As a motivational speaker, I start many of my presentations with this question. Why; because it is a simple, and very effective, way to help you think about your priorities. Take a moment right now and seriously consider your answer to this question. What would you do?
Maybe you’d spend your time close to home with your family and friends appreciating your friendships, loved ones and the time you were able to spend with them. Or, maybe you’re the type of person who would pack their bags and travel the world trying to see as much as you could in the time you had left. Maybe you’re interested in philanthropy and would dedicate that year to community service and giving your possessions away to charities and those you cared for. Or maybe you’d spend most of your time alone, quietly reflecting on your life. I don’t know you and so I don’t know what your answer would be, but it almost doesn’t matter. Just the simple act of asking yourself this question every so often can have a powerful effect on your life.
When it comes right down to it, we are our habits. Our lives are determined by our priorities. If money is your chief goal and motivator, then odds are good that you spend most of your time working, striving after success. If relationships are most important to you, then even if you’re busy, you probably make it a point to make time to spend with those you are closest to.
I’m not making any value judgments about your priorities, nor am I making any suggestions about where each one should rank. That is a highly personal thing. However, I would encourage you to engage in the exercise of evaluating your priorities often. Taking a look at your priorities and evaluating whether you are living your life according to them, helps to ensure that you live the life you want to live and minimizes the chance of having regrets. When we consciously think about how short life is we get serious about using the time that we have in a way that best aligns with what we consider most important. At least that’s what happened to me.
Eight years ago I was a twenty-three year old kid going to university with my whole life in front of me. My focus was mostly on myself and having fun. I wasn’t concerned with spending time with my family or being right with myself and with my God. There would be time for that later I thought. I was wrong.
In the span of a few months in the summer of 2001, my life was turned upside down. I’d landed a great summer job as a tour guide on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and I had three days between the end of exams at university, and the first day of training in Ottawa. I came home intending to pack my bags, say goodbye to my family, and head off for a great summer adventure. Instead, that day would be the beginning of a two-year saga that would forever change my life.
When I arrived home that day to pack my bags, my mom was the one who answered the door. She opened the door, took one look at me, and the colour left her face.
She noticed immediately what I’d been denying. I’d lost weight, more than thirty pounds. I was frail and sick. Soon we would find out exactly why and that the weight loss was the least of my problems.
My parents wasted no time bringing me in to see my doctor. My family doctor recognized immediately that my condition was serious. He put me in hospital to be monitored while arrangements were made to get me into a hospital in Halifax to see the heart transplant team.
When the cardiologist examined me that day I was in right and left-sided heart failure. My heart muscle was becoming thick and stiff and was increasingly unable to fill with blood. As the condition got worse, my failing heart would cause my body to hold on to excess fluid and the fluid would accumulate throughout my body. First in my hands and feet causing painful swelling, and then in my lungs, making it very difficult to breathe.
When my condition was most severe, I struggled to climb a single flight of stairs without getting out of breathe. I would come home at the end of a morning of class and be absolutely exhausted. I’d need a few hours on the couch just to be able to find the energy to make supper.
When I saw my doctor that day, it didn’t take him long to make a decision about what needed to happen. After reviewing some test results he looked at me and said the words that changed my life, “You need a heart and double lung transplant and you need it now.”
I waited almost a year on the transplant list. After four months of waiting as an out-patient, I was admitted to hospital because my condition was so instable that doctors were afraid I would go into cardiac arrest and die before a donor would become available.
Spending six months in the hospital give you a lot of time to think. You start to develop a new outlook on life and your priorities about what matters and what doesn’t changes quite quickly. It’s now eight years later and odds are good that I have much longer than a year to live, but I still often ask myself “What if you only had a year to live?” Asking myself this question forces me to evaluate my priorities and remember that life is short and that I don’t want to waste a single minute of it. I work hard at making sure that I am fully aware, alert and alive every minute of every day. If you can think about trying to live like you only have a year to live, you’ll have a sense of urgency about reaching your goals without a sense of panic.
Far too many of us walk through life just ‘existing’. We live, as Thoreau wrote “lives of quiet desperation”. Spending a year of my life in the hospital when I was supposed to be a vibrant, productive young adult, taught me that life is too short to take a moment for granted. We can’t afford to spend a single day without really being alive. Don’t be one of those people who wakes up at eighty years old and asks, “where did the time go?” Don’t be the person whose gravestone reads “Here lies someone who was ABOUT to do some really great stuff”.
It is important that I be very clear about what I’m proposing here because it can be easily misinterpreted. Many people who have had to face death will tell you that you should live every day like it’s your last day. The theory is that any one of us could die at any moment so we need to live every moment as if it were our last. But if you consider this idea for even a few minutes you quickly realize that it’s simply impossible to live life that way for more than a very short period of time. Not to mention it can be pretty dangerous! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to drive on the highway with someone who is driving like today is their last day of life!
The truth is, we can’t cram a lifetime worth of experiences, achievements, challenges and friendships into twenty-four hours. Life doesn’t work that way. I’m not suggesting that you should live every day like it’s your last day. Just be ALIVE every day. Take the time every day to ensure the most important things are taken care of. Make sure that the people you love know that you love them. Don’t assume they already know; tell them. Make time to spend with your family. They won’t be there forever. If you have things on your “bucket list” that you haven’t made plans to do yet, start. You may never get them all crossed off and that’s okay. Simply creating a list and working toward the items on it, will focus your attention on where you really want to spend your time and ensure you’re living the way you want to be.
Here are a few action items for you to think about:
What would you do if you had a year to live?
What would be important? What wouldn’t matter?
Do you want to DO more?
What would you do more?
What would you do less?
How would you use your time?
Once you get the answers to these questions, write them down and put them somewhere where you can look at them every day. They’ll help you to stay on track and remember what really matters.
You may have fifty or even eighty more years to live. You may not. I don’t know. What I can promise is that if you live your life thinking “what if I had one year left” you stand a much better chance of staying focused on what matters most to you. And that is the recipe for a successful and fulfilling life.