How Creating A Better Bucket List Becomes A Blueprint For Living Your Best Life

What do you want to do before you die? Go to Mars? Skydive? Climb Everest? Be ambitious: a good bucket list should grow over time, not shrink. Just like you.

A few years ago, Pat Palumbo, a Westchester, New York-based real estate agent, faced some major health problems. She recovered, but “having that experience did seriously give me all those reflections you have when you know you’re not invincible,” she says. “I felt such a sense of gratitude for all this opportunity in front of me.” She wanted to make the most of it.

So what did she do?

She went to BucketList.org and made a list of all the things she wanted to try before she kicked the bucket: Build an intricate dollhouse. Own a Jim Dine painting. Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which she’d been scheduled to do years ago, but had injured her knee the day before. “People make fun of me for my list,” she says. “People just associate it with dying. They don’t realize it’s actually a way to live.”

If you’d like to make a bucket list that changes your life, here are five steps to making that happen.

1. Give yourself time (and inspiration).

When you sit down to make a big list of dreams, your first 15 to 20 items will inevitably involve getting on a plane. BucketList.org has a “Popular” feature, and goals like “Backpack Europe” or “Float in the Dead Sea” feature prominently. People almost universally fantasize about traveling more than they normally do.

But travel’s probably not the only thing you want more of in your life. So, “I’d give yourself a few weeks,” says Jason Lindstrom, co-owner of BucketList.org, who recently had a Guinness at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and is learning to play the guitar. Keep thinking about it, and talk to other people or look at other lists for inspiration (here’s mine from a few years ago). In the social media era, just as Pinterest is nudging people to upgrade their kids’ lunchbox fare in ways they never thought possible, reading other people’s bucket lists can stir desires you never knew you had. “It’s making everyone a little more transparent,” says Lindstrom.

2. Be specific—and within your sphere of influence.

With goals, success begets success. While you can put “Go to Mars” on your bucket list if you’d like, you’ll get more out of the process if you choose items so specific and possible you can visualize them happening. Palumbo wanted to dance in a “second line”—the crew that follows the brass band in a parade—in New Orleans. After writing down that goal, she was quick to seize an opportunity to attend a professional conference in the Big Easy. The last night of the convention, the Brass Rebirth Band performed, and Palumbo—knowing this was exactly what she’d pictured—was soon up there dancing behind them.

You can also aim to score some easy wins by putting a few small purchases on your list, too. Palumbo has long been obsessed with stationery, and she decided she wanted wax seals for her envelopes after reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (“Her desk, her stationery and everything had the letter R.”). After listing this goal, she was primed to look around, and “When I found that wax seal in Barnes & Noble, I almost wept,” she says.

3. Improve daily life.

The biggest payoffs from making a bucket list don’t come from taking great vacations—vacations are great anyway—but from upgrading life's more mundane experiences. G. Richard Shell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, set a life list goal to “Listen to every great book that everybody’s said they’ve read but no one has.” Note the verb: listen. Shell consumes all this literature via audiobook in his car. When I met him at a coffee shop recently, he had been listening to David Copperfield on the way there. There are hazards—“I was on the Pennsylvania turnpike and drove right past the Valley Forge exit because I was in the middle of the Trojan War”—but he’s also been reminded that “great books are really great.” He’s listened to the Iliad, the Odyssey, and so forth by finding “this little white space in the day I can fill in.”

4. Build in accountability.

Sharing your list, whether online or just by talking about it does two things. First, people might share opportunities with you—like the name of a guitar teacher if you want to learn to play. And second, you become accountable for making progress toward your goals. That can increase your odds of success. Lindstrom checks in with his brother every Monday to discuss the steps they’re taking toward bucket list goals and smaller goals. “Getting feedback from people is super valuable,” says Lindstron—“especially people you trust and respect.”

Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity, and The $100 Startup, made a goal several years ago to travel to every country in the world by April 7, 2013 (he made it). “Sharing a list helps to make it more real,” he says. “In my case, I felt like I couldn’t let people down. The sense that people who cared about my goals were following along gave me a sense of support when I encountered challenges.”

5. Make it a living document.

Exciting as it is to cross items off your list, accept this paradox: A good bucket list may grow rather than shrink over time. Because ideally you will grow, rather than shrink over time as well. Guillebeau discovered this while traveling. “As I worked on the final 50 countries, after eight years of the first 140, I became much more interested in pursuing new goals related to community,” he says. “I don't think I'd have the same excitement or focus on those things without having come so far on the travel goals.”

[Image: Flickr user Allen Cisneros]

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3 Comments

  • Audrey Knox

    I love this! It's a very optimistic, non-morbid way of looking at the bucket list. I don't like it as a list of things you need to finish before you die or your life has no meaning, but I love it as a list that keeps growing as you become more aware of new opportunities.

  • Traumdoc Uwe Alschner

    Thanks for sharing this! I do agree. It is very important to have immediately present what really matters to you. That's what a Bucket list is, right? The things you want to do, see, or experience before you die. So that, when you look back, you can say: no matter what else I did or did not do, I made it to ...
    Your point about the growing list which corresponds to the personal growth you will be experiencing is true. However, John P. Strelecky, author of THE BIG FIVE FOR LIFE, thinks it is advisable to have your list (he calls it a Big Five for Life list) always up to date in terms of what matters most. So: take the trouble to re-assess what is on your list, and re-align, so that you can focus on the top X (five is a good number: it is reasonably large, but not too large. And it is a symbolical number. You can remember your Big Five for Life by looking at the five fingers of your hand).
    One thing about a Bucket list, and about your advice #1: It really is a very personal thing to do. So don't feel pressurized about how others might think about your list. It is your life, and it is your list. Some of what is most important to you might have got stored "away" deep in your unconscious over time. Give yourself time to let it surface. It is there, and it is your's!