In 1998 Steven Levine Wrote “One Year to Live,” where he asked readers to think about what they would do if their death occurred in one year. I remember the discomfort this discussion created with friends.

But what if we expanded the time frame to something less threatening, like 15% more time based on your age? For me, that translates into 10.35 years. When I’m brave, I think in terms of 10% or 6.9 years. In either case, the numbers can create disturbing images. Few people want to dwell on when they will die.

An Exercise For Anticipating Your Death

Here’s an exercise you can do that will give you a perspective on death that will change your life. Assume you have ten years to live. Would you:

1. continue working
2. focus on how you do things (process) or what you do (products)
3. change your personal relationships
4. resolve unfinished things in your life

You’re probably thinking “Ten years is an eternity. I’ll have plenty of time to change my life.” If that’s your mindset, let’s make the exercise a bit more uncomfortable. What if you have five years left? Or, heaven forbid, Levine’s one-year time frame.

Uncomfortable Transformations

Rarely do we know how much time we have left, even with a terminal diagnosis. Reality often grabs us from behind and says, “Guess what? You’ll be dead tomorrow.”

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer 12 years ago, my thoughts tended towards the one-year time line since the prognosis was uncertain. I radically change my life. I retired, focused on how I did things rather than goals, tried to make amends for my unskillful acts, and “cleaned my plate.” Changes I thought would make my death easier.

Life became very different. Not as comfortable, but more meaningful and honest. But then, something interrupted my transformation—I lived. Not just for a year, but now twelve years with the cancer still controlled. And every year, I become more comfortable thinking I’ll live forever.

So every few months, I do the above exercise assuming that I don’t know how much longer I have to live. It’s amazing how a brush with death makes you appreciate honest living. Try the exercise and let me know how it’s changed you and folks with whom you interact.

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