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How a Simple Piece of Paper Completely Changed My Life

Inspiration can come anywhere and at any time. You read a book or have a conversation and, suddenly, something clicks—everything might look the same but the world feels different.

Over 10 years ago, I created one piece of paper that has inspired me countless times ever since. When I see it every morning, it motivates me to seize the life I have and do things I never thought I’d have the courage to do.

The origins of it, however, start several thousands of years ago.

“Memento mori”

It’s a Latin phrase popular in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, which roughly translates to: “Remember you will die.”

As simple as it sounds, adopting this phrase into my life has inspired so much change and growth. To know that every breath brings me closer to the last one actually makes me want to live my life to the fullest—it helps me appreciate the joys I have, value the precious and limited time left, take the risks I’ve always wanted to take, and handle life’s inconveniences a little easier.

Time, after all, will keep going.

“Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”

— Epictetus

Sometimes, people tell me, “But that’s so sad!” Oh, geez… How is that sad? How is it sad to become aware that life isn’t permanent? Is that not the truth? Is that not our reality? Even if you don’t like hearing it, it doesn’t change the fact that we all will die eventually. (From the time I started writing this article to the time I finished, well over 12,000 people died around the world.)

If you think that’s sad, that’s nothing: What’s really sad is to live your life oblivious to that truth. It’s to remain ignorant of time speeding by until, one day, you look back on your life and realize you’ve wasted it or missed countless chances because you never considered you only had a limited time on this Earth. It’s to be heedless that the end is approaching until you finally wake up and regret to yourself, “Why didn’t I just quit that job, take that trip, talk to that person, start that business, chase my dreams, write that novel, live the life I wanted, etc.?”

That, my friends, is sad.

“Seize the day, put no trust in the morrow!” [Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.]

— Horace

The problem is it’s hard to see life pass by. Even though we know that “life is short,” it’s hard to feel its shortness when we’re busy with the stress, chores, or obligations of our lives.

But once we can visualize our lives passing, it helps give us the motivation and courage to do what we’ve always wanted — before it’s too late.

That’s where a simple piece of paper comes in.

How a Memento Mori Chart Can Enhance Your Life

This simple chart is a table with 80 rows and 52 columns: The 52 columns symbolize the weeks in a year (give or take), the 80 rows symbolize a lifespan of 80 years (give or take), and each cell represents one week of your life.

In the upper left corner, write your birthday—that’s when the chart begins. Then, fill out one cell for each week of your life up to the past week.

Every week that elapses, fill one cell.

Photo belongs to the author

The power of this chart is it vividly shows how much of your life has already gone and how much is left to go. It reminds you that every moment of life is irreplaceable—you only have so many weeks left in your lifetime and, once they pass, that’s it.

This is powerful self-analysis: Every week you fill a cell, ask yourself if you liked how you spent your previous week. Sure, life has its ups and downs, but if you notice that, week after week, you’re living incongruently with what you want, it might be time to be brutally honest with yourself and your situation.

What distractions, worries, or stresses (both real or imagined) are holding you back? What are you wasting time on? How much longer are you going to wait to finally take action?

“Away with the world’s opinion of you — it’s always unsettled and divided. Away with the pursuits that have occupied the whole of your life — death is going to deliver the verdict in your case… It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent.”

— Seneca

This piece of paper also helps eliminate a lot of fears—fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and even fear of success. Often, we listen to our fears, delay taking action, and miss our chance. But when you clearly see how much time has passed and how much (or little) is left, it destroys a lot of barriers and gives you the courage to take action.

Before I created my chart, I never realized how fast time goes. Sure, I always heard about it; but I never felt it. But after I created it, it helped me realize I couldn’t afford to be stuck in an unfulfilling life, utterly oblivious to the time slipping away. I had to make the most of the limited time I have on this Earth while I still could.

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

— Seneca

For maximum results, put your chart where you can see it regularly. For example, I look at it every morning to remind myself how fleeting life is and to focus on the things that really matter. (And once I see it, it wakes me up more than any cup of coffee could.)

Over the past decade, it’s motivated me over and over again to take the risk, to take the trip, to bet on myself, to talk to that person, and much, much more.

All I had to do was gaze at my chart and realize that those blank rows were going to pass no matter what—so I might as well have something meaningful to show for them.

Create your chart, fill it up to the past week, and look at it daily.

And watch how it changes your life too.

Download your free Memento Mori chart, and feel more confident, motivated, and focused immediately.

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