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drawing of life as an hourglass

❝All good things must come to an end some time, but don't burn the day away.❞ -Dave Matthews Band in "Pig"

Tim Urban, whose TED talk, Inside the mind of a master procrastinator, went viral, is the author of the book What's Our Problem?. He wrote a blog post in 2014 called "Your Life in Weeks." In it, he helps his readers visualize a human life. He illustrates a life in years, months, and weeks. Then, he proceeds to show various key events and periods in a human life.

It's eye-opening to see everything laid out there for you - out in the open - how much time we can expect to be here. Acknowledging the fact that time is finite can help us prioritize what's actually important to us - rather than do what we think we're supposed to do. It can be quite motivating.

The only thing is he shows us a life that goes until age 90. And yet, we aren't guaranteed 90 years, and we certainly aren't guaranteed 90 good years. He does show average life expectancy on his illustration, but that is only average - it doesn't apply to anyone specifically.

The capital-T Truth is that we don't know how much time we have; only that we have a finite amount of time.

This is where the lifeglass analogy can be helpful.


Life is short.

That's a cliche everyone's heard. Many times we hear this with good intentions; someone tries to get us to stop wasting time and enjoy our lives while we can. However, for most of us, this is just good pop philosophy. We may have a deep conversation discussing the shortness of life over a glass of wine, but tomorrow comes and we go back to our regular ways.

Perhaps a better analogy is needed.

drawing of human lifecycle

As our life cycle moves forward, the life that we've lived becomes a bigger proportion of our lives, and the life we have left gets smaller. A fitting analogy is to think of life like an hourglass. The sand in the top of the hourglass represents our remaining life, and the sand in the bottom chamber represents the life we've lived. The moment when our remaining life transforms into the life we've lived is the present - the only thing we can experience.

Thus, we can think of this as our lifeglass.

drawing of the lifeglass and life as an hourglass

Our lifeglass' top chamber is full when we are born, and we have nothing in the bottom chamber yet. That is to say, we have no experience yet, but our whole life is in front of us.

drawing of newborn lifeglass

By the time we hit midlife, we've got some experience. We've lived a life. We have some experience, yet we also have more life in front of us. Ideally, the life we've lived has provided us with lessons that we can take with us into the rest of our lives.

drawing of midlife lifeglass

Finally, by the time we are in our elder years, we've used up most of the sand that existed in our top chamber. We are very experienced. There's a lot of sand in our bottom chamber. However, the sand in the lifeglass is running out.

drawing of end of life lifeglass

This helps us see life for what it is - a temporary experience where we have the opportunity to find meaning, connect with others, find a sense of purpose and be happy.

drawing of human lifecycles and hourglasses or lifeglasses

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.


So far, we've talked about understanding the lifeglass and how the different chambers of our lifeglasses work together. There is one important addition to our analogy, though.

Unlike an hourglass, you can't see the top chamber of a lifeglass. You can see the life you've lived, and you have the present moment, but the top chamber is covered up by something I call the uncertainty curtain.

drawing of uncertainty curtain

Because of the uncertainty curtain, we are left without the knowledge of how much time is left. The only thing we know is that we have some time, yet the amount is unknowable...

...for most people.

drawing of uncertainty curtain and not knowing how much time is left


Many argue that, although we don't know how much time is left, we probably don't want to know. There are people to get a glimpse of the upper chamber. People who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. For such people, the uncertainty curtain is lifted.

drawing of lifting the uncertainty curtain

As much as we may think we want to know how much time is left, knowing means we can't hide from ourselves the fact that time is limited.

drawing of fear of death


You might be wondering what the antidote is. How can I live for today and also prepare for tomorrow, and also know that tomorrow isn't guaranteed, and also know that tomorrow is probable...

It can be tough. Many people have a life philosophy that says since tomorrow isn't' guaranteed, I might as well live for the moment. This is to place more weight on the present than on the future. This is why people spend instead of save, for example.

drawing of hedonism

Yet it's possible that you will exist in the future (even if you don't know exactly how much time you have). There will be a future you and not putting money away for that person you will become is akin to stealing from your future self.

drawing of stealing from future you

The retort might be that we need to save everything for the future so that future us will be set up. This can be tempting and has the potential to be a seed of anxiety - causing people to worry about having enough in the future. So save, save, save, and wait for the future to enjoy it.

Yet, it doesn't take much time to find examples of people who saved their whole lives for a comfortable retirement, not knowing they would run out of sand right as they retire.

This is to put too much weight on the future.

drawing of scrooge and financial hoarding

This is the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, the main character in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had more money than he could ever need but refused to spend because he didn't want to run out of money in the future (among other reasons).

It turns out, simple having money and not using it doesn't make people happy.

drawing of financial hoarding

The trick is to balance the present and the future (using lessons from the past). You can live for today while simultaneously setting yourself up for a good future. It's about balance. It's about not waiting to live your life. It's about finding meaningful things to do with your time. It's about enjoying the people around you. And it's also about understanding that you can set yourself up to live your life, do meaningful things, and enjoy the people around you in the future.

drawing of balancing the present and the future

You don't have to choose between YOLO and paying your bills. You can find a balance. Understanding that you have this one life to enjoy allows you to make the most of it.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks Ellis, Linda: "The Dash" Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Irvine, William: You: A Natural History Kinder, George & Susan Galvan: Lighting the Torch Lindsay, James: Life in Light of Death Making Sense Podcase with Sam Harris: Making Sense of Death Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose Robin, Vicki: Your Money or Your Life Urban, Tim: What's Our Problem? Wagner, Richard: Financial Planning 3.0

Wait But Why: Your Life in Weeks Wallace, David Foster: This is Water Ware, Bronnie: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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