How to Live your Bucket List

By: Shelley Seale
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In the 2007 movie The Bucket List, Morgan Freeman’s character mentions a survey that asked a thousand people if they would want to know in advance the exact day of their death. 96 percent of them said no. “My freshman philosophy professor assigned this exercise and called it a bucket list,” says Carter, played by Freeman. “We were supposed to make a list of all the things we wanted to do in our lives before we kicked the bucket.”

He and Edward (Jack Nicholson), two terminally ill men, set out to cross off all the items on their bucket lists together. They skydive, they race cars, they visit the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal; they also complete more serious missions, such as reuniting Edward with his estranged daughter and grandchild. The point of the film is that these men are not going to die without having really lived.

We all have a bucket list. It might be an actual written list, perhaps that you’ve kept and added to for years. It might be in an Excel spreadsheet, or it might just be in your head. But I’m sure it’s there. How many things have you crossed off?

It’s never too late to begin living your bucket list, and never too early to start. For the most part, a lot of us go through life just getting from one task to the next, planning dinner or the next day, repeating the same mistakes or bad habits, sort of drifting through life without being really cognizant of the life we are creating. As John Lennon famously remarked, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

And so days pass, unheralded. Months and then years slowly trickle by, and we realize that we haven’t done so many of the things we wanted to do. We are getting older, and still we have not lived.

I don’t want life to be that way, and I suspect neither do you.

If you have things you’ve always wanted to do but have somehow never gotten around to, this article will help you get started.

Often times, the problem is that we set too many goals at once, says Gail McMeekin, LICSW, a licensed psychotherapist and national executive, career, and creativity coach. Of course the very essence of a bucket list is that it usually contains a number of things concurrently, sometimes dozens of life fulfillment goals. But they don’t all have to be done at once.

McMeekin says that we need to allow for experimentation until we find the right action plan for our goals. “We have to find the passion for our goal and the right kind of structure and support, or we will be starting over again in 2013 with the same goals.”


Select a Set Number of Goals per Year

I think McMeekin is right on about passion, and likely that is the communal thread among all your bucket list items. You might try choosing a certain number of goals to complete each year; how many will really depend on the types of goals they are. Smaller, simpler things may allow for ten in a year; larger, long-term goals such as learning to play an instrument or speak a language may be more realistic if you choose only two or three for the year.

It’s also okay to let things go from your bucket list. McMeekin suggests asking yourself what incompletes in your life bother you. Is it that half-finished song or book you have been writing for five years? Is it selling stuff you no longer need in your life? “Release all the other ideas or projects that you are not longer ‘into,’” she says, “like the scrapbook project that bores you now, the scarf you are knitting but you don’t really like the colors, or the career that you have never liked that you stay with out of fear. It’s decision time. Let go of things or embrace them as a priority. It will free up lots of new creative energy.”


Prioritize your Goals

Another successful strategy is to rate your bucket list items in order of what are most urgent and most dear to your heart. “What are three top life experiences that you want to have this year?” McMeekin asks.

Personally, I use a one to three scale, putting a “1” by each goal that is of most importance to me, “2” by the next highest-rated and “3” next to the tertiary goals. This helps to prioritize which goals you want to concentrate on first. You can also prioritize by which ones are more do-able at present; like with any goal-setting, knocking out the things that are easiest first helps you fulfill more of them, while imparting a sense of accomplishment.

Be as detailed as possible, and commit to them by scheduling them to happen, suggests McMeekin. Put them right on your calendar, or make arrangements for those things that require outside planning such as a trip or flight lessons. Then make a note of all the prep work you can begin doing now to make it happen, such as setting up a savings plan or buying tickets.

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Make a Strategy

McMeekin suggests that you write a brief description of your “Future Self” as you see yourself in a visualization. “What are the guiding lessons from your internal mentor for you to follow up on this year? How can you begin to be that person today? Set some daily affirmations to remind you of who you really want to be.”

I embarked on a number of my bucket list goals in 2011, and my strategy was to concentrate on one of them per month. I came up with a project I called “30 Days at a Time,” and committed to spend thirty days fully embracing different goals I had. Most people agree that it takes somewhere between 21 and 30 days to ingrain a new habit into your life, and I wanted to integrate several things into my life as well as give myself some challenges. It was my year of living consciously. All in all, I completed ten 30-day challenges – there weren’t a total of 12 because I usually paused for about a week in between the challenges. (See the sidebar for Shelley’s 30-Day project bucket list).


Make it Public

It’s human nature – the minute we tell someone else our plans, they somehow become more real. It’s a lot easier to let that diet or workout routine or savings plan slide when no one else knows you’re doing it. Like marriage vows, making it public is declaring your intentions to the world, and it also enlists the encouragement and support of those around you.

With my 30 Days at a Time project, I decided to blog about it. At, I shared my journey as I set about fulfilling my goals. It really helped, because I honestly think that many times I may have given up early or been tempted to not stick with a project, if I didn’t know that people were watching and reading about what I was doing. The encouragement I received was also a big boost, and several other people wrote that it inspired them to start their own challenges.

“You deserve to have the life that you want,” McMeekin encourages. “Don’t put everything off, as we have no idea how much time we have or what are circumstances will be.”

As Carter advises in The Bucket List, “Find the joy in your life.” After all, that’s what the list is all about.

Gail McMeekin is the author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Successful Women and The 12 Secrets of the Highly Creative Women Journal both with RedWheelWeiserConari Press and she can be reached at


Sidebar 1 – Shelley’s Top 5 Places to See Before you Die

  • Statue of Liberty, New York: Say what you will about the cheesy factor; there is something spine-tingling about what this has represented to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
  • Angkor Wat, Cambodia: This complex with dozens of magical, mysterious ruins from the ancient Khmer kingdom never fails to enchant.
  • Taj Mahal, India: The ultimate monument to love, the Taj is most beautifully gazed upon from across the river. I love this place so much I’ve been three times.
  • La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona: In comparison with hundreds of other churches I have been in, this is unfinished Gaudi masterpiece is the most spectacular.

Machu Picchu, Peru: The ultimate trek; this one is still on my bucket list, and I aim to go there by 2013.


Sidebar 2 – Shelley’s Picks for Top 5 Austin Bucket List

  1. Catch a live music act at Antone’s or Austin City Limits.
  2. Spend a summer day at Barton Springs and Zilker Park.
  3. Stroll South Congress on First Thursday.
  4. Explore the funky, creative East side on the East Austin Studio Tour.
  5. Watch the sun set from Mount Bonnell with a bottle of wine.