Perhaps it’s just an inevitable stage of the passing of time (or more people watching the 2007 film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman), but everybody seems to be talking about bucket lists these days. The pandemic seems to have made us all more aware of the fleetingness of our time on this rock, and so many of us have started to compile a checklist of all the things that we’d like to do before we run out of time.

We tend to see such lists as aspirational, and at the very least, a little bit of fun. What harm could come of simply codifying your dreams?

There’s a hole in the bucket

The nature of the bucket list is touched upon by Oliver Burkeman in his book Four Thousand Weeks, where he describes their creation as leading to “a deeper sense in which merely to be alive on the planet today is to be haunted by the feeling of having ‘too much to do’, whether or not you lead a busy life in any conventional sense”.

Creating a list is all well and good - I’d be hypocritical to say otherwise, given I’ve created one myself - but if you keep it too close to the front of your mind, it can simply serve to highlight the gap between “things I’m actually doing” and “things I actually want to be doing”, which can lead to a loss of morale, a decrease in wellbeing and waning productivity.

Burkeman muses that:

[bucket list addicts] are arguably just as overwhelmed as the exhausted social worker or corporate lawyer. It’s true that the things by which they’re being overwhelmed are nominally more enjoyable […] But it remains the case that their fulfillment still seems to depend on their managing to do more than they can do […] It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived - but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.”

In essence: By all means, know what you’d like to do with your future, but don’t picture the completion of this list as being a sign that you’ve “completed” life. To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”: don’t become so wrapped-up in living a task-based existence that you miss the unforeseen adventures along the way.

The plus side: a sliding scale of lists

Personally, I created a bucket list as an aspirational goal some years ago, and I revisited this list as I approached my 40th birthday, looking to shortlist “40 things to do before I turn 40”. Immediately I realised that a number of these (e.g. taking a road trip through the USA, visiting Australasia, taking a cruise) weren’t going to make the cut, as both time and money would prevent them from being completed before a set deadline. (Instead, I’ve parked these on a list of future activities, where I’ll be lucky to complete one every five years.)

My “40 before 40” list was, theoretically, much more attainable (things like “get fitted for a tailored suit”, and “go gluten-free for a month”). Heck, when I first made my list, I could’ve completed one item per fortnight and I’d still have completed it in time! Unfortunately, I chose to compile the list in January 2020, and as life (and lockdowns) marched-on inexorably to my 40th birthday last year, it became immediately apparent that I wasn’t going to complete the list before the deadline.

And I realised… that’s fine. I’m the only person who cares about the list, or my self-imposed deadline. The rules are my own. The list lives on, and I’m gradually putting the items into the rewards column of my personal kanban board. Now, rather than spoiling the enjoyment of completing fun activities by adding a ticking clock element, I’m free to enjoy them in their own time. Also, it’s my list - I can change it if I want to (I’m not going to rush into the “Get a tattoo” item until I’m sure I’ve made a good decision about what the tattoo will be!)

Key takeaways 📝

  • It’s good to know what experiences you want to achieve in life - but don’t let them lead you.
  • You’re not going to “complete” life, or achieve victory over time - so don’t even try.
  • Don’t allow self-imposed pressures to change your fun list into just another work stream.