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The rise of the bucket list

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The rise of the bucket list

Originally a list to tick off before you kick the proverbial bucket, the bucket list has since become a great motivational tool to help people live life to the fullest and pursue their dreams. Julie Penfold (@Julie_Penfold) looks at how the bucket list went from film title to phenomenon, and we ask you to share your retirement bucket list ideas.

  • The galvanising effects of list-making
  • Why the bucket list is a celebration of life
  • Share your retirement bucket-list ideas
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From film title to phenomenon

In the 2007 film The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman create a list of everything they want to see and do before they kick the bucket. [1] Bucket lists have been on our radars ever since, even entering the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2012 – along with such vocabulary mainstays as ‘cloud computing’, ‘craft beer’, ‘man cave’ and ‘life coach’ (a word that makes an appearance late on in this article). [2]

But since then, there’s been a real shift in how bucket lists are used. Now, people are creating bucket lists to help them celebrate life. [3] Bucket lists have shrugged off their morbid origins and now people are creating bucket lists of what they want to do before they turn 40, before they get married or even during their retirement. [4]

At the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, for example, President Barack Obama told attendees about the time his advisor asked him if he had a bucket list for his final term in office. ‘Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list,’ he quipped. [5]

There are even whole communities based around ticking off our bucket lists, such as and Bucketlistly, and there are dozens of mobile apps called variations of ‘bucket list’ designed to help you manage your time using to-do lists.

‘Motivating bucket-list goals ignite our zest for life and help us push ourselves to new self-defined highs,’ explains psychologist Roxana Rudzik-Shaw (@RRS_consultancy). ‘Creating a bucket list and making and ticking off goals inspires us to live and not just exist.’

Tick off a list to get a little lift

The ‘bucket’ may seem like the important object, as it’s the motivation that drives you forward – but the ‘list’ is actually just as (if not more) crucial. Writing down what you want to achieve helps you to find clarity and creates momentum to drive you towards achieving your goals.

‘Making a list in your head, instead of on paper, is one of the easiest routes to unnecessary anxiety, forgetfulness and lack of focus,’ says Graham Allcott, productivity expert and founder of Think Productive. ‘Keeping great lists on paper allows your brain to focus on creativity, problem-solving and making the best choices about your priorities.’

Don’t fixate on what’s unfinished; focus on the future

Looking ahead to key life events and considering how your life will change can be daunting. Psychologists, for example, talk of the ‘Zeigarnik effect’: the mental effects of goals left uncompleted and how this fixation can make you feel unfulfilled. Bucket lists can help to harness the enjoyment that comes with planning and looking forward to what the future holds.

In a 2011 study, psychologists E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister discovered that planning effectively towards your goals on paper could help you ‘eliminate thoughts of unfulfilled goals (akin to Zeigarnik intrusions) and their side effects’ – how better to do this than with a bucket list? [6] And the benefits don’t stop there.

‘The benefits of a list include developing a can-do mindset, boosting confidence and helping you to be mindfully active,’ observes Roxana.

Put down your priorities on paper

One key life event that calls out for a bucket list is retirement.

‘When it comes to retirement and general financial planning – lists are essential,’ says financial expert Annie Shaw (@CashQuestions). ‘You can make a list of retirement goals such as moving house, spending more time on a hobby or travelling. Decide which goals are more important to you and prioritise them.

‘When you are making your list of retirement and financial priorities, start with what you want to do with your newfound time – although financial planning is a serious business, it should never exclude enjoying life.’

A bucket list can also help you to get excited about how you will spend your time during your retirement.

‘Recognising the kind of retirement you want can help you to look forward to having more free time, whether you are taking advantage of your local gym’s senior membership, attending U3A [University of the Third Age] courses or playing golf more regularly,’ says life coach (another 2012 dictionary addition) Eve Menezes Cunningham (@WellbeingEve).

‘If you have friends of a similar age, you can support each other by sharing your bucket lists and keeping each other accountable,’ adds Eve.


Lists in all their guises, but especially bucket lists, help us to work out exactly what matters most to us, at whatever stage of life we are at. Why not share your #bucketlistideas with us on Twitter to tell us what you would love to do during your retirement.

Julie Penfold (@Julie_Penfold) is a freelance who specialises in health and wellbeing.

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