Our son’s Godfather, a close family friend, passed away last week. It was a sudden, unexpected passing. The kind that leaves you struggling to find your footing in the wake of a life ended too soon.
In trying to make sense of it during this somewhat surreal past week, I’ve found myself asking questions. Naturally, I’ve wondered why this had to happen. But then the questions have gone deeper, becoming introspective.
The one I keep coming back to goes like this:
How would you live if you knew you only had a little time left here?
Any encounter with death leaves us considering our own mortality more frequently. We all know death could happen at any time, but so often we live as though it won’t.
When we really understand our journey here ends—when we begin living with the end in mind—our ignorance lifts.
It doesn’t mean we live in fear. As Thoreau said, the thing to fear is coming to the end of your life only to “discover that you have not lived.”
It doesn’t mean we live anxiously, thinking “I have to do it all now before time is up.” As Seneca said, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”
What living with the end in mind does mean is we live more intentionally. Much more intentionally.
Our own mortality becomes a powerful ally, heightening our awareness and leaving us with a desire to live less on autopilot and more on purpose. We narrow our focus on what matters most, and our actions take on increased significance and meaning.
Here are 5 ways living with the end in mind will help you live more intentionally.
1. You let go of approval seeking
Palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware spent several years working with patients during their last 12 weeks of life. In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the number one regret people expressed on their deathbed was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Living with the end in sight empowers you to stop worrying about gaining other’s approval and begin living in line with your values. Take a good look around your home, at your possessions, and at your life choices. Are the decisions you’ve made based on you or someone else’s influence on you? If you answered the latter, then only you can change that.
How to practice this: Consider this question: If I only had one month to live, would my actions be dictated by what others think? I’m guessing not. Begin observing your motives behind your actions. If they are driven by a need for approval, then stop, put your hand on your heart, and ask yourself what you want. By listening to yourself, and then courageously acting in line with your values, you live a life true to you.
2. You stop living for “someday”
So many of us have dreams and goals that we plan to get to “someday.” The problem is that “someday” doesn’t exist. We are guaranteed today—the here and now. Living with the end in mind motivates us to pursue our dreams now, which gives life more meaning.
Author Marc Chernoff said, “If you don’t express the passion inside you—the ideas and deeds that make you feel alive—you will die one moment at a time without ever having lived.” When we put off pursuing our God-given passions, we put off living fully.
How to practice this: Author David Nurse suggests writing out the acronym TIME: Today Is My Everything. This reminds us that now is the time to start taking small steps toward our dreams. Nurse says to ask yourself “Is the pain of getting up 30 minutes earlier now to invest in your dream greater than the future pain of regret?” Post the acronym somewhere you see it daily and invest a bit of time today toward your pursuing goal.
3. You realize your life is worth editing… frequently
Living with the end in mind naturally allows you to focus on the essential. This requires relentless life-editing. Ask yourself: If I only had one month to live, what would I add to my life? What would I subtract?
Maybe you’d add in more quality time with family. Or maybe you’d add in more time for quiet prayer or meditation. Maybe you’d subtract certain items from your home. Or maybe you’d subtract intangibles like unfulfilling commitments, comparison, fear of failure, pretending, guilt, resentment, or the need to prove yourself.
How to practice this: Take a few minutes to list out your essentials. What matters most to you? Think about how much time you actually dedicate to those things. Now make a second list of things you do, but would like to do less often (mindlessly scroll social media or binge-watch Netflix, for example). Post both lists somewhere you can see them daily. Now start making more time for the things that matter by doing less of the things that don’t.
4. You understand that you “get to”
We adopt a more gratitude-infused mindset when we truly understand that tomorrow is not guaranteed. When faced with a mundane task that we “have to do” we begin to realize this part of our daily grind is actually something we “get to do.” We stop taking as many things for granted, our tasks become easier as resistance fades, and our lives feel lighter.
How to practice this: Begin listening for the times you say (out loud or to yourself) “I have to….” At first just listen and observe. Simply count the number of times you say this for a couple days. Then, begin replacing “I have to…” with “I get to…” and observe how your mindset also changes.
5. You reject excessive consumerism
Living with the end in mind shifts our focus away from our stuff. If we only had limited time left, would we listen to marketer’s messages saying that what we currently have isn’t good enough? I’m guessing not.
We’d let go of “needs” to upgrade our iPhone, try the latest beauty product, and revamp our wardrobe to incorporate the latest trends. Our eyes would be opened to how little we actually need to be happy, and, that while we all need basic things, our happiness isn’t found in our stuff. Decluttering would also become easier—realizing we can’t take our things with us increases our detachment and our propensity to let go.
How to practice this: Ask yourself: If I only had one month to live, would I feel the need to buy this right now? If you’re purchasing out of necessity, then your answer is likely “yes.” If you’re purchasing out of a desire to impress, fit in, or keep up, then your answer is likely “no.”
Chernoff writes, “Don’t be scared of death. Be scared of leaving too much of your life unlived. Be scared of leading a tedious daily existence that doesn’t empower you to be your best self.”
Keeping our own mortality in the forefront of our mind allows us to regard the non-essentials lightly and put the weight of our focus on what matters most.
Let’s begin living with the end in mind and make our journey through life a meaningful one.
About the Author: Julia Ubbenga is a freelance journalist whose teachings on minimalism, simplicity, and intentional living have reached thousands of people worldwide through her blog richinwhatmatters.com. Julia practices what she preaches in her Kansas City apartment home with her husband and two extremely lively young daughters.