By Martha Beck
Over a year ago, one of my dear friends (I’ll call her Sarah) was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Stage IV. Terminal. Since then, everything Sarah’s done has felt supercharged with significance. She, along with everyone around her, has begun to think more and more about lists. Lists of things she wants to do before she’s too weak to do them. Places she still wants to go. People she wants to visit. Art, movies, and music she wants to enjoy. Every list is so heartbreakingly brief, every item so important. A glass of Champagne, a football game, a hug—all become enormously profound when you’re aware that they could be the last thing someone will cross off her list.
As the owner of an ADD brain, I make a to-do list every morning, and I often rewrite it throughout the day. But as Anne Lamott puts it, we’re all terminal on this bus, and it’s entirely possible that for some reason (fatal aneurysm, bird flu, blimp accident), I’ll die before Sarah—so when I’m creating my list, I try to keep in mind a saying I once heard: “Since death is certain, and the hour is uncertain, what matters right now?”
I’ve relied on this approach for years, even before Sarah’s diagnosis, and I highly recommend you try it yourself. The method takes attention and practice, but when you master it, you’ll find that a humble to-do list can bring you more happiness than any winning lottery ticket or dream vacation. It’s one of the best ways I know to stay aligned with our ultimate purpose.
Identify your long-range goals.
Let’s start with your list for today. Before you write it, spend a few minutes on a thought exercise I call eagle view. Imagine you’re in the distant future. You’ve had a long, happy existence that has now come to its peaceful end. There on your deathbed, you’re looking back on the most fulfilling life you could possibly have had. From this big-picture perspective, answer these two questions: “How is the world better because I have lived in it?” and “How am I better because I have lived in the world?” What’s the legacy you hope to leave, and what experiences do you want to have before you die?
Check in with yourself to see what your answers may be at this moment. You don’t have to come up with some absolute truth; just see what arises. You can do this exercise as many times as you like, changing your answers as you learn and grow.
The combination of how you affect the world and how the world affects you adds up to a pretty good definition of your purpose in life. Even if you feel a bit foggy on the answers to these eagle-view questions, just asking them makes you more alert to your own instincts about what you’re meant to do—whether you want to help people, or invent something, or travel to sacred places. Even a vague idea is a first step.
Detail your daily tasks.
Now put aside your eagle-view perspective and go on to the dump-truck procedure. Write down everything you want or need to do today—everything. Don’t just list work projects and family responsibilities. Throw in outlining your novel, playing Candy Crush, attaining enlightenment, waxing your legs. Nothing is too big or too small. The list should make you feel the way you do when contemplating a city dump: It’s overwhelming and not entirely appealing, but at least all the stuff is in one spot.
Next, read through your dump-truck list and check off the items that actively contribute to your eagle-view goals. Is vacuuming your carpets today something that will affect you and the world more positively than using that time to call your sister? At the moment of your death, will you be glad you had coffee with that new acquaintance, or organized all your photographs, or made croissants from scratch? If any of those tasks will really help you fulfill your goals, or just make you happy in the moment, then it counts—but don’t check off anything you’re doing out of sheer obligation.
Some things on your list will clearly take you toward your eagle-view goals, while others clearly won’t. Some you may not be so sure about, so trust your gut response—your physical and emotional reactions to the thought of doing something. Notice that when you think about each item on your dump-truck list, you’ll feel either “warm” (intrigued, pulled forward) or “cool” (bored, disgruntled, maybe even repelled). Trust that warmer items are more aligned with your purpose than cooler ones.
Forget most of what you just wrote.
This is where my instructions get a little radical. I believe that everything that serves your eagle vision belongs on the bucket list of things you really should do in this lifetime. Everything else goes on your chuck-it list. A chuck-it list is a catalog of things you don’t have to do, even if they’re easy, even if they please people. (Some of my clients prefer a phrase that rhymes with “chuck it.”)
Okay, you should probably still floss—keeping your teeth is a worthy eagle-view goal—but don’t be surprised if some things we normally call “important” wind up on the chuck-it list. You may find yourself skipping your next dull networking event and instead heading outside for a solitary walk in the woods. Reading a hilarious blog post may become a high priority, while your soul-destroying job gets nixed. Even if you can’t afford to quit tomorrow, the seed has been planted: There’s something very powerful about seeing an itemized account of the unfulfilling ways you’re spending your fleeting time on earth.
When your inner critic fights this new plan, fight back. Every good thing in my life—all the work, relationships, and events I’ve truly loved—has been the result of distinguishing bucket from chuck-it, and I’ve seen it with hundreds of clients. You’re far more likely to stumble across your life’s work, true love, and genuine success if you focus on what feels purposeful, not what’s expected.
“Live while you are alive,” wrote the poet and novelist Ben Okri. That’s the best advice I’ve ever heard to help guide your daily plan. I’m watching Sarah, in real time, spend every ounce of strength to cross items off the only list that matters anymore. Her time is too short to do anything else. The same goes for every one of us.