Do this exercise to get more meaning from your life

Do you ever stop during the workday and think, “Why am I doing any of this? What is it all adding up to?”

If so, you’re far from alone. When you’re stuck in the mire of everyday tasks – checking your email, sitting in a million meetings, scarfing down lunch, more meetings, more email – it can be hard to know what, exactly, your work is amounting to.

Enter Sahar Yousef and Lucas Miller’s deathbed exercise. It might sound morbid, but it’s a way to reflect on who you are, where you’re headed, and what you should prioritize.

How to do the deathbed exercise

Prepare yourself physically

  1. Block 90 uninterrupted minutes on your calendar. Give yourself enough time to think about your life on a grander level. Close your computer, turn off your phone notifications, or (better yet) put your phone in another room entirely.
  1. Go to a new location. This doesn’t have to be a luxury getaway. You can drive to a parking lot and sit in the backseat of your car, or walk to a nearby park and sit down on the grass.
  1. Get a pen and paper. You’ll want to write everything down by hand – it helps to create a stronger connection to your thoughts than typing does.

Prepare yourself emotionally

  1. Don’t trust the quick answers. As you do this exercise, you may have kneejerk responses based on what others expect of you, or what you think you should say. Take your time to call bullshit on those immediate responses.
  1. Get comfortable with emotions bubbling up. Anger, fear, or sadness are all a natural response to this exercise. Think of your emotions as messengers telling you something, rather than labeling them “good” or “bad.”

Activity 1: Identify what’s important to you

Begin by visualizing that you are 100 years old and on your deathbed. You’re surrounded by your loved ones and family. As you visualize your final moments, close your eyes, ask yourself:

1. What are the most important things in your life that made you feel satisfied, happy, fulfilled, and proud?

2. What experiences or achievements make you smile and ready to let go and move on?

For each thing you identify, write down what it looks like to you. What do you feel? Who else is there with you? Where are you physically ?

You may end up writing a long list. That’s okay. The goal is to write down everything that might be most important to you.

Activity 2: Prioritize the must-haves

Take the list you created in your first activity. Then rank the four most important moments or goals, in order of importance.

Here are a few guiding rules for this activity.

  • No ties allowed. Even if all your goals feel like absolute must-haves, you must assign each a rank. You should have a #1, #2, #3, and #4.
  • If you can’t decide between two goals, ask “If I had to pick between A and B, which would I miss more?” Your time, energy, and focus are finite – you need to determine how devastated you’d be on your deathbed if you had never accomplished or experienced each goal.
  • Question every idea you have about what’s important. Is it truly your priority to be wealthy when you’re older – or is that your parents’ priority for you? Be rigorous and thorough in accepting something into your top four.

Activity 3: Interrogate yourself

Now that you have an ordered list of the most important goals in your life, you need to understand why those things are important to you.

For each goal, ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to accomplish this? Is it really that important, or do I want it to be important?
  • Did this goal really come from me, or did it come from someone else (parents, society, etc.)?
  • What emotion do I feel when I visualize having accomplished it?
  • What if I don’t accomplish it? Now how do I feel?

It may be easy to imagine your deathbed moment playing out in your 70s, 80s, or even 90s, but what if it plays out later this year? What if your time is up in your 50s? Would your must-haves change if your remaining time was shorter?

Use your “whys” to plan your days

The writer Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

That can be a scary thought, especially if you feel like your days are spent writing emails, cleaning up other people’s mistakes, or attending status meetings.

But it gets to the point of this exercise: to use your “ultimate whys” to focus your energy and time on what matters. Sahar and Lucas recommend doing this exercise once a year, to understand how your priorities have shifted and make sure you’re driving toward your ultimate goals.

To learn more techniques to get more meaning out of your life and work, join us for The Productivity & Performance Sprint.


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