If you've never crossed something off of your Bucket List, here's how to start

Stop dreaming and start doing.

Stop dreaming and start doing

(Credit: Tom Grimbert/unsplash.com)

This article was originally published July 16, 2018.

Whether in your nightstand drawer or just in your mind, you likely have a bucket list — a collection of those seemingly far away dreams you'd like to accomplish some day. It's one thing to just fantasize, but what makes us actually take these daydreams and mark them down as (hopefully) achievable goals?

While we commonly think of bucket list items as travel-related, they can certainly go beyond that. A recent survey on bucket lists found that, amongst over 3,000 participants, the most common listed items were a desire to travel and to accomplish a personal goal (eg. losing weight), followed by achieving specific life milestones (eg. have grandchildren), spending quality time with friends and family, financial stability and participating in a daring activity. Furthermore, bucket lists themselves can be geared towards different purposes. Parents can write bucket lists of things they'd like to do with their child before they grow up, a terminally ill 17-year-old made a bucket list of "random acts of kindness". One family decided to turn their whole lives into a bucket list, dedicating themselves to becoming exotic travellers. There's even a Bucket List Festival in Vancouver as a way to help palliative care patients improve their quality of life. For elderly individuals, a focused bucket list can be such a useful tool that it's even been suggested you should share it with your doctor.

Before you achieve one, you have to make one, and even that can have its own benefits. In terms of meaning, bucket list-making is symbolic of our quest towards something bigger than ourselves, whether that be a sense personal accomplishment, bringing us together with people we love, or making a positive contribution to the world around us. Wanting to go zip-lining through the jungle is about much more than just zip-lining through the jungle. It's those extraordinary moments that we will remember most clearly as we look back on our lives (which is also why you don't remember what you ate for breakfast last Tuesday), giving us a greater sense of a life remembered.

So how do you make an effective bucket list?

Firstly, it's important to be discerning about what you put on it — be practical, then prioritize. Are your goals actually achievable, meaning do you logistically have (or think you will have) the time, resources and opportunity to make this goal a reality? This already forces you to look at your bucket list goals in a different way, going from the imaginative to the tangible. Below each, you could jot down a few requirements needed to accomplish them. For example, if you want to make a garden in your backyard, you should already have a rough idea of the materials, cost and time that would be required to make that happen. You want to go zip-lining through the jungle, which jungle? Do they even have zip-lining there? Considering the specifics takes it one step closer to reality.

A lot of us have a lot of things we want to do (naturally) so how can we prioritize them all? A quick way to narrow down the importance of your list would be to first write down every goal you have, then narrow it down to your top 10, your top 5, your top 3 and then even your top 1. Forcing yourself to choose will quickly illuminate what goals are most crucial to you. However, generally speaking, the timelines on these goals will be much longer than your average daily or weekly to-do list. As such, remember that you, your priorities, desires and circumstances can and will change and evolve, so annual or semi-annual review of your list would be wise to make sure this list contains items you truly desire — and there's no harm in revising them should you feel differently.

Making a bucket list is one thing, but completing it is a much trickier challenge. Author and life coach, Bryan Falchuk is well aware of the struggle people have with kicking their bucket list. "Crossing items off your bucket list can be hard when you are overwhelmed by the swarm of demands you face every day", says Falchuk, "On the one hand, we can feel so overwhelmed by life that looking at anything else—even something positive like a Bucket List item—can only add to our anxiety. On the other end of the spectrum, the items on the list can seem so far out or so impossible that we basically never even try to achieve them."

However, Falchuk provides an answer to both these dilemmas. "The key is not to look at the list in its totality all at once. Doing so can make it crushingly large, or absurdly impossible. Pick one item on the list that you see a path to in the next 12-18 months, and focus on that. Think about the tactical steps you would need to take to have that experience, list them out, and schedule doing them."

Each of those tactical steps have smaller sub-goals that would make them possible. For example, say you want to eventually visit Paris. There are smaller goals required to make this happen (saving money, taking the time off of work, researching and booking). Those goals have actionable steps that, even if you want to visit Paris 10 years from now, you can begin to work on immediately — like trimming your budget or working more to build your trip fund, saving up your vacation days and scheduling time to research the best deals and things to do. "Breaking it down into components you can bite off on a daily basis", believes Falchuk, "will get you through the feeling of being overwhelmed or the feeling of it being too big to be real."

It's very easy to get a great head start on your bucket list and then let it collect dust in a drawer for the next decade, which is why you need to hold yourself accountable. One effective way to do this is by sharing it with friends — sharing and discussing your goals with others can create a greater sense of commitment and scheduling regular check-ins with your friends and their lists will let you give each other a boost to keep pushing on your journey.

As nice as it is to share your list with your friends, it's important to not get wrongly influenced by them or any noise online while making your list. Reading this may make going to Paris or zip-lining through the jungle seem like good ideas right now, but you want to choose goals that are authentic to you. While it's fine to research and gather inspiration (like making a Pinterest board), scrutinizing these goals and asking if they're reflective of you rather than just something that seems like a cool idea will get you closer to what your heart actually desires.

It may also help to lower your bar strategically and create a few short-term, easier-to-achieve goals to get you in the habit of goal-setting and achieving as you tackle the bigger ones. If you can't handle your weekly goals, how can you tackle the yearly ones?

Before you grab your bucket and head to Paris, there is a caveat; a misused bucket list can actually have the opposite effect. A study published in 2014 concluded that those who have unique, highly-rated experiences can actually feel ultimately worse compared to those who have had more common, average experiences (possibly due to alienation and being the subject of envy). Life coach Tony A. Gaskins Jr. cautions that "we should only approach life with a "deathbed mentality" in moderation. It's not always healthy to live every day as if it was your last." Which is why it's all the more important to nail down what we hope to get from these goals (emotionally) and realize that, as great as Paris will be, pinning our happiness and quality of life on one experience is a recipe for unfulfillment. A good bucket list is only part of a great life, not the entirety. But, used properly, it's a great tool to keep your daily life motivated and on track to achieve those exceptional goals you've always desired.