Why do people all of a sudden change their entire perspective towards a person the moment they find out he or she is terminally ill and only have a finite number of days to live? On the same subject, why do people promptly come up with bucket lists once they find out they’re the one who’s ill and, most of the time, go out of their way to cross out as many as they can with the time they have left?
In Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project, he cited the psychologist Daniel Kahneman as saying, “The absence of definite information concerning the outcomes of actions one has not taken is probably the single most important factor that keeps regret in life within tolerable bounds.”
And I think that’s the case in both scenarios I just gave. Because we have no definite information how long one person is to live, we tend to take our relationship with them for granted. Let’s hang some time, the text message goes. Or in our bucket list setting, those things can wait.
But the truth is, all of us have our days numbered already. It’s just that we have no idea what that number is. We are all transients on a layover and we are all going to have to leave this place which is why we should be much more intentional towards our relationship with others and, just the same, our goals in life.
Over one weekend, I chanced upon these two TED talks: How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals by Stephen Duneier and Inside the mind of a master procrastinator by Tim Urban with both videos commanding nearly 40 million views. For some reason, I had Stephen Duneier’s in my Watch Later queue but never managed to go through it. I wasn’t doing anything important this particular day so I said, why not? Tim Urban’s talk appeared as a related video as I was watching Duneier’s.
Before you continue reading, I heavily suggest you go watch the two TED talks I mentioned above. It shouldn’t take up too much of your time as TED talks were intentionally designed to be just 18 minutes or less and if you’re anything like me, you’d quickly find the two talks actually complement each other. Stephen Duneier talks about what to do (to achieve your most ambitious goals) and Tim Urban tells you when (clue: right now!).
Tim Urban’s life calendar piqued my interest particularly. He presented a series of boxes that resembled a huge blank crochet pattern. “That’s one box for every week of a 90-year life,” he goes on to say. As I saw the empty boxes, I asked myself: if those tiny squares represent a 90-year life, how much of it have I already spent?
Being the geek that I am, I quickly fired up Google Sheets and made something that resembled Tim’s life calendar. With some rudimentary formulas and with the help of conditional formatting, I was able to create a model that can provide a visualization of a 90-year life—how much of it you’ve already spent (represented by the black boxes) and how much is still left (represented by the green boxes).
After a couple of tweaks, I tried my version of the life calendar. Instinctively, I entered my birthday to view a snapshot of my life. Drum rolls, please? Or maybe not. It wasn’t a climactic moment, I tell you. It was more like, er, okay—nothing really interesting here. It basically said I’ve lived for 1,790 weeks which is approximately 38% of a full 90-year life (which roughly translates to 4,692 weeks). Boring stuff.
Nevertheless, I was happy with my feeble creation so I went on and entered birthdays of other people I knew. My wife’s: obviously less black boxes than mine. Our kids’: these guys still have a whole lot in front of them. Our dog’s: dogs make use of a different calendar.
The moment I entered my dad’s birthday, I felt different. All of a sudden, I got very emotional and felt heavy inside—like how one feels right after he gets hold of news that a close relative or a close friend has passed away.
I realized he hasn’t got a lot of green boxes left (to hit 90 anyway). My dad is quite the storyteller and loved telling us about his days in the military so I am pretty confident he has lived quite a life. Still, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him or my mother (I entered my mom’s birthday after and it gave me the same melancholic feeling).
It’s amazing how something so simple yet very visual can alter not just our perspectives but our emotions as well. Even after several tries, I still can’t help but get emotional every time I try and put my parents’ birthdays in the model. This prompted me and my wife Nouelle to seek ways to intentionally spend time with people we care about.
We went on a trip to Coron recently to spend time with family. My wife drove all the way to her best friend to be with her during a low point in her life. For his birthday, we got my dad a Fitbit to encourage him to take care of his health and exercise more. There is not enough time to do everything, that’s true, but as the saying goes (generally attributed to late American actress Mae West), “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
For our personal and family goals, we set up a Trello board where we list down things we’d like to accomplish in addition to places we’d like to go to. I used the Kanban system to make it easy and intuitive enough for my wife to use as well. The lists are grouped into what’s upcoming, what we plan to cross out this year, this month and this week. The cards travel from left to right making it easy to identify our progress.
I’ve always wanted to build a green wall. A vertical hanging garden right in our small garage. The card titled Green wall project just seemed so laborious that I never got to start anything. It stayed under the This Year list through most of the year.
Making full use of what I learned from Duneier’s TED talk, I went ahead and broke it down instead to smaller subtasks. This made it simple and manageable enough to get myself off my feet and finally started. I am happy to show you that I have somehow progressed through the project and aiming to have it up before the year ends.
It’s already November and there are only about 6 boxes left this year. It’s about high time we stop procrastinating and start doing something we’ve been putting off for a while now; stop overthinking and make the most of our time while we’re here.
Spend time with your kids. Tell them you’re proud of them. Write a thank-you-email to a mentor. Quit a job. Pursue a passion. Learn something new. Update that LinkedIn profile. Tell someone how you really feel. Apologize for a past hurt. Forgive. Move on. Buy that nice dress you’ve been eyeing. Travel. Take a leap of faith. Quit social media. Spend time with your parents. Start giving out hugs—lots and lots of them. Love.
To end, I’ll leave you with a quote about love and hope from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott:
“There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.”
Thank you for reading.
PS—if you’d like to give the Life Calendar I made a try, you can go to this link and enter your birth date: https://goo.gl/RKfwdS. Additional instructions are in the sheet itself.