At our Monday Morning Accountability Group, I was telling one of the participants, Sachin, about a story I had heard the day before.
My neighbor was at the retirement party of her division leader. He had worked at the company almost his whole career, and finally at 67 was ready to retire.
At his retirement party, the very last day he was scheduled to work, he died of a heart attack.
Sachin, too, took this story to heart. It inspired him to give a talk about The Brevity of Time at his Toastmaster’s meeting that week, and when I asked him to write a guest post about that revelation (and the other things he has already been working on this year) he agreed.
Please take a moment to read his story below.
Alan Watts said, “The future is a concept—it doesn’t exist...because time is always now.” When we observe time, we think of philosophy, physics, poetry, or even the use of psychedelics. Time is a moment, measured in the present. Many of us, including myself, understand time in a framework of micro-tasks such as time to shower, time to eat, time to work, time to sleep, etc.
Recently, however, I’ve taken part in a self-experiment to observe time from a macro-level. What I mean by this is to understand how I spend my time outside of micro-tasks that include more broad life goals or a bucket list. The results helped me to deconstruct my relationship to time, and in turn my life.
In 2017, being in a place that could only be described as a self-inflicted midlife crisis, I knew that to find my way out of it would require introspection. That process of introspection was sparked by a quote I had read by Steve Jobs, “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
I remember thinking about the quote and needing to define two very critical parts from it: How to “remember” and what is “soon”? I had to treat time and life, as a reminder; with a proper due date. And I had to measure it from the context of values around life. In addition, I wanted to understand the illusion that makes time appear infinite. To capture this, I had to visualize time as finite.
Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” To help me better understand what I needed to measure, I went to a nursing home to stir up a conversation. I’ve been around older people a great deal of my life. Through conversations, I’ve come to appreciate their vast wisdom centered around themes such as your time is limited, create strong connections, love more, forgive, take chances, celebrate every day, and much more.
The conversations in the nursing home kept coming back to “time” and the state of urgency. “In a blink, you will be 75; can you believe we were all toddlers once?” said Craig, a resident. Laughter permeated the hallway and in retrospect, I now understand why. Since I haven’t yet reached 75 (I am 43), my mind doesn’t understand the urgency and thus prevents me from realizing my own mortality. There is a countdown and I am unaware of the clock.
To help me better understand this concept and artificially create a sense of urgency, I decided to give myself a death date. A year to live was the plan. My death date was to be Nov 1, 2018. I planned my funeral, purchased life insurance, visualized who would attend, wrote a eulogy, and left instructions on how my ashes are to be dispersed.
During this process, I realized that in many ways I would be forgotten. I am not the center of any universe and neither is anyone the center of mine. I was reminded of a passage from Meditations, “Every part of me then will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe, and so on forever.” Marcus Aurelius
I began to measure my daily time; I got myself a countdown clock, I kept a journal, I measured each minute and how I spent it through an App called Timeular. While the thought and experiment appear somber, I assure you it had a profound and liberating, life-altering effect on me. The very measurement of time enabled the preservation and more importantly the realization of how little of it I have. This is what I was missing, the acknowledgment of the hidden urgency required to appreciate the time.
I started to live according to my values and focus on what’s truly important. As the clock counted down every day, I found myself grounded - decluttering the digital noise to become grateful for the simple things around me. A rainy day became an opportunity to see raindrops ripple in a puddle. A visit to the coffee shop allowed me to observe interactions between a couple. Sorrow and joy became interim and what was once the idea of permanence became supple.
Time has an odd way of flowing, the moment one observes it, it is gone. Presence, therefore, is constantly changing and thus our brain needs to store the moment in long term memory for it to hold value. For example, people who experience near death moments often report that their life flashes before them. Moments such as their first kiss, first job, the birth of a child, etc.
Now imagine capturing one unique moment each day and committing it to memory. The act of daily journaling coupled with commemorating gratitude, courage, or a unique moment helped me add frames of memories that can be recalled. This provided immense value because now I can recall every day and it highlights for me the fragmented state of everything. From emotions to experiences, it is all a part of the flow of time. It is like I am directing, producing, and editing seconds of clips to form a silent movie to play at my near death moment.
This experience led me to stop looking for a reason to define life or even its purpose, instead, it became a simple exercise to experience it in a framework of time, by creating a state of perpetual presence and awareness of the brevity of everything.
According to Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, matter bends the fabric of space and time and creates a distortion, suggesting our future may already exist and that it is sliced into frames of possibilities in a fourth dimension. If so, perhaps by assigning an arbitrary death date is simply acknowledging some lack of control; An existential nudge of acceptance.
The results of the experiment have been vast. I am genuinely happy almost all the time and connected with myself and others without really trying. I crave the experience of living. I am drawn to add credits to this movie of people and places. As a result, my bucket list is now front and center, as are my larger goals. Just in the last year, I’ve taken a trip to Italy with my brother, hot air ballooned over Mexico, went free diving in Cuba, attempted (but failed) to view the Northern Lights in Norway, kayaked at night with bioluminescence in Florida, learned how to dance Salsa, began to write daily, and with all this - I am just now getting started.
Measuring time made it apparent to get my priorities in order so when I do meet my 75-year-old self or my 44-year-old self, I am not disappointed by the things I didn’t do. I now better understand Ernest Hemingway when he said: “Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough”.
All of the images included in this post were taken by Sachin on his adventures. Please do not copy for your purposes. (c) Sachin Sawhney