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The Motivational Power of a Bucket List

Stop! I hear you saying – surely a bucket list is just a glorified wish list and not a tool for transformation? Well, hear me out on this, because I intend to demonstrate that such a view might just be completely wrong. 

Why do lists matter?

It is well documented that lists are a powerful tool in achieving success. Psychologists widely agree that writing lists helps us to organise our thoughts, set objectives and develop strategies to make our goals into reality. 

Richard Branson is a massive advocate of to-do lists and claims that they are one of the keys to his success – as he explains in this brilliant blog post about his 1972 to-do list, pictured below.

According to Branson, “Lists not only provide great structure for getting things done, but they also help us to set goals and achieve our dreams,” 

With this in mind, it becomes much clearer just how powerful a bucket list can be as a tool for self-improvement and transformation.

Why is it even called a bucket list?

Interestingly, when I recently asked a group of coachees this simple question, nobody actually had the answer – and if you haven’t already figured that one out, you’ll ‘kick’ yourself when you do (did you catch the clue there?). Quite simply, a bucket list is a list of things to do before you kick the bucket.

For those readers less familiar with the English language, To kick the bucket is an English idiom, considered a euphemistic, informal, or slang term, meaning ‘to die’.

What can I put on my bucket list?

The short answer – everything you want! And that is not intended to be a reference to the famous line from Full Metal Jacket (see here if you are unfortunate enough to have missed out on this iconic film). That said, there is a point to be made seeming the matter arises.

Your personal bucket list can indeed have everything you want. It can be as hedonistic, outrageous, irresponsible, immoral, illegal and outright dangerous as you wish. But let’s be honest here, if you have deeper intentions and the aim of your bucket list is to achieve personal transformation, then you probably want to be looking at filling it with more meaningful experiences, at least some of which will hopefully provoke some soul searching and perhaps allow you an opportunity to explore your spirituality.

Should my bucket list have time limits?

By its very nature, a bucket list is time bound! 

But simply using your unknown expiry date as the deadline for completion of a given list of tasks really doesn’t help to make it achievable. Personally, I like to break my personal bucket list into a couple of categories – things I believe are possible within a given twelve-eighteen month period (the quick wins), and things which would require substantially more planning and preparation and are for the longer term.

So for example, my 2018 – 2019 bucket list items included:

– Run the London Marathon (which almost happened until a hernia repair stopped play)

– Get fitter (vague, admittedly, but ultimately, all that matters is how you feel about your body, and your bucket list really doesn’t need to follow SMART goals).

These particular examples are both quite closely related, and actually have far greater significance if achieved than simply ticking the ‘I did it’ box. They offer a range of benefits in terms of both health and the wider achievement that goes with accomplishing them – and it is exactly this kind of goal that can truly motivate you to become an even better version of yourself.

Other items on my list that have not yet been allocated a completion time include

– Complete the three peaks challenge (realistically possible)

– Summit Everest (slightly more adventurous)

– Spend a week in a silent monastery retreat in India (viable – pre-Covid. One to shelve for the future)

– Give a TED talk (once I come up with something worthy of talking about)

There is, of course, no reason that you can’t have some items on there that are purely for self-gratification – but I’d suggest you try not to choose items that are essentially self-destructive, as whilst it may be satisfying to achieve them in the short term, you may come to regret them on reflection.

I do highly recommend watching the fantastic film ‘The Bucket List’ (Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, 2007) which illustrates the point superbly.

Some healthy bucket list suggestions for personal transformation

  • Swim with dolphins
  • Bathe an elephant
  • Teach English Abroad for a month / year
  • Start a fire without matches 
  • Watch the sunrise and sunset in one day
  • Have a meaningful conversation with a stranger
  • Write a book
  • Learn to dance
  • Learn to play an instrument
  • Build a successful business
  • Extract honey from a beehive
  • Volunteer for a cause you believe in

On a final note, remember that your bucket list should be dynamic – it is completely OK to remove things that once seemed important to you and don’t any longer, which is a natural effect of the process of transformation. It is equally OK to add new items as you complete existing ones, or simply as they inspire you.

Creating a healthy, constantly evolving bucket list is a great way to motivate you in both the long and short term and encourage you to seek truly transformational experiences.

Jan Longshadow
I am a coach, mentor, author and radio presenter with a passion for positivity. I founded in 2016.

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