Critical observations

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Despite Stephen Covey's warning, most of us are ruled by the tyranny of the urgent.

Answer the following question: Have you spent more time today thinking about your legacy, or things that need to get done before quitting time? Be honest.

I'm not trying to pass judgment by any means. The to-do list makes slaves of us all. It is refreshing, however, when someone delivers a wake-up call wrapped in important observations.

That's exactly what Valery Hazanov's brilliant essay about life in nursing homes does, or should do. The Brooklyn-based clinical psychologist spent eight months tending to dying residents. In a recent essay, he neatly distills the experience into seven general lessons. 

Three really stand out:

• At the end, only the important things remain

Isn't it funny how short the shelf life really is for most of our things? Our cars are destined for landfills in less than a generation. The buildings we work in? Most of them probably should have already been knocked down. What's more, none of those are things that residents cherish. As for the things they do: a few family photos, artwork by the grandchildren and maybe a few books. When you are a resident, life's finish line is in clear view.

• Routine fuels happiness

The other extreme of having too much to do is having too little. Hazanov writes about one resident whose regular routine is honored every day. He concludes that this is probably what keeps her alive. I have little doubt this is true. 

• It pays to consider how you want to die

Most of us put far more thought into our next vacation than our final days. Hazanov aptly notes that residents die in a range of ways. Some are barely interested in being alive; others fight for just one more breath. He passes along his father's stated preference to die well rather than live well, if given the choice of doing just one. I agree; although I'd certainly prefer both.

So feel free to read more if you'd like. Chances are it will serve you better than scratching out the next item on the to-do list.