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127 Hours to Live

Problem: We don’t get much done without a deadline, and we’re not very good at keeping the ones we set for ourselves.

Solution: Set short deadlines that force you to act now and involve others in your biggest goals.


I don’t watch many movies these days, but every so often I’ll be intrigued enough to invest two hours in a show. Last weekend I saw the movie 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston, a rock climber who got his hand caught between two boulders while canyoning in Utah .

For 127 hours, Aron sits trapped with little food or water, no warm clothing, and no one with any idea where he is. For five days and seven hours, he sits alone in a crevasse, plotting his escape. As the hours wind on, he becomes more and more distraught. He starts to hallucinate. During these hallucinations, he begins to see his future self—the life he could have if he escapes.

Near-death hallucinations must be quite motivating because, ultimately, he decides to cut his own hand off and crawl out of the wilderness.

There are plenty of lessons you can learn from a story like that:

  • Don’t go spelunking alone.
  • Tell someone where you’re going.
  • Be prepared with extra food and water.
  • Bring a saw so you don’t have to cut your hand off with a pocket knife.

Those are all good to remember, but I came away from the movie with a different lesson—a renewed belief in the power of deadlines—those often arbitrary points in time that somehow force us to make decisions and get things done.

All Hail King Deadline

The power of a deadline can be phenomenal. When we’re faced with a challenge and limited time to solve it, we usually rise to the occasion. And anyone with a procrastination problem like I often suffer from is agonizingly familiar with Parkinson’s Law:

However long you give yourself to complete a task is how long it will take.

The answer to procrastination, then, is to set short deadlines for yourself. The problem, of course, is that a deadline loses much of its effectiveness when it’s set internally rather than externally. What I mean is that it’s harder to stick to a deadline you set for yourself than it is to stick to one dictated by someone else.

We reject our own deadlines because there’s no immediate punishment for missing them. The pain caused by letting ourselves down is nothing more than our own disappointment, which is something we’re, unfortunately, pretty good at coping with.

Besides a constant effort to become more intrinsically motivated, a solution I’ve found effective is to involve others in your own goals. That’s why I created the 1% Club. If that list were only a piece of paper in a notebook by my desk, I doubt I’d have even started on it yet. For better or worse, I’m highly motivated to not let others down. When I know I have thousands of people rooting for me, I pursue my goals with fervor.

Another example: I like the feeling I get as an early riser, but I’m not always so great at convincing myself to get out of bed. Two months ago, Jonathan Mead proposed we create an early-rising accountability team. I immediately said yes, and over the last 60 days, I’ve been happily awake at 6:00 AM for about 58 of them.

Your Next 127 Hours

What would you do if you had only 127 hours to live? The question is cliché, but I still think it’s worth pondering. Would you change drastically or would you make only minor adjustments to your life? Maybe you wouldn’t change anything at all?

127 hours isn’t a very long time and the trick to making this a useful exercise is to not overestimate your resources. Don’t assume you all of a sudden have a hidden pile of money to use up. Don’t fantasize about the limitless gifts people will shower upon you when they learn of your impending demise.

Given the resources you have at your disposal right now, what would you change to make the next five days and seven hours a more meaningful experience for yourself?

I’m happy to say that I wouldn’t change much. I’d probably make a few more calls to family—maybe go see another part of the world I’ve put off getting to. All in all though, I feel like I’d probably keep doing the same work I’m doing right now. That’s a good feeling to have.

Whether or not you’re happy with your life as it is, it’s good to remember that what you do right now,in the next 127 hours, will do more to influence your life than anything you plan for in the future.

What’s your plan?


For more on the power of deadlines, read this compelling piece by Pam Slim. Photo by: energeticspell.