The surprising truth about bucket lists

Why bucket lists are useless

I started thinking about bucket lists last year, shortly after turning 29.

You see, I’ve never had a bucket list before, but the idea of turning 30 frightens me. That’s why I thought about creating my first ever bucket list. I figured it was finally time to figure out the things I wanted to do when I grow up.

I’ve researched about bucket lists, and after contemplating about this topic, I’ve come to a surprising conclusion.

Bucket lists are pointless. You don’t need them. And in fact, bucket lists can hinder you from achieving success.

Your goals are too big!

The first reason bucket lists are useless has to do with goal setting. Let me explain. When I first attempted putting together a bucket list, I wanted to look at some examples. So naturally, I did what any logical person would do today: I Googled “bucket list examples.” I came across Pinterest boards with amazing photography. I found blogs with wonderful, heart-warming photos.

One thing immediately became clear as I was looking at these examples: my bucket list needed to include very big goals. Things like: swimming with dolphins. Dinner with the Obamas. Skydiving. These are the type of things people put on their bucket lists. Bucket lists, by definition, are grandiose. And bucket lists are not pragmatic. That’s why you don’t see people adding “get a real job” to their lists. That type of goal doesn’t fit into a bucket list.

So why is this a problem?

Executive coaches Senia Maymin and Margaret Greenberg, authors of Profit from the Positive, recently did a study that shows why big, long-term dreams go nowhere. For their study, they divided students into three groups. One group was asked to visualize the good study habits that could lead to a good grade. Another group visualized 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 researchers’ conclusion: Turning goals into actionable habits decreases anxiety and increased planning. Success, in short, is not about focusing on the end goal—it’s more about the process.

This study helps explain why the inherent scale of the items in your bucket list is problematic. Because they are big dreams, they also seem unattainable and on a subconscious level, they might discourage you from taking action. Bucket lists could backfire when they seem so out of reach that they dissuade you from making them a reality.

What’s your deadline?

A second problem with bucket lists has to do with deadlines. You’ve heard it before: goals need to be S.M.A.R.T: They need to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. The last criterion is where most bucket lists fail.

By definition, the deadline for your bucket list is your date of death. Remember: These are things you want to accomplish before you die. But how many of us actually know when we’re going to die? I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have that information. Bucket lists are not tied to a specific date.

If you want to achieve something, it’s crucial that you have a date in mind when you want to make that happen. But because bucket lists are not tied to a specific deadline, they can in fact encourage us to push things off and to procrastinate.

If bucket lists are problematic, then what’s a better option?

Studies show that breaking down your long-term goals into short-term, attainable goals is more effective. For instance, if you want to go to Greece someday for a dream vacation (something I totally want to do), then you need set a date when you want to do that. You also need to figure out how you’re going to pay for that trip. That means you need to find a second job or get a promotion and a raise soon. That means you should talk to your boss about getting that promotion, or you should start enhancing your LinkedIn account so you can start applying for jobs. This kind of goal setting is a lot more actionable—and therefore a lot more encouraging.

If you already have a bucket list, I encourage you to have a second look at your list and think about the smaller achievements you need to accomplish to make your ambitious dreams happen. If you don’t have a bucket list, start thinking about the goals that you want to work on in the next year or so that will lead to bigger things.

Having big dreams at any age—even past 30, I’m assuming—is fine, but let’s just not forget about the steps we need to go through to make those grandiose plans happen.

© 2014, KC Claveria. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to

Want more marketing content like this one?

Subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter to receive exclusive news and insights

* indicates required
  • Adelina W

    I have a bucket list – sort of. It’s a list of things I’d like to do at some point, but I’m realistic in knowing I probably won’t be able to do all of them. I’ve scratched off a lot on it though (and then promptly made another one ha!) I definitely have smaller lists of things that relate to that bigger goal to accomplish each year. It’s like having a 5 year plan, 1 year plan and then quarterly plan but instead of for business, it’s for my life. Hmm.. time to get on it. Let’s go to Greece!