For those not blessed with the perspective of a fatal car accident or terminal cancer, there’s a technique that I developed that helps me decide how to handle difficult decisions. I call it the Death Bed Test.

The Death Bed Test

Imagine: you are ancient, with creaking joints and thin, leather skin. You’re lying in an inclined hospital bed with breathing tubes radiating outward from your face like the plumage of some dystopian mutant. Vague shapes oscillate in your blurred vision. Maybe your friends, your children, maybe their children. You gasp to draw air into your aching lungs. As you lay dying, a distant memory settles upon your mind. It’s of you, making that difficult decision…

An Elderly Woman's Garled Hands

At this moment, when all of the trappings of the life you knew are gone, you will think:

  1. I’m really glad I…
  2. I’ve always regretted that…
  3. Nothing. You can’t envision this decision coming to mind while you’re on your death bed.

So the decision is simple. Do what you will have wished you had done while looking back on your life from your death bed. If it doesn’t matter, then do whatever—flip a coin.

What I’ve Learned from the Death Bed Test

I will regret not doing something because it felt scary.

Nothing is scary when you’re about to die. When you’ve made peace with death, and faced real fear head on, I promise you that it will seem silly to deny yourself opportunities and happiness because you were afraid of them.

The only things that matter are whether your life was fulfilling and whether you loved the people around you the best way you knew how

A lot of decisions just don’t matter.

If I can’t imagine being concerned about something on my death bed, then I know the decision is trivial and I don’t worry about it. It just doesn’t matter. When you apply this test the pattern that emerges is that the only things that matter are whether your life was fulfilling and whether you loved the people around you the best way you knew how.

You won’t ever regret having tried something and failing.

I will regret not trying things far more than I’ll regret failing at them. Never once have I looked back and regretted trying and failing. Of course you hope that things will work out, but you never regret trying. Trying makes you stronger for next time when you try again, or try something better.

Finally, comes my personal Golden Rule, taught by Jesus, the Buddha, and others before and since:

Don’t be a Douche Bag.

My children have to abide by a single rule, which we call the “No Douche bag Rule.” (This is true, I really have this rule for my sons, I really call it this, and I really told them that Jesus and Buddha said it first. Sue me.)

The test reminds me to treat people with respect, and try to touch their lives in positive ways. It reminds me that even if no one ever finds out that I’ve done something rotten, I will forever know, and I will die with regret in my mind. It guides my actions to be consistently helpful and productive.

Have you used the Death Bed Test before? Does it help you with difficult decisions?