My Problem With Bucket Lists

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“Oh, I’m putting that on my bucket list!”  I hear this all the time — from readers, from family members, from other travel bloggers.  Each time, I’m thrilled to hear that someone has been inspired enough to dream of traveling there someday.

But at the same time, I’m a bit apprehensive.  Why?  Because I know that to many people, a bucket list might as well be a Pinterest board — a collection of pretty things that you say you want to do but don’t intend on ever making happen.

My problem?

If your deadline is death — you’re not making it a priority.

I’ve written about prioritizing travel before — how the reason that most people don’t travel as much as they’d like is because they don’t prioritize it.  They dream about travel — but they spend money on nights out with friends, or having an apartment in the best part of town, or going to dozens of pricey concerts a year.

Again — I don’t expect anyone to travel as much as I do, nor do I think that most people should.  If you’re happy with your current life, please continue what you’re doing!

But I do believe that if you want to travel and aren’t prioritizing it, you need to make it a priority.

I do know people who actively work on their bucket lists — my aunt and uncle are a great example, checking off their goal of camping in 48 states and adding new adventures all the time.  Still, most of the people I know who not only make a bucket list but actively chip away at it are either travel bloggers (and we really don’t represent the general population!) or people who have retired.

Why not now?

It’s not just that you could die young, although that’s a very realistic possibility.  You could be hit by a debilitating disease, or have a severely disabled child or spouse.  This could happen to any of us at anytime.  All we can do is grit our teeth, hope for the best, and live in a sense of denial.

The point?  Make your travel dreams come true while you can.

The Travel Priorities Challenge

Readers, I’d like you to join me in a challenge.  Make a list of around 5-10 of your travel priorities.  Make these items you’ve always dreamed of — diving the Great Barrier Reef, hiking to Machu Picchu, riding in a gondola in Venice, or going on an epic bike trip down the west coast (as two of my friends, Matt and Ryan, are doing now!).

The challenge is to find items that genuinely appeal to you and your personal brand of wanderlust.  Don’t put “See the Pyramids” or “Explore the Galapagos Islands” on your list because you think you should include them — only add them if you really, really want to experience them.

Two years from now, I want you to have achieved one of the items on that list.  It may seem daunting, but two years is a long time.  Enough time to save quite a bit of money, plan for the time off from work, and go.

So I’m going to create a Travel Priorities List, and instead of filling it with everything under the sun, I’m going to prioritize the things that mean the most to me.

  • Walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  I’ve wanted to walk this nearly 800-kilometer journey across northern Spain for years and years, and I was thinking about doing it this September (until September booked up with not one but two travel blogger conferences).  My friends who have done the Camino tell me that it changes your life.
  • Research my family’s roots and visit one of their hometowns in Europe.  I have a few different options, but I’d most like to go to the village in eastern Sicily from where my mother’s grandfather immigrated.
  • Experience the beauty of New Zealand.  Beautiful places inspire me, and from what I’ve heard about New Zealand, nowhere else in the world comes close.  I dream of the opportunity to photograph these islands.
  • Successfully drive a motorbike or scooter through an extremely challenging city.  So far, that seems to be in either Saigon or Hanoi, Vietnam, but I’ll gladly add Rome, Naples, or any city in southern Italy!
  • Travel solo through Myanmar.  I hear that Myanmar (Burma) today is the way the rest of Southeast Asia was 20 years ago — and I’d relish the challenge of diving headfirst into a country where you can’t rely on ATMs, internet, or even electricity.
  • Cruise through the Arctic.  Antarctica may get all the wistful attention, and I do want to go there, but I’ve got my eyes set on the Arctic — polar bears, icebergs, and the absolute remoteness of places like Svalbard and Greenland.
  • Go somewhere that makes people scream, “Are you crazy?!” and show them what a nice place it is.  Some people thought Jordan was crazy.  Hell, some people thought Cambodia was crazy.  But I think people would freak out considerably more if I went to Iran, a country about which I’ve heard absolutely wonderful things.

Do I have plans to visit any of these places?  Nope, not unless you think Iceland is crazy.  But I love this list.  Because it’s pared down to the things that mean the most to me, it looks a lot more achievable.

That’s exactly what I want for you — to turn your travel dreams into achievable goals.

You can do this.  I know you can.

What’s going to be your biggest travel priority for the next two years?

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137 thoughts on “My Problem With Bucket Lists”

  1. Definitely agree with your status re: bucket lists: I like to call mine a “pre-marriage” bucket list since it’s pretty much everything I want to do on my own before I have any reason to compromise. It’s way too hard to put things off if you don’t want to do them until you die–that’s so far away, it’s hard to conceptualize it seems. Love everything on your list–I think you’d love exploring New Zealand! I would love to get back, I was only there for a long weekend but it was absolutely stunning and the people were incredible.

  2. I love this post! It’s very positive realistic and so true… I was thinking about making a bucketlist myself last week, but after 2 countries I was already questionning myself in what’s the use of such a list.
    It’s good to have several “wow” places where you want to go, but it’s even better to have several “wow” places where you’ve already been! That’s what really counts after all.

    1. I agree with having having “wow” places you’ve already been! I actually keep a “reverse bucket list” – or, a list of places or things I am proud to have done/seen. Everytime I look at that list I feel more motiviated to add to it, and get pumped about planning my next adventure, instead of making a long list of things that, once written, seems overwhelming an unattainable!

      But definitely agree that having a timeline or deadline is good motivation to get things to happen! Get out there and get exploring!

  3. I’m with you on the bucket list concept – it’s all a bit too vague and you can easily never get round to actually organising to do those things. The ‘xx before xx’ style lists at least have a time limit to spur you on – I’ve got a ’40 before 40′ travel experience list but with 6 years still to go it’s easy to put them off til later, so will give your priorities list idea a go and get planning a few now!

  4. I love this post. I think some people will talk about travel and where they would like to go forever and ever. Sometimes you just have to make it happen if its important to you.
    Here is my list: Take the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to China, Hike to Everest base Camp, Take a Road Trip Through Ireland. And now, thanks to you I’m adding Walk the Camino de Santiago 🙂

  5. For me, the life list or bucket list or whatever you want to call it is a way to get myself to experience things that are outside my comfort zone. I realllllyyyy hate needles and wanted to donate blood to get myself over it. I also have a fear of heights and decided bungy jumping was the way to overcome it. I don’t think making these lists is necessarily bad, but if you never plan on doing anything about it, it’s just depressing.

  6. You definitely hit on one really important thing–that many people just write things down on a list that they’re *supposed* to want to do. That’s a quick way to get disenfranchised with the world.

    If you just put “See the Eiffel Tower” on the bucket list JUST because it’s a famous landmark, you’ll see it and recognize that it’s just like the pictures. If you do it because it means something, you’re getting closer to the real purpose of bucket lists–to be fulfilled by various life experiences.

  7. I actually like having a bucket list – but I guess like you said, as a travel blogger I don’t represent the average bucket list kind of person. I DO cross off items from it every other month, and for me, its not so much a list of things I dream of doing, but more of a way to keep up with all the possibilities I WILL take advantage of in the future. If I don’t keep a list, I might forget the best places 😉

  8. you may remember I’m moving to Myanmar in a couple of days….. let me know if you’re coming!!! apparently, there is a mobile network that is accessible from abroad, and functioning internet is not completely non-existent anymore….. who knows, maybe ATMs will be up and running soon??

    good luck with your list, really rooting for you 🙂

  9. I’m with you on this one! I refuse to make a bucket list for this reason precisely. It’s kind of the trendy thing to do these days.

  10. I do keep lists in my head of my must-do-soon destinations. So which of those thing will I do within the next two years? Well, on the top of that list is definitely Iran, although it won’t be for another year! Then there’s the road trip around Western USA with my boyfriend that I’ve been planning for next spring. And a full around Scotland trip (about time, I’d say)… the last 2 will have to be Jordan, Morocco and/or Lebanon, I think.

  11. I don’t mind bucket lists if it’s truly a list of goals you are actively working toward each day (otherwise they can be demotivating and have little meaning). I have friends who make new year’s resolutions but I don’t think this is effective – why do we have to wait until the New Year to decide how we’re going to improve ourselves? Make your dreams happen today!

  12. Central America is my next hit!

    I like bucket lists though. They’re fun, plus they help me remember that my life doesn’t have to end at the age of 30. Also, it’s so fun to compare bucket lists throughout the ages; I wrote my first one when I was 13 and it is HILARIOUS to look back on now. “Kiss a boy” HA!

    1. OMG. What would mine have been at 13?

      –Go to France.
      –Live in France.
      –Be fluent in French.
      –Get the lead role in a play.
      –Kiss a cute saxophone player.

  13. My spouse and I have been trying to answer this question for months, and we’ve decided that our biggest priority isn’t a place, it’s living more permanently in a foreign country. For us, the place is secondary to the experience of settling in a new place and joining a new community. For now, we’re off to Kenya for several months and will see what opportunities we can wrangle after that.

  14. So true Kate! I must admit I have that constant struggle within myself (and my very sensible partner) about whether money is better spent being put into a mortgage or travel. In the end, for me, the travel always wins hands down, but I find now I’m older I’m better with my money and I can do both. I’m off to Mexico next! I’ve wanted to go there for years and I’m finally at the booking stage.

  15. I love this! After my trip to South Africa I crossed off lots of “bucket list activities” like horseback riding on a secluded beach, learning to surf, going on a safari or driving a manual on the other side of the road. My lists always just included countries which like you said would be everywhere! I now have a bucket list of activities that can happen anywhere to make my travel more exciting and easier to cross off. So my upcoming trip includes bucket list activities like seeing a performance in an old European theater (ballet at the Hungarian State Opera House), going to a traditional bathhouse, or island hopping (in Croatia).

  16. Needless to say, I am a HUGE fan of bucket lists (or whatever else anyone wants to call their list of goals). The key for me is to actively pursue my dreams or any list I make is meaningless. I agree that it is important to prioritize your goals. But, it is also important for me to take opportunities when they present themselves, even when it is something that is not on my ‘priority’ list. Some of the most amazing experiences I have had is when I said “yes”, when fear was telling me to say “No”.

    I definitely hear so many people throw out the words “that’s on my bucket list”, but never take any steps towards achieving the goal. I always follow it up with, “what one step are you going to take today to get there?”

  17. I call mine a life list and include non-travel items on it.
    You are SO very right about setting dates. I have wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands since I was 25. When I decided I would do it before I turned 50, it got done….such an amazing trip!

  18. LOLKate! Semantics…I have a true bucket list – things I want to do before I die or get too old to pull off. I can’t do most right now as the priorities are spending time with my kids who live away from me at school and my husband does not have enough time to travel to my bucket list places like The Great Wall and Tokyo right now. I want to see those sights with him. Easier items on my list are in Europe – places near Paris that I can tick off quickly in the next two years in combination with my other travel. So you see, it can be both Bucket List and Life List travel that work for us travel addicted individuals.
    Always enjoy reading and podering what you write Kate!
    Happy travels!
    Cheers,
    Priscilla

  19. Great inspirational post Kate! Bucket Lists always seemed a bit depressing to me, what with the death aspect and all. I think a ‘things to do before I’m 30’ list not only removes the death element but also incites more urgency and encourages more action.

    1. My “bucket list” is also more like a “do before I’m 30” list. I’ve still got like 6 years left on it but I’m steadily working on it! I have big plans in the next 2 or 3 years to knock off quite a few things. Maybe I should say Do ABC before I’m 26, JKL before I’m 28 and XYZ before I’m 30 instead of ALL of the them before I’m 30. Hmm!

  20. Thank you for this. 🙂 It was just what I needed today. Huge changes are happening in my life right now and I’m finally free to focus on doing what it takes to make some of my dreams happen. I’m excited. 🙂

  21. I agree. If you’re going to have a bucket list, it needs to be a priority. If not, it will just build up, nothing will be ticked off and that can just get depressing. A list of goals is a great thing to have, but you have to be willing to try your best to achieve them.

  22. This is absolutely wonderful advice – I do have a “wanderlist” filled with lots of things, but, yes, I’m a travel blogger and I am actively chipping away at these dreams of mine. Travel is my top priority, as it is yours, but you’re totally right in saying that it isn’t everyone’s. I think that having 5 or 10 goals and trying to accomplish one of them is completely realistic and manageable. I’ll definitely be sharing this article!

  23. Right now I’ve got a 30 before 30 list and the beginnings of a life list. For the my 30 before 30, I put things that I know are achievable in the next 2+ years – and I’m finding that to be a great way to prioritize and make sure it all actually happens.
    In general, I prioritize for one big trip each year – I’m not any rush to do all the things in my life list, I know I’ve got time. Right now I’m planned out through 2015!

  24. I definitely agree with prioritising the things you want to achieve, rather than just saying ‘someday.’ My problem is that there are so many places and experiences I want to have! Travelling long term from next year will help to knock some off my list, including the most important to me – to travel long term!

  25. I love it! A big part of why I don’t have a bucket list is because it seems too big – how can I possibly know everything I want to do in my life, and what’s the point of declaring something “THE bucket list” if it doesn’t include all that? I think of things the way you do, in chunks. For the past year one of my big priorities has been getting to Cuba before it opens up, which is why I’m so excited to be going in September!

  26. Agreed. Another way is to go with the flow. Don’t build a list and prioritize only on the short term. Less expectations, more surprises! But don’t sit on your butt, move on!

  27. I like the idea of a two-year challenge. That’s a great way to give people who don’t usually travel or who have difficulty fulfilling their bucket list goals a specific goal to shoot for that doesn’t seem to unrealistic. I think a bigger question for me regarding the bucket list is the question of will I ever be satisfied? Will I ever have seen or done enough? I find myself crossing a few items off the list each year only to add a few more. It’s strange … as much as I love travel and experiencing other cultures, I still have this growing desire for me. Perhaps I’m truly addicted 😉

  28. Nice list, Kate! I agree that most people make bucket lists like Pinterest boards, and simply dream about them instead of taking action to make them happen. But not all people do! I have a bucket list on my site that I continually update – and that I continually cross things off of! Just last year I crossed 19 things off, and will be crossing off a bunch more this year.

    But, no matter how you look at it, my list is all about making travel a priority, too!

  29. Timely blog for us because we are travelling for at least 2 years.
    So this year we put 5 months into visiting places in Asia we hadn’t been, including Myanmar.
    We also wanted to see some big events so we are going to Wimbledon, Running of the Bulls, Tour de France and London Olympics.
    We were keen to see Morocco and Egypt, so they are on our list.
    We have never been on an ocean cruise so we have booked Dubai to Singapore.
    Home (Australia) for Christmas.
    Never been to South America so we will vist all of those countries in 2013.
    And after that……. not sure yet, quite possibly Africa and Nepal!

  30. Wonderful post, Kate! I know exactly what you mean about bucket lists – at least, bucket leasts where, as you put it, the “Deadline is death.”

    I’ve got a handful of items on my bucket list – African safari, swinging in a hammock drinking a cocktail on a tropical beach, and I’d love to be super cheesy and do the Warner Bros studio tour (Friends!) – that I hope to achieve before I’m 27, let alone 97!

    My main thing is hitting all the inhabited continents before I’m 30 (Antarctica has zilch appeal for me). Hopefully next year…

    I’ve heard amazing things about Iran, too, especially from Uncornered Market. Aaron from Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures is going to Iraq very soon. Worth keeping an eye on!

    1. “zilch appeal” — I love how you say that! That’s a phrase I need to adopt. I feel like that about a lot of places — much of Latin America (gasp!), for example.

  31. You have a really good point Kate. The problem is that I have way too many things on my bucket list and I’d probably need a lifetime to tick them all off. 🙂 But I guess to start off for the next two years my top ten is:
    1. Do the Inca Trail;
    2: trek to Ciudad Perdida;
    3: See the Angel Falls;
    4: Trek Torres del Paine;
    5: See the Petroglyphs of Pusharo;
    6: Climb Roraima;
    7: Trek to Choquequirau;
    8: See Uyuni Salt Flats;
    9: Climb Villarrica volcano;
    10: Cuddle a baby tiger in the Tiger Kingdom/Chinag Mai.

  32. Great list Kate and stoked you got little old NZ on there. We have a “bucket list” but definitely not in the traditional sense as it has loads of experiences we want to do rather than the generic stuff like you said. Problem is we never use it to check things off. Definitely need a priority list!

  33. Some of the best words of wisdom I’ve heard! I was just chatting with BackpackerBecki after I shared your post.

    I see it from both sides. Sure, creating a bucket list is an excellent way to map out goals and travels to make it tangible, but it will only become real once you start checking them off.

    I created one before I went to New Zealand, and it mainly consisted of things I had “stumbled upon” while at a desk dreaming of escape. Just a mass of Ooohs and Ahhs that I thought would be cool to see or do.

    Now that I have started traveling, I realized majority of the things on there won’t be accomplish because they don’t pluck a heart string with me, and the items I am adding now I will accomplish because I desire to, and relate to my travel goals.

    Make a bucket list, but make it count. Don’t follow the crowd. Add tangible notches and start knocking them off one by one. Don’t let it become “a silly idea you had once”.

    Thank you for this Kate!

  34. This is absolutely fantastic. And you are right, people seem to treat bucket lists as a collection of things they WISH they could do, but don’t think they ACTUALLY can. It’s almost as if it’s a list for someone else, which is why a universally accepted bucket list of things they are “supposed to want to do” is made. Internalize it. Follow your passions. Make it your own. Make it real.

    That’s not the only problem I have with bucket lists though. It’s the seemingly constant focus on the end which gets to me. We cross items off in our march toward the end rather than celebrating in the here and now our accomplishments. I wrote a little piece about this line of thinking here: http://thearchitectofadventure.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/when-is-a-bucket-not-a-bucket/

    I love your blog by the way 🙂 Hopefully our paths can cross during our travels.

    Cheers
    Josh

    1. “We cross items off in our march toward the end rather than celebrating in the here and now our accomplishments.”

      This statement is so true. If we really think about what fulfills us, is it a list of places we’ve been or things we’ve seen? Or is it the sense of being fully alive that we experience when we truly recognize that THIS moment is all we ever have? For me, it’s the latter.

      So, by all means, make a bucket list and check it twice. Set a date, make your plans, DO IT!! Just don’t get so focused on the end result that you miss out on the joy available to you now.

  35. Great thoughts, I also just prioritize places I would love to go, but also let other opportunities pop up as they may. That happened with Easter Island this year. I’d never considered going there, but when I realized we could add it cheaply to a southbound ticket on LAN we didn’t think twice, we just did it, and I’m so glad we did! I’d would also love to visit a town that my ancestors came from. I remember finding some old photos in my great grandmothers house from her relatives in Zelina, Slovakia. The notes on the back were in slovak so I didn’t understand who or what they were of–they made me so curious. Thanks for the reminder to make that a priority!

  36. Waw, such an opening-eye article. I used to make a bucket list and want to put that and this in those so-called bucket list and the pinterest board too. I even have a bucket list board on my pinterest and think about I def have to do this thing before I die. Just like you said, we never know when we gonna die, right?

    The next 2 years for me is to travel solo around Southeast Asia.
    thank you for your encouragement, Kate. 🙂

    regards from Indonesia

  37. Brilliant post! My husband and I always say that people shouldn’t say ‘one day’ because one day may never come. Our friends think we’re rich because we travel a lot but we just prioritise, as you say, and don’t buy the latest & greatest of everything…
    I love your list though; I make a list each year of places I will realistically visit…and just keep ticking them off!
    Thanks for the inspiration!
    Oh, and I have a friend travelling Iran at the moment. I told him he was crazy, but now I’m kinda jealous!

  38. I have a 100 item bucket list on my blog, and I mark each item off as I experience it. I’m a visual and list person, so it’s beneficial. I can see why some don’t like the death part associated with bucket lists. I particularly like it. Reminding me that I am going to die keeps me making the most of each day. I was born with the BRCA cancer gene, so that fate looms in the back of my mind all the time. It’s almost as if I travel with a sense of urgency. I never know when I’ll get the diagnosis. It may not work for everyone, but I started my blog and extensively travel as a result of my mother’s death from cancer. In her death, she taught me how to live.

    http://leahtravels.com/site/people/why-i-travel-a-dedication#more-302

    1. Death is a motivator for me as well Leah. Both my parents passed before I was an adult, and lived their lives drowning in bills and working day by day. They never visited another country.

      Like Steve Jobs said and a quote I live by about death, ‎”No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”

      1. Exactly, Ryan. We’ve talked a bit about our connection before. I love the Steve Jobs quote. I’m not sure that I’ve heard it previously. Such a wise man, that Mr. Jobs.

  39. Ooh Kate that is a great question. I travel a lot but never think about where I’d want to go bucket list-style. I’d say Mongolia and you are right, I should definitely start planning for it or at least give myself a deadline.

  40. Nice article Kate, it was very inspirational. You are on the money when referring to the good ole Bucket List. I’ve gotten to the point to where my bucket list has gotten so big that I no longer use it anymore….instead now I just kind of “go with the flow” and let destiny decide where I’m going! If the flight is to some off beaten country and it’s in my budget (depending where I’m at) then consider it booked and I’m going there! lol

  41. I like my bucket lists…and i don’t like it. Pretty much EVERYWHERE is on my bucket list, making it pretty unmanageable. My bucket list is great when I’m bored and trying to figure out where I want to go next. I play with airline routings to see how much it’ll cost me and if i can make it work.

  42. Great post Kate! I love it! and it’s so true!

    When I tell people about my travel dreams they all go like “yes we want to join you! whenever you’re actually doing one of those things we’ll definitely come along”…but no one actually shows up! why? because they have better things to spend money on…and when I’m done with my trip they say they are jealous and envy me for having the time and money to do it…ME?! I might have some time but definitely not the money, but I just save the little I could to actually cross items off my bucket list! I research alot on the cheapest way to do this or that, I look for free chances or cheap opportunities like volunteering and internships…and I even tell people about them, but they still wouldn’t want to spend those $500 on an internship, they’d rather party with it…and wait for heavens to send them another $5000 to party even harder for just 1 week in Ibiza 😛

    Another thing I have to comment on is that I love your bucket list! We have so many items in common 😀 Although I can proudly cross the Camino de Santiago off (or not…Someday I’ll definitely walk it again!! It’s not just a 1 time thing! I’ve met people that have walked it 7 times and still counting! :D) It is life changing as you’ve heard…and you’ll meet many great people (and many Germans:D)

    As the name of my blog suggests, Someday I’ll be There…wishful thinking :d But I’m doing the best I can to actually achieve that bucket list (but it only seems to get longer with time :D)

    Thanks for a great post 🙂

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