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What if You Only had 5 Years Left?


                A while ago I was listening to a radio interview.  It was of a man in his early forties and he was sharing his experiences.  He had been feeling poorly and expressed some unusual symptoms so he went to get checked out.  They ran some initial tests and it came back that the man had a rare and aggressive form of cancer and he had less than six months to live.  Of course the man was devastated.  He was married, he had young kids, and he felt like everything had been taken from him and with such little time left there was nothing meaningful that he could do.  Then a month later the doctors ran more in-depth tests and they realized their initial tests had been wrong.  The man was still sick, he was still going to die from his disease, but he likely had 5 more years to live and he could live in good health for most of that time.  In his words the man “felt blessed” to discover that he had this much time left after coming to terms with the fact that he was going to die in just a few short months, and in his words “now there was so much I could achieve.”  That interview and the man’s viewpoint stuck with me ever since, and I believe adopting the attitude that one has 5 years left to live is extremely useful, motivating, and gratifying. 

                In general people tend to take one of two views on life.  They either think “they are going to live forever” – by that I mean they don’t really think about their death and they see their time on this earth as very long and not very limited.  These people tend to assume they’ll live average or longer in terms of lifespan so if they are 20, 30, or 40 years old now they are thinking they still have 40-60 years left to live, essentially they still have a ‘lifetime left’ to spend as they wish, despite the fact that they had already lived a ‘lifetime’s worth’ of time.  Then there are others who try to adopt the attitude that you should live everyday like it is your last because the end could come at any time.  While I think there are a few positive attributes one could gain from adopting this viewpoint, the reality is you are not very likely to die tomorrow and you have to do certain things such as hold a job, get a home, and pay bills and if you don’t address those things today, they will very negatively impact you tomorrow.

If someone told me I was sure to die in the next month or two, I can’t say how I would react.  But my guess is I would probably adopt a more maniac depressive personality with a very short moments of extreme highs as I realized how precious and beautiful life is, combined with lots of deep lows as I thought about not seeing my kids grow up, widowing my wife, and all of the things I wanted to accomplish that were still undone.  I would also adopt some behaviors that are likely not very ideal long term.  For example I would quit my job even though I love it, I would stop working out even though I love it – if you only have a month or two left what is the point of doing those things?

On the flip side if someone guaranteed that I would live until I was 80 or 90 or even 100 years old, that leaves me with a huge amount of time.  I likely wouldn’t change any of my behaviors, indeed I might approach some bucket list items I have such as writing a novel or taking that ‘trip of a lifetime’ even slower because I feel as though I am assured I will have plenty of time to address those items later.

But what if you only had 5 years left to live?  What if someone told you that 5 years from now, 5 years from the day you are reading this – you will be dead.  What would you do now and how would that change you?

I believe this attitude is extremely useful because it forces you to address the here and now while motivating you to use your time wisely for the future.  If I had 5 years left I wouldn’t quit my job – I still have to pay my mortgage and pay my bills so I would go to work.  However I would probably delegate some of the more BS stuff and paperwork stuff at work that I don’t enjoy even if it meant I would make less money.  But I love most of my job which is why I would have little hesitation continuing with it.  But what if you hated your job?  Would you still work there if you had 5 years left, or would that motivate you to find a job or a career that you did enjoy?  If you are thinking to yourself ‘if I only had 5 years left I would quit my job tomorrow’ then to me that is a sign that you should begin actively looking for a new job – or a new career path – today.


                 If I had 5 years left I would still workout, I would want to spend those last years as healthy as possible.  Being fit will actually help increase one’s productivity because you can get so much more done when you don’t get tired easily.  But I might not stress so much about how my abs look or how my calves are a bit smaller than I wished or how I am not as ripped as the guy in the picture.  I think most of us – particularly in the fitness world – tend to obsess a bit over our body image on issues that don’t really matter too much in the broad scope of things.

If I hadn’t already accomplished some of the bucket list items in fitness I had established for myself, 5 years could well be enough time to really motivate one to go after those goals.  If you have never been ripped but you always wanted to do that, you could focus 3-6 months of time on that goal if it was important to you.  On the flip side if you are spending 10+ hours in the gym working out and you are not on the verge of accomplishing something huge, you might think about scaling that back a bit.  For most people the point of fitness is to enhance the other aspects of their life, the goal usually isn’t that being fit dictates how you run your life unless you are a really high level athlete.  You can still maintain a very healthy body and a high level of fitness exercising 3 hours a week especially if you have already established your base, and now you have 5 or 10 hours a week to focus on other things.  5-10 hours – spread out over 5 years – that is 1,250-2,500 hours of time you can devote to something else that you believe is important.  You can do a hell of a lot of good in 1,000 productive hours.


I believe the idea of having 5 years left is a great litmus test to apply to activities to see if they are really worth your time.  Would you sleep 10 hours a day if you only had 5 years left?  I’d just sleep the minimum so I could still be productive.  Would you play endless hours of video games?  I might play some video games with my sons or friends as those moments can provide some excitement and fun memories, but I would not play any solo computer games (and I have spent many an hour on them in the past) and I would play less video games in general.  If I had 5 years left I would still watch some TV (at least I could still see the end of Game of Thrones in that timeframe) but my TV/movie time would be quite limited and I definitely would not spend my time watching that episode of Friends that I have already seen 3 times.

If you were in an unhealthy relationship, what would you do if you only had 5 years left?  If you were estranged from someone you cared about, would knowing you only had 5 years left change how you handle that situation?  Are there trips you would take?  Are there plans you would cancel?  What chores or duties would you cut from your daily to-do list if your time suddenly became that precious?  Would you still flip out on your kid because he spilled his juice or because she didn’t listen when to said to put the phone away?  Are there things you want to tell the world or those you love (in whatever format you desire – print, audio, video, art, etc)?  What would you do if you had 5 years left to live?

Outlined below is a list of activities and the attitudes one might take (or at least what I hope I would take) if they knew they had 1-2 months left to live; 5 years left to live; or they would live a normal lifespan.



1-2 Months Left 5 Years Left Normal Lifespan

Go to Work

No Yes – at a place you value Yes – keep status quo

Pay Bills

No Yes Yes

Deal with tough relationships

Screw ‘em Yes I’ll handle it later


Bare Minimum Just enough Yes please


No Yes I’ll start later

Eat Healthy

No In moderation I’ll start later

Work on Bucket

List Items

Do top 1 or 2 Yes I’ll start later

Stress about

the Future

No Minimal Yes


No Yes I’ll start later

Play Video Games

No Minimal Yes

Focus on

Social Media

No Minimal Yes

Watch quality TV

& Entertainment

No Yes Yes

Watch ‘mindless’ TV & Entertainment*

No No Yes

*note – it isn’t up to me to tell you what ‘quality’ versus ‘mindless’ entertainment is, I simply ask that you think about it


Puggle-Puppy                  Interestingly, having only 5 years left might also provide just a bit of relief over one of the things we humans tend to stress about the most – the future.  I am not suggesting one should act with a complete disregard for the future or how their actions affect will future generations, but the bottom line is the real problems that people will face in the future are likely things we are not even thinking about now.  Our life now is so different from people 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, they would have no concept of the things we are stressing about now.  In that time we have solved most of their biggest challenges but at the same time new problems have arisen.  50 or 100 years from now that same theme will probably be true.  Technology or other means may well have fixed or cured the things that we stress the most over now, but of course there will be other problems for that generation to worry about.  My point is that stress about the future is often needless.  One spends a huge amount of time and energy stressing about events that may or may not happen and yet it is the events you never even considered that tend to cause you the biggest issues.  I often marvel at how my dog can be so happy all the time and I believe one of the reasons why is because he doesn’t stress out over the future, he takes each moment as it comes.  I think there is a lesson in there somewhere.




                  Life can only exist when there is time.  And when life ends your time is over.  As such time is limited.  You might live until you are a 100, I hope you do.  You might die tomorrow, and while you should consider that possibility the good news is that the chances of that happening are infinitesimally small.  But time is limited.  The sands in the hourglass are draining out and they cannot be replaced.  You want a philosophy that allows you to enjoy and focus on the present moment while at the same time motivating and empowering you to be productive as you work toward the near future.  In my mind adopting the philosophy of “what if have 5 years left to live?” works very well.  5 years is a very long period, one can accomplish much in that span of time.  Yet it is short enough to give you the kick in the pants you may need to get going.  Think about the last 5 years of your life?  They probably seemed to go by pretty fast.  Hopefully you got a fair amount done and you enjoyed the majority of those days.  Now think about what you could accomplish in the next five years of your life?  How much more would you achieve if those were the only years you had left?  Ultimately your time is yours and you alone control how it is spent.  I only ask you that you recognize time is limited and that you spend it only after mindful consideration of its value.


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