The Year to Live List

Practice of the Week
The Year to Live List

How to Know What's Most Important to You

Category: Occasional. These are practices suggested for "every once in a while." Some of them are responses to a particular need that may arise; others are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. All of them are worth a try at least once. And any of them might become a regular and central part of your spiritual practice.

“Live like you only have a year left to live. If you live like you only have a day, you might do things that you will regret. But if you live for only a year in mind, you will make each day a treasure while still planning for the next.”

We need to know what's most important to us. Only by focusing and staying true to one's deepest values can a person live an authentic, fulfilling life. When I say this in my seminars, I am asked, "With so many competing priorities, how can I know what is most important to me?" Luckily, there is a simple way: the Year Left to Live List.

When people find out they have a limited length of time to live, as if by magic their priorities become strikingly clear. I had a client, Sarah, who found out she had an inoperable brain tumor. Her doctors told her she had about four to five relatively healthy months to live, followed by a couple more months of increasing dementia. Sarah had been a hard-driving career woman who had worked about sixty hours a week. Her dream, or so she thought, was to become a partner in her law firm. Yet, once she found out her time was limited, she dramatically changed what she spent her time on. She immediately quit her job, took a trip to Israel for a month, and then spend her few remaining months surrounded by family and friends.

Unless you really know you only have a year to live, you're not going to be able to do what Sarah did. Nor is it what's called for. Yet, by writing down what you would do with a limited time, you can gain clarity regarding your true priorities. Once you're clear about what's important, you can more easily structure your time and your life in a way that leads to fulfillment. If, with a year to live, you would want to travel around the world, spend time with your friends and family, and go on a whitewater river adventure, then these things are what really call to you. Although you may not be able to travel the world while holding a job, you can go on little trips and have mini-adventures. Only by doing at least some of the activities you'd do with a year to live will you feel truly satisfied with your life.

Most people make the mistake of continually putting off their dreams -- hoping to get to them when they're all caught up. Unfortunately, new things are always being added to our to-do list, and our dreams get crowded out of our schedule. Usually, there is a way to spend time doing meaningful activities without having to drastically alter our life. Spending quality time with friends and family, taking little trips, spending more time in spiritual pursuits can be integrated into even the busiest of lifestyles. It's all a matter of prioritizing what you really value, and then scheduling these important activities into your weekly life.

You've read enough. Now is the time to make out your list. Get a piece of paper and write out at the top "What would I do with a year left to live?" Assume that you'd have the same amount of income you currently have, and that you wouldn't want to go into debt. Then, take only four minutes to write down all the things you would want to do. (Feel free to abbreviate so you can write more quickly.) Be specific: for example, instead of writing, "I'd travel," specify where you'd like to travel to. Try to consider different areas of life, such as:
  1. With whom would you like to spend time?
  2. Where would you want to spend your time?
  3. What adventures would you like to experience?
  4. How would you be different in how you approached your life?
  5. What, if any, legacy or contribution would you like to leave, and to whom?
  6. To what, if any, spiritual pursuit would you want to give time?
This exercise only takes four minutes, yet it can provide you with a treasure of valuable information. Once you have your list in front of you, ask yourself, "How many of these activities am I currently pursuing in my life on a regular basis?" If you're doing a lot of them, congratulations! That means you are integrating what's important to you into your daily life. If, however, you notice that many of the items on your list have been neglected for weeks, months, or even years, then your need is to give more time to these activities.

Perhaps you can take out your calendar right now and schedule a short trip you'd like to take, or call up an old friend you'd like to visit. It's critical that you do it now -- before all the other competing priorites of life manage to drown out your dreams. Who knows -- you may only have a year left to live. Or a month. Or less. However long you have, this list will help make this next year a time of depth and quality.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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