How a bucket list can help you

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – CS Lewis

The term “bucket list” was made popular by a 2007 movie featuring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. The film is about two men with cancer who take a road trip to accomplish all of the things on their bucket list – all of the experiences they wished to have – before they die.

Bucket lists  - Taj Mahal - India

While their bucket lists contained things like seeing the Taj Mahal and hiking the Himalayas, not every list needs to be so extensive.

As University of Wisconsin-Madison Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD explains, a bucket list is simply a way of listening to what you really want in life.

Finding what’s meaningful to you

“It gives you a sense of direction of what you really want, so that there are no “what ifs” at the end of your life,” she says. “It is easy to get distracted by the day-to-day stresses – work, finances, interpersonal relationships – and the expectations of others. Sometimes you forget what you truly want in life.”

Being distracted by others’ expectations is a common challenge. After a career of caring for patients at the end stages of life, an Australian palliative care nurse found that the most common wish shared by nearly all of her patients was the wish to have the courage to live the life they wanted, not what others expected. And that’s where a bucket list can make a meaningful difference.

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How a bucket list can help youHaving a bucket list helps keep you focused on what you truly want in life. The activities on the list may seem silly or unrealistic to others, but what matters is that the items are important to you.

The activities on the list can include something dramatic – climbing a mountain, skydiving, visiting a far-off location. It can be something meaningful – learning to play an instrument, taking a pottery class. The list can contain a mix of professional goals as well – be self-employed, become a better public speaker, be manager by the time you’re 45. And it can be wishful – owning a boat, retiring by the age of 55.

Developing the list can also help bring into focus items that you didn’t even realize were important or missing.

“Bucket lists can be really helpful when you find yourself at a crossroads in life, or to mark a milestone birthday,” says Mirgain. “When we listen to our own hearts, we can discover amazing things.”

Starting a bucket list

To start, make a list of all the places and things you want to do and the goals, experiences and desires you want to accomplish. Some experts suggest focusing on the question, “If you only had a year left, what would you want to do?”

If you are struggling to come up with items, consider a few questions when forming your bucket list:
  1. What are your dreams in life?
  2. What experiences do you want to be a part of?
  3. If you had unlimited resources (time, money, etc.) what would you do?
  4. Are there any skills you’ve always wanted to learn?
  5. Any places you’ve always wanted to visit?
  6. What can you do to help your community?
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And remember not to talk yourself out of items because they don’t seem practical or achievable. The point is to identify what matters to you, not anyone else.

Refer back to your bucket list

Once you’ve created the list, post the list where you can see it every day.

“The goal of creating the list is to actually try and accomplish the items on it,” says Mirgain. “Post it in a visible place, tell trusted friends, the more you make the list known, the more you can stay focused on figuring out a way to accomplish the items.”

Start planning how to take action right away. Focus on one task at a time, and try to break larger items down into smaller tasks. You may have to save money, or wait until you reach a different phase in life (the kids are grown), but make a plan for how you are going to accomplish the tasks.

“If you want it badly enough, the whole world will be conspiring to help you achieve it, it just may take some time for the opportunity to manifest,” reminds Mirgain. “Keep affirming your commitment to make it happen.”

As you accomplish items on your list, take time to reflect on what you’ve done and how you’ve grown from it: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Keep in mind the list is meant to be fluid and can be changed throughout your life. It is about your personal fulfillment and a reminder not to let life pass you by.

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