Live every day as if it’s the last day of your life?

If I did that, I would never go to work.  Never.  Neither would my partner.  I wouldn’t save any money for retirement.  I wouldn’t exercise.

I don’t like those mental exercises where they ask you to change your current behavior based on some doomsday scenario.  They seem to assume that what we would want to do in a short period of time is the same as what we would want to do over a long period of time. That is, they don’t get diminishing marginal utility (or present value).

If I had a short period of time left obviously I would want to spend my time with my family and not working (not to mention eating decadent and expensive food). But long-term only being with my family would start to grate on me and I’d yearn for something outside of that, or I’d get fat or start disliking the special food and I’d have no money for retirement.

Which leaves me where I go to work and do projects that will gratify me in the long-term, even if they sometimes annoy me in the short term, and to eat healthy foods on a moderate budget. Yes yes, I know they’re supposed to get us to think about what really makes us happy and they assume we aren’t already maximizing our utility with our revealed preferences… but I think such exercises also lead to bad feelings and sub-optimization.

Or as Lucy says around minute 3:40 :

28 Responses to “Live every day as if it’s the last day of your life?”

  1. Mina Says:

    Hear, hear! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Really. I couldn’t. So thank you for articulating my peeve. :-)

  2. plantingourpennies Says:

    And it’s why I’m here at 5:23 am putting on socks for my morning run before I go to work instead of snuggling back in bed with my husband and cat. Short term pleasures seem to be largely indulgences that leave us feeling a little sick or hungover (sugar hangover!) afterward. I’d prefer a pretty steady level of happiness to a level with tons of local maxes and mins that leaves you feeling like you’ve ridden a roller coaster. But hey, some people love roller coasters!

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Agreed 100%. It is also part of a gross pollyannaism designed to keep the proles mollified: if only you’d think about things correctly, you’d be happy with your shitty jobbe, debt peonage, and healthcare bankruptcy.

  4. First Gen American Says:

    I think that advice is only remotely useful once you are in a certain phase of your life. There are a lot of sacrifices people make for their future selves that make a lot of sense. Slaving over getting a good education, saving money, paying down debt, etc, etc. Yeah, if I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about my 10 years from now self. However, since I do care about the well being of my future self, I invest time and money into making sure that I’m setting up that person with things she’ll like in 20 years…like a happy family, savings, knowledge, a nice place to live. All that stuff takes time and effort now. yes, it is a bit of a pet peeve.While I agree it’s no way to live to be miserable all the time, not all of life is rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes the laundry needs to get done and groceries bought too.

  5. Pamela Says:

    That makes me want to snark: “Oh, so I should lie around in a hospital bed with tubes going in and out of me? Or buried in an avalanche? Or hang out in a demolished car while losing blood?”

    I know people mean well with this advice but I do tend to think it’s a bit stupid.

  6. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I’m only 33 and I plan on living a lonnnnggg time. If I lived every day like it was my last, I wouldn’t be working and planning for my future. I think you have to live for today but plan for tomorrow at the same time. Otherwise you will end up unprepared.

  7. Cloud Says:

    I think there are far more useful thought exercises, like the one you posed last week: would you keep doing your current job if you didn’t need the money? Now, an answer of “NO” doesn’t necessarily mean you should quit, but it does tell you something useful. I also like the one Sheryl Sandberg quotes in Lean In: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Again, it just provides info, and doesn’t tell you directly what to do. Maybe you’re afraid for a good reason. But it is an interesting thing to think about.

    (As an aside, yes, I’m reading Lean In- it is good and people who think they can skip it because they’ve heard the Barnard talk are missing out on a lot.)

  8. Alyssa Says:

    Totally agree – a very useless exercise indeed. I certainly wouldn’t be here typing at my desk at work if I were to live every day like it was my last. But, it’s not. Like you said, there’s a huge difference between short-term and long-term happiness. I need to work and do other things that might not be as enjoyable as, say, spending my days reading chic-lit and eating cupcakes, but it’s worth it in order to have a good life in the future.

  9. Linda Says:

    I think this advice is up there with “find your passion and do that.” Ugh! The things I am passionate about are *not* compensated decently in this society. I’d rather turn that approach around and try to find something personally engaging in work that compensates me well, and then make time to indulge my “passion” in my off hours.

  10. Jess Says:

    In the same vein, I hate that saying about how no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. Some people do have regrets about the things they didn’t achieve!

    • hush Says:

      Yes, I hate that deathbed saying, too. I think a certain level of passion (for lack of a better term) and/or work that one finds “personally engaging” as was said upthread, is a key part of career satisfaction and achievement for some people (including myself, I’m an INFJ). So the “find your passion” advice is not quite as irksome to me as ass-vice like “no amount of career success can make up for failure in the home” and “if you bungle at raising your children, nothing else you do well really matters.”

  11. oilandgarlic Says:

    Sort of off-topic but along the same lines, have you already written a post about “following your passion” advice. I get the gist of it but it’s a pet peeve of mine so hoping you feel similar about this and will or have written something.. I have something in draft but am nowhere near close to ever finishing it!

  12. Leigh Says:

    I agree with you mostly, but I use a modified version of this as a thought starter sometimes. Sometimes when I’m unhappy about something in my life, I say “Do I still want to be unhappy about this in one week? One month? Six months? How long am I willing to be unhappy about this?”

    For example, sometimes with work stuff, it’s worth being unhappy with something for a few months or sometimes up to a year, depending on how unhappy it makes you. With a relationship, you need to decide whether you can fix it and how long you’re willing to work on that before giving up, but thinking about just how long you’re willing to be unhappy with it for is really helpful to start thinking about the big picture, rather than the day to day. Or for example, I was somewhat unhappy with one of my sports teams this year and really unhappy with the other one, so I quit one part way through the year and stuck out the other one through the whole season.

    Okay maybe I don’t really use “If this was my last day on Earth, what would I be doing?” then…

    Oh and that following your passion stuff is crap. I followed my passion and I still don’t like my job all the time. I love writing software, but doing it while working? Meh. Sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day, anything will get boring. I’m much more a fan of writing code for like two hours and then going running, then reading a book, and maybe writing some more code, than doing it for 8 hours a day.

  13. bogart Says:

    I’m pretty much with Leigh. And no offense to anyone, present company included, but if I knew it was my last day on earth I wouldn’t spend (any) time reading PF blogs, so …

    You know the joke? The guy who goes to the doctor and is told he only has 24 hours to live so he breaks the news to his wife and they go out to have a wonderful last day together … fill in details here … then return home where they make love once, twice, fall asleep, he wakes her up for more and she says, “Come on, honey! This is easy for you, but I have to go to work in the morning!”

    Otherwise, some general awareness that this might be, I don’t know, my last year on earth, or that of someone I love, is generally useful (i.e., be kind, be generous, expect to be treated well, don’t put off joy), but, right: I’m hoping in fact to have many, many more ahead of me and want to do what I can to make them comfortable and secure.

  14. chacha1 Says:

    The whole point of something “special” is that it’s RARE. If you constantly indulge, you get jaded. This is how people go from smoking a joint once in a while to lighting up the bong every night, from looking at Penthouse to hard-core Internet porn, from the occasional glass of wine to alcoholism, and from buying a frivolous pair of shoes once a year to having sixty-eight pairs in your closet.

    People who say “live each day like it’s your last” are really saying “live as if you are an addict and there are no consequences.” It’s foolish.

  15. undinenotofgeneralinterest Says:

    The “last day on earth” and “change your route to work to be more creative!” articles are, I’m pretty sure, on a list of about 20 articles that get recycled on news sites and in magazines when there’s a slow day and it’s not a holiday. Then we get “5 Candies to Buy for Easter” and “Time to check the battery in your smoke detector!” and the more mundane ones. There’s a yearly cycle to them.

    I’m with you: if it were the last day, who would be sensible and act for the long haul?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      hahaha, yes

      I think this particular rant was inspired by the (news coverage surrounding the) Mayan calendar thing, but it seems like the world is about to end according to some prophecy once a year or so.

  16. Jacq Says:

    Steve Jobs probably contributed to it a fair amount with his Stanford address where he told the class to ask themselves just that question. In context, I don’t think he meant “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”
    Maybe a more useful question would be something like – if I continue on this path would I be happy that next year will probably be exactly the same as this year and I’ll be bothered about the exact same things? That could help with hyperbolic discounting.

  17. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I always felt like that would be a very exhausting way to live because I imagine if every day were my last, I’d go nuts. That being said, I think it’s a good idea to consider if it were the last day of your life, what are the things you’d be pissed about wasting time on? Because I don’t think fiscal responsibility is something I’d be pissed about doing. Or other healthy things.


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