The Case for the Anti-Bucket List

Photo: Graiki/Getty Images

I’ve always had some version of a bucket list — road trips I wanted to take, skills I wanted to master, professional achievements to hit. With life on uneasy pause early in the pandemic, though, there wasn’t much I could do to make progress toward a lot of those someday goals. I could only stew over the things I wasn’t doing.

Then I realized: The stewing wasn’t anything new. The bucket list wasn’t inspiring; it was draining.

It had always been draining.

Even those of us who don’t identify as planners thrive on plans. It’s the way our brains are built: Anticipating the future is the psychological equivalent of taking our vitamins, a nourishing activity that makes us healthier and more resilient. And we all have things we’d like our future selves to accomplish, even if we aren’t actively working toward them right now: Maybe you want to learn photography, or travel to Japan, or write a book, or jump out of an airplane.

But sometimes our dreams and aspirations can be more distracting than motivating. It’s hard to find any joy in the present moment if you’re constantly in search of the next thing. Sure, there are some items on your to-do list that may be more of a priority to your present happiness, like quitting a bad job or ending a toxic relationship — but then there are those “someday” goals that end up lingering over your lifetime, constantly reminding you of all the things you haven’t done and may never do.

They become emblems of guilt, anxiety, and hustle. You’ve heard the cliché a million times: “Live each day like it’s your last.” As the writer and nurse Leanne Delle points out in her TED Talk, it’s actually kind of bad advice: It implies you have to beat the clock, and most of us already feel overwhelmed to the point of apathy because we’re so aware of our race against time.

There are other, better ways to think about your goals.

Go back to the beginning

Delle suggests living each day like it’s your first. This mindset shift is subtle, but it can help reframe your aspirations from things you have to do before you die to things you get to do while you’re still alive.

In her talk, Delle says, “If we live each day full of wonder and appreciation while discovering a genuine sense of joy, I believe that motivation for our truest passion would be more likely to present itself.” Delle’s perspective is less about lists and more about approaching your life from a place of constant self-discovery. What makes you curious? Excited? What would you pursue if you could start over?

Create an anti-bucket list

With Delle’s perspective in mind, I reviewed my bucket list again. So many of the items on it were based on fears and insecurities accumulated over the years. Many of them — like writing a bestseller, starting a business, visiting every continent, and becoming a millionaire — were goals I felt I should want or aspirations I felt would be validating, considering the career I’ve chosen and the insecurities I’ve developed. But are they goals I would pursue if my slate were clean? Maybe not.

So I made an anti-bucket list.

The anti-bucket list is a list of things you no longer want lingering on your to-do list — a collection of activities, habits, or pursuits that, when you think about it, actually make you feel kind of shitty — “shiny object” goals pulling you away from the goals that would actually enrich your life.

Chasing money, for example, has led me to take on work that made me miserable. Trying to visit every continent kept me from truly enjoying travel, because travel is not a series of places to be checked off a list.

There’s so much pressure in a bucket list. It’s rooted in scarcity and insecurity: Do as much as you can, while you can. An anti-bucket list, on the other hand, alleviates any pressure and reminds you of how far you’ve come. In order to figure out what you truly want, it helps to know what’s getting in your way.

Keep your list short

“It’s okay to have this massive, overarching list of things we hope to see or achieve in our lifetime,” says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist and adviser for Family Enthusiast. “But I advise clients to make monthly and yearly goals as well.”

Artz recommends treating a bucket list as an actionable to-do list, rather than a place to park big, vague ambitions, and adding to it accordingly. “At the beginning of each month, identify three things you want to achieve,” she suggests. “And what are 10 things you want to achieve this year? Having different timelines actually forces you to prioritize what’s most important and create a sense of order to these milestones.”

Of course, the number of goals you take on should be realistic and fit into your current lifestyle. “Some people will have no problem crossing 25 items off a bucket list in a year. Others may only work with one or two,” she says.

To come up with your own list, start by identifying your core values, and use them as your North Star: What do you want to do that aligns with what’s important to you? “Without knowing what your values are, you can spend your whole life going places, working hard to make more money, or participating in triathlons, only to realize you missed out on deep relationships with family and friends,” says health and wellness coach Lynell Ross. She recommends asking yourself a few questions: What kind of person do you want to be, or what part of your identity do you want to focus on? What qualities do you want to pursue?

You should also think of your list as fluid rather than fixed, Artz suggests. Our needs, priorities, and even values can change over time, and if a goal no longer serves you, let it go. Hell, if a whole list no longer serves you, let it go. None of us can do every single thing we want in life. But trying to knock them all out anyway can wring the joy and meaning out of the whole process.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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