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Awareness of Endings Sharpens Focus at Any Age

When we sense we're running out of time, what really matters comes into focus.

What happens to your task list towards the end of the afternoon? Do you find yourself staring at it, rethinking your priorities, wondering what really has to get done that day, what could wait, and what isn’t so important after all?

 Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Source: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

Turns out, we do something similar as we come closer to the end of our lives. Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (Carstensen, 2006; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles, 1999) describes how we tend to change our goals as we become more aware of our limited time. This might mean that something which seemed like a good goal when we were young—traveling to all seven continents, for example—may wane in importance as we get older and start to experience declining health and a sense that the days left in life are not infinite. Instead, we might decide we’d rather not travel after all, and choose to stay home and focus on deepening relationships in our family or community. Sometimes, people feel bad about this, fearing that they’ve lost their motivation. Sometimes, family members are upset by it too, complaining that an elder in the family doesn’t seem to care about things the way she used to. It’s important to realize that there is not necessarily something wrong. In fact, this process of honing in on what really matters most is a healthy adaptation to the realities of limited time.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory doesn’t just happen with aging. As in my original example, it can happen within an individual day. It also happens as the end approaches in other periods of life. For instance, people in their last semester of college may focus more on building the relationships they want to sustain after graduation rather than going out partying with more distant acquaintances.

It also happens when people face serious and possibly terminal illness, regardless of age. One unique contribution of socioemotional selectivity theory is that this process is not something that only older people do. It is related to how we, as humans, monitor and experience time. We all do it, throughout life.

If we all do it, then maybe it is worth being more deliberate about. Here are some questions to stimulate your thinking:

If you could only stay in touch with five close friends or family members, who would they be? Now, make sure to reach out to each of them in the coming few days.

Create awareness of an upcoming ending (e.g. end of a year, a coming birthday, end of a work project, a financial quarter). Think about everything you’d like to get done between now and the upcoming ending and make a list. Now, what are the 1-3 items that absolutely must happen, or that you’d be greatly disappointed if they didn't happen? Take extra action in these areas and eliminate some work in other more optional areas in order to increase the chance you’ll reach these goals.

Remember that we never know how long we have to live our lives. If you found out tomorrow that you had five years left, what would you do differently? One year? What priorities come to the forefront of your mind? Finally, how can you take action on these in the coming days?

Think ahead about how much free time you have in your day. For many of us who work full time, we might only have a couple of hours each evening. When you are aware that you only have two free hours in your day, or only ten hours between Monday through Friday, you might find that you want to spend that time differently. Instead of vegging out in front of the television, you might want to reach out to talk to a friend or engage in a hobby you have been meaning to get back to.


Carstensen, L.L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312, 1913-1915.

Carstensen, L. L., Isaacowitz, D., & Charles, S. T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181.

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