change?

Is there something I haven’t done yet that I need to start? Is there something I need to stop or reduce to make space for this?

In the second exercise, I imagine today is my last day and think about whether I would do anything differently. How would I interact with the people around me? What would I notice in this beautiful world that I would otherwise be missing at the moment?

I do this exercise to jolt me out of the habit of moving through my day to day life as though I am sleep walking … passing through each day by rote rather than being fully conscious and fully alive. If today was my last day, would I do anything differently?

I hope I have many wonderful days left in front of me. If I am fortunate and my life plays out in this manner, I think it’s still worth imagining my death because it may just help me live a better life in the interim.

And if a long life doesn’t come to pass, how much more important is it for me to consciously think about the best way to spend my remaining days?

To better understand this hack:

  • Read “Chasing Daylight” by Gene Kelly, the CEO of KPMG who wrote the book when he discovered he had 3 months to live due to brain tumours.
  • Watch Randy Pausch’s last lecture on YouTube. Randy gave his final lecture a few months before his death which occurred when he was 47 years old.
  • Read “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey — in particular Habit #2 (Begin with the End in Mind).