❝This is your life; the only one you've got. You'll never get this moment back again. And you don't know how many more moments you have.❞ -Sam Harris
I'm sitting at my desk trying to get some work done. I'm feeling sorry for myself. It's 2004, and I'm stressed out because of all the things that are going on, not the least of which are all the papers I have to write for my various courses. As my attention shifts from my schoolwork to how bad I feel, I hear a song called "You Never Know" by Dave Matthews Band. One line of this song resonates with me and gives me a new perspective on life and priorities.
Don't let the troubles in your head
Steal too much time
You'll soon be dead
These lyrics shake me because they make very clear something that I have always known but never really considered: our time is short, our time is finite, and there are no do-overs. Keeping this in mind reminds me to prioritize my life to ensure there is space for the things I find important. I also notice that the lyrics don't suggest there should be no troubles in my head or that troubles should take up no time. It says that, of course, there will be troubles, but if we let those troubles take up too much of our mental capacity, then we are not making room for the things that will make life meaningful.
We don't have unlimited time, but many of us are so afraid to confront our mortality that we act as if there will always be more time. Remembering that life is short can help us live more intentionally and authentically.
DAYS ARE PRECIOUS
Imagine you have a bag full of pearls. Each pearl represents a day that you get to be alive. Further, imagine that each morning when you wake up, you reach into your bag and grab a pearl that you use to pay for the day ahead.
How would you spend your pearls?
Viewing your days as a bag of pearls can offer you some perspective on how you spend your time. To make this analogy more realistic, though, we have to assume that you don't know how many more pearls are in your bag. Each morning when you wake up, you learn there's another pearl in your bag that you get to use.
Now imagine you are towards the end of your life. You still don't know how many pearls you have left, but you know that you are running out. How much would you pay for a day as a person your current age when you're old? In other words, how much would you pay to trade pearls with your younger self?
Too many of us get to the end of our lives and realize that our pearls are dwindling and that we wish we would have spent them differently.
The Death Attitude Profile assesses your attitudes toward death and dying. It's based on the belief that people's attitudes toward death play an important role in their overall psychological well-being and quality of life. It measures five different dimensions of death attitudes: fear of death, death avoidance, neutral acceptance, approach acceptance, and escape acceptance.
Another way to put time into perspective is to ask yourself, how many Thanksgivings you have left? Thanksgiving comes once a year, so it's reasonable to expect you have 80 to 90 thanksgivings over your lifetime.
How many of your Thanksgivings have you already used up? Think about how you spend your Thanksgivings. Perhaps you alternate between different families each year. This can lead to some interesting insights. For example, if you see your family once every two years, then the number of Thanksgivings you have with your family is half the number of Thanksgivings you have left.
This knowledge may change how you savor your next Thanksgiving. It may change your perspective on how you spend your Thanksgiving pearls.
LOVED ONES HAVE THEIR OWN TIMELINES
It can be insightful (and scary) enough to remind ourselves that our bag of pearls is limited. It becomes even more insightful (and even scarier) once we remember that everybody else has a different number of pearls in their bags. When you consider how many Thanksgivings you have left, for example, that only gives you information about how many Thanksgivings you get to experience. Recognize, though, that your loved ones have a different number of Thanksgivings left. How many Thanksgivings will you have left with, say, your parents?
The fact that everybody has their own timeline makes sense logically because we know that everybody was born in a different time. The fact that we all have different experiences in life up to this point can help us recognize that everybody has a different set of beliefs, values, and Money Scripts. It can also help remind us that the time we've had with loved ones in the past is a sunk cost. The past can't be changed. The best we can do is learn the lessons from the past.
A more insightful tidbit from recognizing that everybody has a different timeline is that we don't get the same amount of time with everyone. Some people will outlive us; more importantly, we will outlive others. And outliving others gives us less time to spend meaningful moments with them.
How will you spend your time with your loved ones knowing that everybody has a different amount of pearls?
PRIORITIZE WHAT'S IMPORTANT
Living with the knowledge that life is short and finite can help us prioritize what is important to us. It helps us live a life on purpose and in a way that is consistent with what we want in our life.
One framework that you might be able to use when evaluating what's important to you and how you're spending your time is to imagine a two-dimensional chart. Your values are plotted based on how important they are to you, and your activities that support those values are plotted based on how much you are pursuing them or not.
As you evaluate the chart, you can praise yourself for things in the upper right quadrant. These are things that are important to you that you are actually doing. You can also give yourself praise for things that lie in the lower left quadrant because things in this quadrant are those that are not important to you, but you aren't doing them. This is all good.
You can also gain insight from the upper left and lower right quadrants. The upper left quadrant shows you things that are important to you, but you are not prioritizing. This could give you insight into how you may want to re-prioritize how you're spending your pearls. Can you find a way to prioritize these things that are important to you?
The lower right quadrant shows things that are not important to you but that you spend your limited time on. This is an interesting quadrant because it allows you to be honest with yourself. One way to manage this quadrant is to stop doing things you say are unimportant. Another (more uncomfortable) way is to continue doing those things but admit to yourself that they are more important than you think. For example, suppose you don't value fame and recognition but spend a lot of time trying to go viral on social media. In that case, you have to either stop spending so much time on social media or admit to yourself that fame and recognition are actually important to you.
The number of pearls in your bag is finite, but you don't know how many there are. Further, every person you love has a different amount of pearls in their own bag, and you don't know how many they have. This knowledge can (and should) change how you prioritize your time and life. There's a difference between living and existing.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Brooks, Arthur: From Strength to Strength
Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks
Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote
Fischer, John Martin: Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life
Frankl, Viktor: Man’s Search for Meaning
Glasgow, Joshua: The Solace
Hagen, Derek: Money’s Purpose in Your Life
Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life
Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core
Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life
Wait But Why: The Tail End
Wallace, David Foster: This is Water
Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.