Use your fear of mortality as a drive to get the best out of your potential.

Use your fear of mortality as a drive to get the best out of your potential.
Photo by Miguel Bruna / Unsplash

When I look deep into my inner thought processes and try to understand where my drive for self-optimization, productivity and diligence comes from, it is sourced in fear of my death.

From this personal reflection and observations, I also believe that this is the same for many people's subconscious motivations for the things they do. Why travel so much or meet friends? Why climb the career ladder? Why write a book? Why make these beautiful landscape photos? Because, at some point, it's too late.

From the awareness that one's life is transient, time becomes a scarce good; thus, it wants to be used accordingly in the best possible way. I observe three typical coping strategies in my environment:

  • Good coping: Some people are somewhat aware of their mortality and accept it but put this thought in the background (you don't want to get depressed, right?). However, subconsciously it drives the desire to use time in a positive and value-adding way.
  • Bad coping: Some people repress this fear so much that they are unaware of it (anymore). They procrastinate all day long because they don't value their available time so much.
  • Terrible coping: Some people are too aware of their transience, and the fear of the future paralyzes them and makes them depressed.

Fortunately, I belong to the first group and can use this drive as fuel to achieve my own goals. But at the same time, I always notice an inner resistance to deal with this topic. Therefore, I have built a simple tool which forces me to deal with my remaining time from time to time (every couple of years), and I would like to share this tool with you.

Photo by Mille Sanders / Unsplash

A simple "Hourglass" table is a great tool to see where you stand in your lifespan.

That's the place to mention how I came to write this article today in the first place. I still have an old Google Keep board where I keep some of my evergreen notes. I was looking for something and came across this:

My view on my Google Keep pinboard this morning.

A screenshot of my "hourglass", which I had created years ago and that I put deliberately in there for me to find later.

What is it? My "hourglass" is a simple Google Docs table where I created one table cell for each week of my assumed lifespan. So it's 90 years x 52 weeks = 4680 weeks/cells.

  • Past weeks I have coloured black.
  • The coming weeks are still white.

As a result, you get a visual progress bar of your life in a helicopter view. In my case today, I was surprised (better say shocked) that, again, three years passed by so incredibly fast.

Another couple of years are gone - for good?

Every row is half a year of ages 0 to 90. In the columns are 26 weeks per year. I've marked the time since I last reviewed my hourglass in yellow for this post.

My "hourglass" table

So, I can see that three years have passed since the last time I checked this table. This kind of visualization helps me as follows:

  • Serenity: there is probably plenty of time to do the things I want to get done in this life.
  • Call for Action: but then it's not that too much time to waste my energy, e.g. by lounging around. I realize: I have to use my time productively and get the best out of myself.
  • Sense of progress: What has happened since the last check-in three years ago? In my case, I lost 20kg of body fat and gained 15kg of muscle mass instead. I have made good progress in my career and got married. I have started a blog. I solved some critical challenges for my employer and created a corporate Data & AI startup for the media value chain.
  • Helicopter View: since it's just one row per half a year, you can't be too detailed about your progress. You can name one thing per half year. This is an excellent high-level abstraction from everyday life problems.
  • Strategic planning going forward: Just as you can look back and summarize your progress in a very abstract and high-level way, you can also think about what you want to achieve in the next few years. This is an excellent tool for creating a strategic outlook and north star.
Example of how to use the hourglass as a retrospective and planning tool. 

Feel free to use the template for yourself

The tool is not for everyone because it's unpleasant to deal with your lifetime (or, to be more concrete, with its eventual end). But if you find this helpful concept, as I do, I would like to share it with you as a template. Check it out in Google Docs, and feel free to adapt it to your situation.

Hourglass Template
Hourglass 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,190,00,51,01,52,02,53,03,54,04,55,05,56,06,57,07,58,08,59,09,510,010,511,011,512,012,513,013,514,014,515,015,516,016,517,017,518,018,519,019,520,020,521,021,522,022,523,023,524,0

Any thoughts or ideas you'd like to share? You can put them into this page's comment section or share them via Twitter or LinkedIn!

Best regards,
-- Martin from