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Back in November, during the MDK Odious Tasks Zoom Party, talk naturally turned to tasks even more odious and procrastinated upon than the chores we brought to the party. For many of us, those were the obligations of our later years: wills, healthcare proxies, and the like. (Not that you can’t or shouldn’t do these things when you’re young! You should!)

Anyway, we agreed that this particular category of task was particularly hard to get cracking on, and that we would address it here in a self-care article. Soon. As my Zen teacher used to say, “‘Now’ is a really unpopular time to do something.” She was so right. So at some point we are going to talk about In Case You Get Hit By a Bus, and a couple more of those be-ready-for-the-end books, but not today.

Today I thought, “Let’s do something related but … actually fun.”

Mom’s Little Cliff Notes for Life

I propose instead that we devote a little attention to a part of our legacy that wills and powers of attorney don’t cover: our best guidance. What do we want our children to know about life? What would give them comfort and get them well set up to carry on? What would we say if, I don’t know, we had reason to think they’d only want the TL;DR?

What I’d say to my children today are mostly the same things I wish I could say to my own 20-something self:

  • Take good care of yourself; you matter so much. You’re infinitely precious to me, in a
    way that an overworked, isolated, sleep-deprived and deeply depressed young mother
    didn’t always make clear to you.
  • You come from a line of people who didn’t get enough to eat and I’m sorry to say you’ve
    got some generational trauma and eating disorder pre-disposition there. So be kind to
    your nervous system, and take time for meals. Feed yourself and your loves generously.
    Eat your vegetables. Eat sitting down. Eat with other humans. I’m begging you: please
    take this eating thing seriously.
  • No nonreciprocal relationships. I can’t say it simpler than that.
  • Always wear earplugs to rock shows, moisturize before you think you need to, and
    never skip the sunscreen. You think there’s no future, but I’ve been there. You’ll make it
    too. And then you’ll wish you had your hearing.
  • Okay it’s true that there are no heckin guarantees on this planet of disaster, but neither
    is there any shame in wanting some safety, comfort and continuity. So ask for it.
  • In fact, ask often. Ask a lot. Be gracious about hearing “no” and realistic about moving
  • It doesn’t matter how they dress it up, your job isn’t a “family” and it doesn’t love you.
    You must be ready to leave anytime, so start a F***-You Fund now. When you’re
    deciding about a job, calculate the real hourly wage. And please don’t work for non-
    profits your entire career.
  • Mummy loves you!
  • More than anything, I wish I could have done the inner work you needed me to do
    before you needed me to do it.

Of course, I could say a lot more. I’m picking my battles, like any seasoned parent. Maybe this is just “Volume 1: In Case I Get Hit By A Bus.” And maybe your kids are like mine, and are pretty sure your collected life knowledge is past its sell-by date. No worries! They’ll have it if they ever want it. (But also: keep a copy for yourself.)

More reasons to do it

Instructions for living aren’t only for offspring. I still need them too. Here are four ways to collect wisdom for yourself:

  • As an appreciation of your hard-won life knowledge. If you’re human, you’ve been
    through a lot. Nobody else knows the half of it. If you’ve never seen all those pearls of
    wisdom strung together before, be a witness to your own life. Marvel at it!
  • As a healing balm for Young You. In some way that I can’t explain but probably
    involves neurology, writing a set of instructions to your younger self has a powerful
    reparative effect. It’s like time travel, without destructive paradox. Or like metaphorical
    kintsugi for the soul. (Because maybe now you have a little bit of gold in reserve.)
  • As a set of reminders for Current You. How many times must we recreate our packing
    list? How many times will we talk ourselves into a third glass of wine? When we will
    remember not to go to the hardware store for milk? And how long will we kid ourselves
    that we don’t need to write stuff down? I learned about the ‘Book of Me’ from my friend
    Havi Brooks, and it’s full of crucial reminders that I would otherwise have total amnesia
  • As a set of instructions in case of emergency. For those times when your creative
    brain has shut down, your nervous system is jacked, and you’re hiding under the desk.

Have a list of numbers to call, breathing exercises (the simple kind!) to do, and a couple of soothing reminders written by Sturdy You. Tape it to the underside of your desk, or wherever you’ll find it when the rug gets pulled out.

What’s in your handy list of life instructions? I really want to know. I’ll be sharing mine on Instagram with the hashtag #mdklifeinstructions, and I hope you’ll join me.


IMAGE CREDIT:  Books and Scholars’ Accouterments, Yi Taek-gyun, late 1800s. The
Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund. Public domain.
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About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Thank you! So true!

  • Thank you.

    • Wow, what a gift. I’m sending it to my daughters. Thank you.

  • If not feeling well while driving a motor vehicle:

    1. Find a safe place to pull off the road.

    2. Put the vehicle in park.

    3. Turn off the vehicle; remove key or with the newer electric or push button model’s double check the vehicle is off.

    Then figure out how to help yourself.

  • Thank you for this! I’m looking forward to volume 2!!!

  • Especially wonderful. Thanks❤️

  • Keep in mind That All Things Will Pass
    The Bad Times will pass.
    The Good Times will pass.
    Everyone will pass.
    Everything is temporary.
    Love One Another.
    In the end, the only thing you take and leave is LOVE.

  • Thank you.

  • Practice gratitude, but not just in the buzzword way everyone talks about gratitude now, but what I call “micro-gratitude.” Pick any 5 minutes and ask yourself what you have to be grateful for right then. When waking up? Woke up inside, safe and warm, and not out on the sidewalk, clutching a newspaper to try to cover yourself, with your belongings in a shopping cart. Woke up at all. Could walk to an indoor bathroom, with running water, electricity, carpet–could walk at all. Can see, and/or hear. Family members noisy and needy but alive, pets the same. Just getting down to the very smallest gifts that we are never promised but get each day.

    • I love this so much! We have so much to be grateful for at this level. Thank you for reminding me.

  • Spend your time with people who can laugh at themselves.

  • What’s wrong with working for nonprofits?!

    • That was my only comment too! I used to work for commercial businesses and made a distinct choice to get out of it as it was so depressing. Every decision was based on how much money they made. You can find good or bad places to work in every sector. I would have phrased this more like “Don’t let people take advantage of you at work” either with wages or lack of appreciation. Not that everyone gets a choice about such things.

    • Exactly! I’ve never worked for anything but a non-profit and wouldn’t have it any other way. I agree with the comment about making sure you save for the day you pry yourself away from that world, but as much as I’ve complained about the hours, the pay (or lack thereof), and the issues with the whole model of a volunteer board of directors, I would still rather work in a non-profit. And – wait for it – before I worked in management, I was an artist…and I loved that too. Soy advice to my daughter? Do what you love. That’s it. We only go around once in this world and it much better if you like what you do for a living.

      • “Do what you love. That’s it. We only go around once in this world and it much better if you like what you do for a living.”

        J Faulkner, I love that! Happiness is what it’s all about (once you have your basic needs met).

    • Exactly. What’s that about?? Both of my daughters work for nonprofits and I couldn’t be happier about it. Life’s not all about money, and even if it were, unless you’re the owner of the for-profit, those profits aren’t likely to be going to you.

    • Oh I could go on about his for days, but I won’t. I love non-profits and have worked with non-profits for a really long time (have also worked with for-profits so I’ve been around the block) and there is a truth to saying that although can be very, very fulfilling, they have a distinct set of flaws. There is often a constant culture of need. Our fundraising is, at a very granular level, simply sales. But we treat it differently. There can be an constant start-up mentality. I was at a seminar years ago and the speaker said “you need to stop acting like you can’t afford paper clips.” And she was right.

      I always recommend to people that if you want a purpose driven career, spend time in both for-profits (there are more and more values driven ones) and non-profits.

    • I have worked for both major corporations and non-profits. It is always a matter of finding the right corporate culture. Which I have been fortunate enough to do once or twice. I will say that the non-profit I worked for was horrible at making and managing money. And the corporate employers do a lot to make sure the money stays at the top.

      • Exactly! There are good and bad at both types of institutions, after all there are good and bad people everywhere. I actually made more money working for nonprofit healthcare corporations than I did for for-profit ones, and the for-profit ones just couldn’t put the profit motive aside in any decision.

    • Becky, I laughed out loud at this one. I loved working for my non-profits. I’m 71 and still working (now for myself, but I have to to live.) Just make sure you somehow create a financial pad for the future you.

    • It very much depends on the nonprofit, but for me there was a real problem with “rewarding work” for very little pay and a board full of people who thought that was fine because they had “paid their dues”.

      • I have always worked in healthcare, and I have found this to be more true of for-profit hospitals than nonprofits.

    • I agree. You won’t make as much money, but can find fulfillment.

  • So eloquent, thank you! I’m glad you included skincare, I won’t bore you with the long story

  • Read your bible, you are precious, He died for you!

  • It’s okay to ghost toxic people.

    • And a corollary to this….know when it’s time to move on. Whether it’s from people or situations, there is a point where you see that you have reached the end of accommodating bad conditions. The only person you can control is yourself. I finally let go of an awful job last fall. Made a pro and cons list and saw that it was time. Much healthier and happier now!

  • Thank you, Mom and Dad, for always knowing and telling me how spectacular I am.

  • Wow! That was a sharp slap first thing in the morning! I am retired, having worked for non-profits my entire career. My husband left a lucrative job twenty years before retirement age and he also worked for non-profits after that. From day one we set aside 10-15% of our earnings for retirement and lived (comfortably) within our means, respecting that it was all the money we had and not getting into debt. Now we have a house that is paid off and are able to continue with that standard of living in retirement, including some travel. The problem is not working for not for profits, it is failing to set and live within a reasonable budget and fretting at not having the newest and the best of everything. It didn’t pay as much, but our not for profit work left us richer in every other way: more secure emotionally, less focused on consumer items, more centered on relationships, more certain that our lives have mattered – all things that are huge parts of mental and physical health. When your children calculate the “real hourly wage,” I hope they include these things in their calculus.

    • Agree! I wish there was a Like button for when a post is perfect and I can’t possibly add anything.

    • Well said!

    • Amen!!!

  • This piece does not say this, but I just want to be clear, before someone says that everything happens for a reason, that I DO NOT believe everything happens for a divine reason. Sometimes the reason is human genius or stupidity, and sometimes it is chance, but I do not buy that divine action drives everything.

    Also – I seem to have taught our daughter some of those recommendations without internalizing them for myself.

  • Stretch your muscles every day. (I’m on my way to physical therapy today.)

  • My Dad gave me two rules for life:. 1) Don’t panic. 2) Stay close to the boat. (He used to sail a lot). They’ve done me good over the years.

  • Translation please: what do TL and DR stand for? thanks

    • Too long:didn’t read

      • Thank you. I’ve seen that shorthand elsewhere and couldn’t decode.

    • Too long, didn’t read

    • TL;DR mean Too long, didn’t read. Usually the writer will put a quick summary up top and then add the loooooonnnnnggggg story below. 🙂

  • “But trust me on the sunscreen”! This is great. Thanks Max.

    • as an attorney for ordinary people I saw a lot of situations of not being able to face facts, the result often was not pretty, created anxiety and strained relationships. don’t be afraid of writing a will, and definitely have your living will, power of attorney, and health care directives signed and distributed to the appropriate parties. I’ve seen a lot of situations where a caregiver has come in and inserted themselves with a vulnerable person. Protect yourself and your intentions.

      • Yes and yes! As hard as it is, please do this. Get it done and over and put it all away in a safe place for the day – hopefully far in the future – when it’s needed. You will not worry, and your loved ones will know what to do. And trust me, as someone who’s recently gone through this, having that “set of instructions” made a BIG difference to my loved one’s piece of mind as well as to mine when the truly horrible thing happened.

      • Also an attorney. I worked in bankruptcy practice area . People thinking they could kick the cam down the road and never pay the piper. Oops! Live within your means whatever they are. You won’t regret it.

      • Fellow attorney here, and I totally agree. I can also say that when I did estate planning, I found that completing their Will/Trust, POAs, advance directives, etc., created a great sense of relief and peace of mind for the clients. Not only did they know they would be taken care of as they wished if they became incapacitated, but they also knew they had taken a burden off their loved ones for when they ultimately passed. Although we tend to put this off because we don’t like to think of becoming ill or dying, there is immense satisfaction in knowing you’ve taken care of yourself and your family– the ultimate self care, if you will.

        • I’m a Clinical Ethicist who has worked w/ dying patients and their families for 40 yrs. Please for the sake of your loved ones and to assure you get the care you want and don’t get care you don’t want; complete your advance directives! Give someone you trust Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare. If you’re at the end of life and your state has one, complete a POLST. Then tell your family where the documents are and what they say, and why you have DPOA-HC to someone. No one lives forever; it’s a gift to have things prepared for your loved ones.

  • I laughed at “please don’t work for non-profits your entire career” as I look back on my career…in nonprofits. There was a time when I worked in retail, so there’s that.

  • One of your best ! In fact, one of the best anywhere…. in a few minutes. Thanks.

  • Good advice. But DO get that will done. My father’s estate has been a complicated mess. We redid our will when our daughter died so our son would have fewer difficulties. Your will is a way of showing your love and consideration of those left behind. And have login and password info in a safe place the right person can find.

  • Find time to volunteer. It will make you feel good to help others.

  • Yes, thanks. It reminds me of the small things my parents said that stayed with me. And reminds me to be careful to show what I really value to my 13- and 11-year old kids. How to keep saying, “I love you unconditionally, but I expect you to do your homework.” And that life is very challenging at times. Life is frequently unfair, but we have a lot to be grateful for.

  • this really hits home. Thanks.
    I tend to remember all the things I said that I wish I hadn’t. I have a hard time remembering things I said or did that were helpful. After reading Katherine Center’s “Happiness for Beginners” a few months ago, I started writing down 3 Good Things that happened that day. i keep a notebook by my bedside and make sure to write them down that night (well, almost every night!) I think it’s making a difference in helping me remember that there are lots of good things that happen every day.

    • At my Moms funeral, my sister and I had a competition to see how many of Ma’s pearls of wisdom we could recall. My sister in law wrote them down and produced scrapbooks for each of us so we could pass those gems on. Priceless!

  • Thank you, Max! I think you got all the spots. Thank you.

  • Although “now” is often an unpopular time, right now is often a very good time.

  • Life is good. Be happy now. Let it go.

    Especially “Let it go.”

  • This was wonderful!

  • My older son (now 27) started asking me for life advice about 20 years ago. (“What kind of girl should I marry?” You don’t want to waste that opportunity with a monologue!) Starting with request #1, I decided it was always going to be a 3-item list. So here are my 3 rules for life:

    (1) Always pack a black jacket.
    (2) Always have a bottle of chilled champagne ready. Don’t wait to celebrate.
    (3) Remember, everyone is fighting a hard battle.

  • I love these messages to our children/ourselves BUT …. Please also do the paperwork!!!! Now! – it’s a real lasting act of love to those you care about when you go under that proverbial unthinkable bus

  • Our community was evacuated 5 1/2 years ago because of wildfires. We had to leave quickly. It was stressful, running around the house figuring out what to take with us. (Thankfully our home was not lost, and we were safe). But when we could eventually return to our community (a month later) I made an evacuation checklist, and put it somewhere I will know where to find it, in case anything like that ever happens again. It has given me great peace of mind.

    On a personal note, I consciously live with gratitude, and the mantra “be nice”. If feeling anxious, “breathe in, breathe out”. If feeling edgy, add “count to ten” before reacting/responding to a situaion.

  • I’ve spoken with three women who were widowed over the last 9 months who are dealing with unexpected legal issues. One discovered that, while her husband bought a life insurance policy weeks after their marriage almost 50 years ago, he never actually named her as a beneficiary. They have wrestled not being included as owners or equal partners on bank accounts, car titles, and other assets — all accidental and unintentional, but with huge administrative consequences. And they’ve each said–there should be a guidebook for the widowed where all of this information is in one place. Go and check that you’ve dotted each “i” and crossed each “t.”

  • Thank you. Now I know what to give my daughters for Valentines Day.

    Also, moisturize. Early and often, everywhere and forever.

  • Thank you so much for this idea. I am starting on this project and taking the notebook with me on vacation to add to it. I appreciate your column SO much. I am reading “Burnout” because of your recommendation and it is completely changing my point of view and giving me a new perspective.

  • What a fantastic post! I have been working on a rather long document titled “Life and Lessons”, culling insights I wrote into “Morning Pages” over the last 11 years. . . I am learning so much from the process, and hopefully, it will be helpful for my children and their children. . . I know that creating this is helping me, now.

    There is a Jewish tradition of writing what is called an Ethical Will, that is very much like what Max has described here.

  • Heed that advice to not work for a nonprofit all your career! I did it I dont regret the actual work but I do regret the lack of a liveable salary and benefits. You should have plenty of time to help non profits after you retire with a liveable retirement (Which is NOT social security)

  • Thank you so much for turning me on to this great show about life. I laughed and cried.

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