Empty the Bucket


ly in a hot air balloon. Go skydiving. Break a world record. Swim with sharks. Visit every country in the world. These activities all sound pretty amazing, but their appeal is lost when they become nothing more than simple boxes to be checked.

Bucket lists are a common way for people to keep track of activities — usually specific, adventurous activities — that they want to do at some point in their lives. It comes from the expression “to kick the bucket,” but bucket lists don’t just have to be things you want to do before you die. They can also be for more specific time periods. Summer bucket lists and high school bucket lists are both popular, and many Andover students keep bucket lists specific to their time at our school.

I’ve kept bucket lists my whole life, and I’m still guilty of keeping them. But the more I think about it, the more faults I find with this system of logging activities. A bucket list is essentially a collection of tasks used to measure our adventurousness and spontaneity, an inherent contradiction. More importantly, it often leads us to overlook the interim between each activity. No matter how mundane, our ordinary lives are often just as meaningful as our bucket list objectives.

The items on bucket lists are not as meaningful as we expect them to be. Although meaningful experiences can include planned events, such as trips, concerts, and parties, most of the significant experiences in our lives turn out to be the most unexpected moments. Since bucket lists usually include highly specific and outlandish things, they require a lot of planning. Thus, these moments tend to be planned and anticipated more than they are actually enjoyed.

Striving to check off boxes on a bucket list also creates stress and unintentional competition. Lists are for chores and groceries — not for fun activities. If we conflate fun with tasks that need to be completed, we can’t enjoy our lives. Instead, we always think ahead to the next goal, completing one then chasing after another. I have written several summer bucket lists, but whenever I do, I find myself stressing out about completing each activity before school starts rather than enjoying my summer. Bucket lists can also make us feel competitive with others, as if the number of items we have completed makes us more or less interesting people. As psychologist Christopher Peterson wrote in a Psychology Today article, “A hypothetical question: How many items on a typical bucket list would be deleted if someone were not allowed to talk about them to others? A likely answer: Many of them.”

Crossing off items on a bucket list isn’t like crossing off items on a grocery list. You can usually find what you need in a grocery store, and with sufficient planning, everything on the list can be found. The chances of completing every single activity on a bucket list are slim. When we write specific, detailed bucket lists, we set ourselves up for disappointment when at least a few of our wishes do not happen. It is better to take opportunities as they come rather than thinking of specific things to do now, because we can’t do everything.

Getting rid of bucket lists is much easier said than done. It’s perfectly understandable to covet certain experiences. But by dumping the bucket lists, you are making a decision to generally be more spontaneous and to say “yes” more. When an opportunity to leave your comfort zone arises, you’re less likely to write it off. Instead of bucket lists, try writing a list of exciting things after you do them so that you can look back on them later. This way, we can have our exciting activities and still live our lives in between. Rather than mapping out our life experiences with lists, let’s embrace them as they come.