How to Build a Better Bucket List

We all know about the Bucket List—the wish list of things we long to do before we kick the bucket. It’s the considerably more fun version of the will, which is our to-do list after the bucket has been kicked. Sit down and write a will? That’s distasteful. Sit down and write a Bucket List? Most of us are game to jot down a list of stuff to stuff in before we go.

What exactly are we clamoring to stuff in, before said bucket gets kicked? What makes the list? And how can we build a better list? Let’s go through all of that.

Bucket List Themes

Sixty nine percent of Americans have a bucket list, and apparently we’re stir crazy because “getting the hell out of here” (i.e.: traveling) sits at the top of most of our lists.

There are six primary buckets-within-Bucket Lists that researchers have identified, and here’s how they net out:

Bucket List Themes

  • Travel: “road trip across the country,” “travel to see the Pyramids,” “go on a mission in Uganda”
  • Accomplish a personal goal: “visit my country of birth,” “fly on a private plane,” “do a triathlon”
  • Achieve a specific life milestone: “have a child,” “see my grandkids graduate,” “set up a charitable bequest”
  • Spend quality time with friends and family: “Spend time with all of my kids together at the same time,” “go on a cruise with my buddies,” “plan a family reunion”
  • Achieve financial stability: “be debt-free,” “save enough to send the kids to college,” “be financially independent”
  • Do a daring activity: “run with the bulls in Pamplona,” “go bungee jumping,” “surf a 20-foot wave”

Does this ordering of Bucket List items look familiar to you? How might you re-order these main categories to make the most of your own time left?

Survey respondents were asked to rank, in their order of preference, 15 of the most popular bucket list goals sourced from an online community. Survey says (meant to be said in the Family Feud voice):

  1. Travel the world
  2. Learn a different language
  3. Fall in love
  4. Throw a dart at a map and go wherever it lands
  5. Climb a mountain
  6. Learn to play a music instrument
  7. Donate a sum of money to a charity
  8. Ride in a hot air balloon
  9. Publish a book
  10. Swim with dolphins
  11. Plant a tree
  12. Donate blood
  13. Win a lottery jackpot
  14. Run a marathon
  15. Become famous

What order would you put these “top 15” Bucket List items in? Maybe you’d ditch some all together and replace with something more meaningful? And can we all agree that number four is amazing?!

The good thing about Bucket Lists

Bucket Lists can help us manage the ticking time bombs of our lives. In our race against death, these lists make us cognizant that we need to cram a few things in so we don’t end up on our deathbeds with a slew of “coulda, shoulda, woulda” regrets.

Creating an ultimate to-do list of experiences and accomplishments also helps us not forget the things we’ve earmarked as “life-worthy.” Every time I lead a workshop that gets people rhyming off their Bucket List items, it’s remarkable how someone chimes in with something like, “oh yeah! I’ve always wanted to see the northern lights, too!”—and then “SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS” promptly makes their list.

Having a repository for our desires helps us organize and remember the ways we might want to savor—not squander—our time.

The two pickles about Bucket Lists

Bucket List Pickle #1: We add items to the list faster than we can ever cross them off, so all too often the list becomes daunting and un-doable.

We all love a to-do list if we get to cross the things we’ve done off of it. It’s disheartening to see the thing we were supposed to have done on Monday still staring up at us on Thursday, unaccomplished, highlighting how ineffective and deeply flawed we are. The Bucket List is really just The Biggest To-Do List of All, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not up for a consistent dose of self-disappointment. Seeing that no, I haven’t learned how to speak Spanish yet, makes me want to renunciar antes de empezar (Google helpfully translated “quit before I start” into the language I cannot yet speak, *sigh*).

Most of us know we’ll never live long enough to accomplish and experience the things we’d love included in our 4,000 Mondays, but it still causes a wee bit of heartburn to see an Untenable List of Things You’ll Never Get Around to Doing Because You Either Won’t Have Time or Because You Didn’t Get Off Your Ass to Actually Make Happen.

Ugh. You see how this is a pickle, no?

Bucket List Pickle #2: We believe we’ll get around to going to Rome/ writing that book/ deep-sea diving/ joining the mile-high club (this is number nine on a list of top ten Bucket List goals for men, according to one survey)/ running that marathon/ seeing those darned northern lights . . . “Later” (i.e.: when we retire, when “work slows down,” when the stars are aligned)—which is really a recipe for a live left unlived.

I feel the need to say that again: believing we’ll get around to doing these crucial things “later” is a recipe for a life left unlived:

  • We might not get to visit Rome “later” because WE MIGHT BE DEAD BY THEN (or less dramatically, our health might not be up to snuff to take the planes and trains and steps to see the Colosseum).
  • Thinking we’ll see Rome “later” means we’re robbing our current life of the potential vitality and meaning and joy and wonder and gelato it could be experiencing now.

While it’s not necessarily feasible to spend the time and money to tick our Bucket List items off pronto, you see the point of this pickle, right? About deferring life for later, when the one we’re living now is also thirsting for attention and gusto?

So what do we do about these Bucket List pickles?

Please don’t follow Jerry Seinfeld’s lead, when he says, “I made a bucket list, turned the ‘b’ to an ‘f’ and was done with it.” Let’s not lose the spirit of the giant life-to-do list, as it can help us prioritize our desires in a whirlwind of a world around us.

Don’t say fuck it just yet!

I’m excited to unveil the solution . . .

Create Bite-Size Bucket Lists

Bite-Size Bucket Lists!Just as a journey of a thousand steps begins with a Mimosa single step, your remaining Mondays can be broken down into manageable experiences and accomplishments.

Bite-Size Bucket Lists can shift the dreaming into doing because they’re scoped for sanity. Whereas having a List of Things to Do Before I Die is insane, a List of All Things Epic Summer 2023—for example—is do-able, right? Motivating! Inspiring!

Bite-Size Bucket Lists can prevent squander-free lives, NOW. Whereas having a List of Things to Do Before I Die allows for a postponement of the cool things until an indeterminate “later,” a List of All Things Amazing Week Off on Vacation—for example—shifts the living to now, not later, right? Get on with the living!

Look how wee these Bite-Size Bucket Lists are! Look how manageable they are! You create the tight parameters (e.g.: a season/ vacation/ month/ year), and fill in the do-able blanks:

  • Top 10 Ways We’ll Enjoy the Winter Holidays (e.g.: “go to the Christkindlmarket for glühwein in the boot-shaped mug,” “watch a holiday movie marathon, beginning with Love, Actually,” “make Grandma’s cherry chew bars,” etc.
  • The List of All Things Fall: Weekend Edition (e.g.: “visit the pumpkin patch and have a carving contest at home,” “stay overnight at that cute inn in the country,” “chop firewood,” etc.)
  • Best Vacation of All Time in Paris (e.g.: “take the stairs up the Eiffel Tower,” “buy a crêpe from a stand and eat in a park,” “visit the wall of love,” etc.)
  • My Best June Ever (e.g.: “go to the symphony in the park once and for all,” “take the subway from one end to the other, observing all the neighborhoods,” “eat a giant ice cream cone on the street,” etc.)
  • Things to Do This Year of My Life (e.g.: “do yoga 52 times,” “write my business plan,” “travel to Montreal,” etc.)

We all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to the grave is littered with brimmingly full Bucket Lists that have either made us feel like degenerates or life-deferrers. It’s a lot harder to die with a bunch of full itty-bitty-sized Bucket Lists than giant ones full of good intentions.

Off you go to draft your Bite-Size Bucket List ideas. You only live once, so let’s get on with the living—with intention—now.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Let’s Instagram together?

P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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