”The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Every time I think of that saying, I give myself a little nudge to get on with achieving what I want from life. Like most people, I need these motivational nudges, or I’ll likely fall short of achieving key dreams or goals.

A relative once told me, “I’m retiring in one week and I never did figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up!” Though that’s an extreme case of procrastination, I know he’s not alone in failing to set goals or planning how to achieve them.

A few years back, the movie “The Bucket List” captured many people’s imaginations, with its story of two terminally ill men (played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) who set out to fulfill their wish list of to-dos before they die. It got lots of people talking about what would be on their personal bucket lists. My friend Kim saw the movie and was so inspired she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with her son, ran a half-marathon, changed careers and vigorously achieved a bunch of other things on her bucket list. Whew!

Right idea, wrong deadline

I don’t want a bucket list because I think it focuses on the wrong deadline.

I’m not waiting till I’m near death to do a hasty course-correction and refocus my life.

You have a best-before date

Maybe it’s because I’ve already put in more than half a century on the planet, but I’m amazed at how few people seem to recognize — and plan for — the fact that good health doesn’t last forever. Except in rare cases, your life expectancy (how long you’ll live) and your health expectancy (how long your general good health will last) are not the same thing.

Instead, either slowly or suddenly, your health will fade. That sore knee might never fully heal. Your muscles won’t do what they used to. Some parts of your body will wear out. Or you’ll tire more easily.

You may not recognize it, but your body has a best-before date. Maybe your mind does, too. You just don’t know when that date is.

How I created my best-before-date list

I don’t know my best-before date either. But I know that some things I’d like to do in life won’t get done if I leave them until I become frail or my health falters.

So I’ve prioritized my list of things to do so that I tackle the most physically and mentally challenging stuff while I have the best chance of success.  For example, I’d like to visit New York someday. I’d also like to visit Machu Picchu in Peru. Thinking of my best-before date, this morning I booked our trip to Machu Picchu and several other physically challenging destinations in South America. We’re going this fall.

As for New York, I’ll get there someday. My health, and my wife’s, would have to falter significantly before we’d have to give up on enjoying the charms of New York. In that sense, it’s easier to go to New York, so we’ll go to Machu Picchu this year and leave New York for later.

Other highlights from my best-before-date list:

  • Run a marathon in 2013
  • Hike up an active volcano this year (I’ve already hiked to the tops of two: Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna)
  • Write a publishable book in the next three years
  • Travel to Hong Kong, China and Australia in the next five years
  • Coax a smile or a giggle out of our first grandchild. (Someday, I hope, such a kid will appear and I can cross this one off the list. But not yet.)

If I still have health and vitality after those accomplishments, great! Then I’ll draft a new best-before-date-list. My wife showed me an article today about a remarkable guy in India who is 100 and runs marathons. Maybe that’ll be me someday!