“You have to have a bucket list” ……. go skydiving, run the Great Wall of China and swim with sharks all in the same day! It’s “The Bucket list” – a list of goals, dreams and life experiences to fulfil before death – how morbid! Where did this come from and why do so many have one? The roar of the Celtic tiger seemed to be followed by the phrase “Oh, that’s on my bucket list”. So where are these lists written, where are they recorded? Are they commitments made at times of overindulgence to be lost forever once sobriety returns? The phrase “bucket list” is thought to be the concept of screenwriter Justin Zackham, who made a list of things he wanted to do before he died. In 2007, this “bucket list” idea became the title of a film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman – in which two old men with terminal cancer want to live out their wildest dreams before they die. The bucket list has now filtered down to everyday use by perfectly healthy people who are thinking about their death and what they want to achieve before “kicking the bucket” – the goal is to tick everything off. The rise in popularity of bucket lists really is not surprising, particularly in this social media generation who tend to treat our Facebook, twitter and snapchat feeds as a shop window for our achievement-rich lives.
“I will run a marathon” is a mainstay of many bucket lists. But this is one goal that most will fail to tick off. Every October Back holiday Monday, so many people look on enviously at the runners making their way around the streets and suburbs of Dublin during the marathon. They commit the completion of the Dublin marathon to their “Bucket List”. And there it will loiter until next year when it is again put on the list ………. because adding more realistic options, like going for a daily run to your bucket list doesn’t fit the criteria – It has to be a BIG target! This is why bucket lists are pointless. Bucket lists by their nature are aspirational rather than pragmatic and are destined to fail. This is supported by research; students were divided into three groups – One group was asked to visualize the good study habits that could lead to a good test result. Another group envisaged the outcome of a good grade. The third group visualised both. Guess which group did the best on their exam? It’s the one that visualized the good study habits. The most successful group focussed on the process rather than the outcome(Pham & Taylor, 1999). Why did habits outperform both outcome and habits/outcome? Turning goals into habits makes them more achievable and actionable. It breaks the training needed for a marathon into small digestible chunks and decreases anxiety and stress. Achievement is not about focusing on the end goal—it’s more about the process (Wood & Neal, 2007).
Forget long-term goal setting, develop good habits instead. So rather than focus on the potential of achievement of completing a marathon and using your eventual death as motivation to enter one, focus on the journey. The race itself is just the finish line, so get there through action and not just aspiration.
Pham LB & Taylor SE. (1999). From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25, 250-260.
Wood W & Neal DT. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychol Rev 114, 843-863.