Welcome to Unconventional Life Hacks, a regular feature wherein we propose one surprising, unlikely, or downright absurd idea that just might radically change your approach to life. (Or at least make you *consider* radically changing it.)
I was near tears on the train platform last week. It was absurd to cry, I knew that, and yet I felt it in my throat: the beginnings of a whimper, which I let out quietly, undetectably, then began to pace. The cause of my state was utterly, shamefully benign; I was 45 minutes into a day in which 25 little things had gone wrong—a glitch in the luck matrix, nothing more. But I was now late to an important appointment by several colluding forces, and I wanted to scream.
And then my phone buzzed. A notification. “Don’t forget: You’re going to die.” I froze. I considered the point. I saw the days of my life stretched out in a long, looping domino trail; some happy, some sad, all lined up in pursuit of a finite conclusion: death. My shoulders released. I exhaled. Who cares if I was late?
WeCroak is my new favorite app. It reminds me that I’m going to die five times a day. Cofounded by Hansa Bergwall and Ian Thomas, it was inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying: “To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” Another term for this? Death recollection, which Bergwall describes as an old but oft forgotten tenet of a healthy meditation practice.
“One of the things that makes us most unhappy is we tend to get caught up in things that don’t matter,” Bergwall told Recode in an interview about the app. “We tend to get caught up in an angry voice or in minutiae or in stress or in tons of things that ultimately aren’t that important to us. And when we remember our mortality, we can take a deep breath and just go, ‘Oh, I don’t have to think about this. I don’t have to engage. I don’t have time for this.’ And move on.”
It’s not that being late doesn’t matter, or that bad luck isn’t upsetting. It’s just that death puts those things in perspective when they’re pumping cortisol through my veins (which, ironically, could shorten my life). Remembering I’m here for a limited time is startling and sobering. It loosens the knot in my chest, dwarfing it with eternity, or sweetens a good moment, encouraging me to soak it in. Most urgently, it forces me to pause and consider whether what I’m doing is in pursuit of something that matters to me. It’s a litmus test for internal alignment.
Every time I receive a death notification—they come at randomized times (just like death!) between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.—I’m invited to open it for a quote about human impermanence, or the beauty of mortality, or something else appropriately death-adjacent. This one by philosopher Marcus Aurelius is about the nature of time: “There is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and never return.” It arrived, no joke, while I was scrolling through Instagram on the toilet, my gaze all but lifeless.
Death has always been a fixation of mine, whether I’m imagining weird ways it may come about or testing my mental health to see how much I’d care if my plane crashed (dark but true). But WeCroak ushers me toward a more useful strain of death recollection. It helps me think about death by way of thinking about life. And in that way, it’s the most useful productivity tool I’ve ever encountered.
Animation by Madeline Montoya.