The Deathbed Thank You Note: A Powerful Exercise to Make Every Day Matter

“I have no regrets,” you say with a smile.

Resting on your deathbed, you’ve battled your fair share of ailments. Though you fought long and hard, it’s clear that you’re at the end of life’s road.

But despite this grim scenario, you feel at peace. Thinking about the life you lived, you’re filled with warmth and satisfaction.

Your peace is interrupted as a loud *CRACK* hits your eardrums. Across the room, a man emerges from a cloud of smoke. Like someone in a “mad scientist” costume, his lab coat is well worn, and his hair stands up at strange angles.

But you can tell it’s not an act. This guy is the real deal.

“I have a very important opportunity for you,” he says while approaching your bedside.

“You’ve been selected to participate in a one of a kind experiment…
We’re giving you the opportunity to write a note to your younger self. You can write as much, or as little as you’d like. I will deliver it to your younger self.
But you have to act now! I have no more than 20 minutes before I need to depart.”

Your mind is filled with questions. (Like “Who the heck are you?” and “How did you figure out how to time-travel?” and “Why me?”) But you go along with his request. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

When he hands you the pen and paper, you know what to write. In essence, it’s simple…but there’s a lot wrapped up in these two words.

“Thank you.”

Photo by Aaron Burden

You decide to write a thank you note to your younger self.

You want to thank your younger self for showing up every day in the way that led to this state of peace and fulfillment. For making choices to act in integrity, and for caring for your wellbeing.

So you get to work, pouring your gratitude into this letter.

As you hand it to the man, he waves goodbye, and with another *CRACK*, he’s gone.

And he appears in front of you, today, as you sit reading this.

With hair still smoking from his trip through space and time, he hands you an envelope.

You open it and recognize your own handwriting.

It’s a thank you note.

What does it say?

The Deathbed Thank You Note: An Unconventional Gratitude Practice to Transform Your Life

The benefits of a gratitude practice are well-documented. (It’s a foundational part of my daily rituals…)

Naturally, a gratitude practice is about the present, looking backwards. It helps you feel great about the life you’re living, even when challenging circumstances arise.

But what would it mean to create a forward-looking gratitude practice? How could you be thankful for things that haven’t happened yet? What would that even mean?

That’s where The Deathbed Thank You Note comes into play.

How to Write a Deathbed Thank You Note

  1. Picture yourself on your deathbed. After a long life, you’re at peace. Fully satisfied with the life you lived, because you lived it in accordance with the things you care about most. You stepped up into a higher version of yourself each and every day, and made the tough decisions to prioritize what matters to you.
  2. Write a thank you note to your younger self. Get a pen and paper, and write a thank you note to your current self, from the perspective of you on your deathbed.

The key to this exercise is that your future self is thrilled with how you approached this period of time in your life (from today, moving forward.)

They’re incredibly proud of you, and thank you from the bottom of their heart.

What was your older self most proud of? (Write it all down.)

  1. What decisions did you make?
  2. What actions did you take?
  3. What did you choose to prioritize?
  4. How did you approach your days and weeks?
  5. How did you put yourself into your relationships and interactions with others?
  6. What risks did you take?
  7. Who did you spend time with?
  8. What opportunities did you pursue?
  9. What sacrifices did you make?

These questions are just a starting place.

Write about whatever feels most significant. Write from the heart.

Why This Exercise is Effective

1) Beginning With the End in Mind

Getting clear on a vision of what you want to do, be, or achieve is the first step to making that happen.

The Deathbed Thank You Note takes this principle to the extreme, by beginning with the end of your life in mind.

This type of prospective hindsight is often used to run a project “premortem” in business. But you can apply it just as effectively in your life.

What will your elder self thank you for in the next few years of your life?

“If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”
~ Stephen R. Covey

Photo by Jimmy Chang

2) Zooming out to see the “Big Picture”

It’s easy to get sucked into the short-term picture of your life. The “urgent” things in front of you often take precedent over what might truly be a priority in your life long-term.

But without taking steps back to orient with the big picture, it’s impossible to create what you want in your life.

Remembering that you will die is the ultimate “big-picture” wake-up call.

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
~ Marcus Aurelius

3) Placing Trust in Yourself

Everyone has a sense of inner-wisdom. This intuition is rooted in your truest self, what you care about most, and your natural inclinations as a person.

Learning to trust your intuition has great benefits.

But intuition is easily overshadowed by the perspectives of others, and other inner-voices that squawk doubt, insecurity, and fear. And when you listen to those voices, it leads to a half-hearted life full of regrets.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
~ Steve Jobs

4) Bringing Meaning to Daily Action

The secret to success is that there is no secret. Anything significant was created steadily over time, from an accumulation of daily actions.

But taking consistent action can be difficult, especially when you’re pursuing something new or uncertain.

In these moments of resistance, it can be tempting to give up, or slack off. A thought crosses your mind: “Why not just take it easy today?”

Without a North Star to guide you, there may be no satisfactory answer for not taking it easy today.

The Deathbed Thank You Note connects what might seem insignificant (how you’re showing up, what you’re doing today) with something more significant and meaningful (your peace-of-mind at the end of life.)

It brings to mind that what you do today matters as much as what you do on any other day in your life. Every day matters!

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
~ Darren Hardy

5) Cultivating Gratitude for What You’ve Already Done

In the pursuit of growth, it’s easy to forget about the incredible things you’ve already accomplished…How much of what feels normal to you now was once unfamiliar or even unfathomable!

Keep that in mind as you write your note: Everything you’ve done in the past has led you to today. And where you are now, is an incredible place to be! You have more experience than you’ve ever had, and are knocking on the door of your future potential.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
~ Epicurus

Scale the Exercise to Meet Your Needs

This exercise can be applied on any time-scale! I’ve found it helpful on a daily/weekly basis as well.

  • Micro: Think ahead to the next moment, hour, or day. What will you be most thankful that you did? How do you want to show up? Write it down.
  • Mid: Think ahead to the next week, month, or quarter. What will you thank yourself for? Write it down.
  • Macro: Writing yourself a Deathbed Thank You Note helps you consider the big picture.

Photo by Aaron Burden

An Unconventional Practice to Bring Unconventional Results

Cultivating gratitude is a beautiful practice to help foster a positive emotive state in the present moment.

The Deathbed Thank You Note is an exercise that takes things in a different direction. By putting yourself in the shoes of your future self, a note of gratitude has a way of laying out a clear path forward.

It might not be the most comfortable, easiest, or safest path to walk. But with it in mind, the ball is back in your court.

We’re here, in the present. And it’s time to move forward.

One step at a time. What are you going to do to you make your future self proud?

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