They say it's never too late. But of course it is—for all the things that waste your time, drain your energy and make you feel anything less than fulfilled, content and delighted.
On New Year's Eve, when I was 21, I had a chat with a friend I'll call Vicky. "The last three months sucked," Vicky said. "I had ten pounds to lose, so I didn't let myself leave my room, except to go to class, until I hit my goal weight." She lifted her Champagne. "This is the year I can really start living!" Two days later, Vicky was killed in a traffic accident.
I'm sorry if that story just harshed your mellow. It's been on my mind for decades. Since Vicky's death, I've never been able to stop asking, How would I spend the next three months if I knew they were my last? Sitting in a dorm room waiting for my thighs to shrink has never made the list.
Our culture loves the phrase "It's never too late." We want to believe we can toss every adventure onto our bucket lists and accomplish them all. But life is brief. To fill it with the things worth experiencing, we must empty it of pretty much everything else. In other words, there's a lot we don't have time for. And after decades of helping people figure out how to fill their remaining years, I hereby present five things for which it truly is too late.
1. It's too late to get a completely different body.
You can make alterations to your body, of course. Lose weight, or gain it; have surgeons perform anything from liposuction to mole removal. Ultimately, you'll still have to face the fact that we each get one body per lifetime. The one I'm in now is mine—its puffy little fingers; its strangely shaped skull; its inexorable mortality—and the one you're in is yours. Vicky spent her final months obsessing about her supposed physical imperfections. It's too late for you or me to do the same.
Instead, put "appreciate my body" on your bucket list. Think of it: You have trillions of intricate cells performing a vast array of functions with phenomenal precision, even if you do nothing but suck up pork rinds. That's a miracle. Right now, take five minutes to admire your body. Try repeating phrases like, "At this moment, I offer no resistance to my body as it is," or "For this one instant, I accept my body completely."
Self-acceptance can help you experience what Dr. Herbert Benson famously called the relaxation response. This is the state in which your body can calm down and heal. The alternative? More boring self-loathing, with its accompanying stress-related illnesses, compulsions, and addictions? We don't have time for that.
2. It's too late to live without purpose. There's a popular Zen saying: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." A life's purpose isn't some end goal, like "heal psoriasis," or "bake the perfect bagel." Our purpose manifests in the way we orient ourselves to experience. Do you dwell on the fragrance of the garden, or the annoyance of the lawn mower? Do you recall your rotten ex's insults, or value the wisdom you gained from that relationship?
Living your life's purpose happens when you begin choosing the state of mind that feels the most fundamentally correct for you. It's like being a guided missile. These missiles are programmed to notice when they're veering from the target, and course-correct. You may not realize it, but you're programmed the same way. When you leave the zone of your purpose, you feel negative sensations (muscle tension, low energy, illness) and emotions (sadness, anger, despair). Those are your signals that it's time to course-correct.
Consider today's schedule. Does each activity sound appealing and pleasing? Then you're on purpose. But if you feel heavy, revolted, or weak, use something I call the Three B's to correct your course: Either bag an uninspiring activity (folding the towels can wait); barter it (your spouse may be happy to grocery shop in exchange for a back rub); or better the activity by adding things you enjoy (play your favorite music at work). You'll still be chopping wood, carrying water, but with the presence and joy that lights up both you and the world.
3. It's too late to live on ego candy. My client Gloria is a physician whose first words to me were, "I hate people, and I hate to touch them." When I asked why she'd chosen such a people-touching profession, she replied, "So I could say I'm a doctor."
This is what I call ego candy, and it encompasses anything we do purely for approval, admiration, or status. The ego's appetite for adulation is endless, its capacity to create genuine happiness nil. It's far too late to spend another minute starving your soul to feed your need for praise.
Think of something on your bucket list—something you'd like to experience but haven't yet—and answer the following true-or-false questions:
I want to experience the activities involved in this goal, whether or not I achieve the milestones associated with it. (For Èexample, if the item is "run a marathon," would you enjoy the months of training as much as crossing the finish line?)
I'd want to have this experience even if no one else would ever know I had.
I feel no inferiority, jealousy, or competitiveness around people who have done this thing, and no superiority toward people who haven't.
I'd be thrilled to do this even if everyone I know thought it was weird or stupid.
If you didn't answer "true" to all of these statements, your goal is ego candy. It may give you momentary sugar highs of pride, but it will inevitably drop you into a state of insatiable craving. Scratch all the ego candy off your bucket list, and replace it with things that truly nourish you.
Next: How to deal with toxic people in your life4. It's too late to turn toxic people into healthy ones. Tilda has done everything she can to establish a relationship with her alcoholic sister, Leah. She's spent hours talking Leah out of the depression that makes her drink. She's gone to her AA meetings. She's paid for rehab. And Leah keeps getting worse.
Many people become wiser, calmer, and more emotionally healthy with age and experience. Other people display neither psychological health nor interest in changing. You may already have spent much of your life trying to get the love you deserve and need from someone in that second group. I'm so sorry, dear, but it's too late. That love will not be forthcoming.
Here's an idea: How's about you spend less time on relationships in which you feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football Lucy invariably pulls away, and spend more time with people who don't leave you crushed and disappointed over and over and over? Go find the people who are waiting to love you. Because they do exist.
5. It's too late to feel guilty about enjoying simple things. Purging your bucket list creates space for all the little things that make up happiness. My clients are shocked when I advise giving top priority to napping, watching television, petting the cat, climbing trees, or solving crosswords. What sane adult has time for such activities, they ask, when there are so many Important Things to achieve?
Well, I do. I spent years working hard to accomplish Important Things, only to realize that I get limitless joy from filling my bird feeder, reading books about stuff that never happened, and sitting still for hours at a time, not even thinking. Our culture doesn't consider these acceptable alternatives to hard-driving, high-earning Important Things, yet they're the very activities we turn to once hard work and self-denial have freed up a little time. Think of Vicky. Don't wait. Free that time now.
Today, spend an hour savoring a simple pleasure. If someone accuses you of wasting time, tell them that a doctor (that would be me—I have a PhD) has just informed you that you have a fatal condition (life) and don't have long to live (even a hundred years is brief in, say, geologic time). Then go back to learning origami or watching cat videos on YouTube. It is truly too late to postpone these things any longer.
We are a time-starved people, obsessed with fitting huge achievements into our few years. In the process, we often fill our buckets with things that don't matter or work. But when we give up on trying to change what can't be changed, and simply embrace what we love, a miracle occurs. We notice that the moment to be happy has already arrived. It's here, now.