Why Throwing Away My Bucket List Made Me a Better Traveler

traveling with no bucket list
Great Wall of China, Beijing | Maridav/Shutterstock.com
Great Wall of China, Beijing | Maridav/Shutterstock.com

On a recent visit to my childhood home on the Canadian prairie, I discovered something unexpected while rummaging through an old nightstand. Scrawled in pink ink, tucked in the back of my high school Happy Bunny notebook, was a travel bucket list from about 10 years ago.

It had to be from sometime around graduation, given my apparent priorities: “Celebrate St. Patty’s in Ireland” and “Party in Ibiza.” (Ahh, to salivate over turning the legal drinking age once again.) I grabbed a pen and chuckled as I crossed off “Go to Oktoberfest.” Then I paused in awe when I saw the points beneath it:

“Make a living off writing.”

“Leave everything and don’t look back.”

In that moment, I looked back, and memories washed over me. I’ve hopped around the planet for years -- visiting more than 30 countries, with stints living in Thailand and Germany. So much of this past decade has felt like a series of happy coincidences. Little did I realize, I really was following my heart the whole time.

And the key to doing so, I now believe, was forgetting all about my bucket list as soon as I wrote it down.

Santorini, Greece
Santorini, Greece | Andrew Mayovskyy/Shutterstock.com

If you’re a traveler, you can hardly escape a bucket list reference these days. (To pick but one example, Thrillist has used the phrase more than 100 times in headlines over the years. We even made you one in case you weren’t up to the task.) It’s edging toward cliché, yes, but bucket lists endure because they’re so pithy. If you’re really sitting down to articulate the places you want to go and things you want to do before you die, you’re a little macabre and a lot carpe diem. Taken literally, a travel bucket list is a roadmap of wanderlust. And it’s worth noting: Seemingly everyone’s bucket list has travel as a centerpiece.

You could say it all started with Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, and a green screen. The Bucket List, a warm and fuzzy release in early 2008 was about a pair of aging, terminally ill cancer patients who embarked on an around-the-world exploit. They hit Freeman’s ultimate to-do list with Nicholson’s checkbook -- flying over the North Pole, dining at the Michelin-starred Chevre d'or, riding motorcycles along the Great Wall, watching lions on a Tanzanian safari.

I’m pretty sure I wrote my own bucket list after seeing it. That’s when a lot of others caught onto the concept, too. Peter Sokolowski, the editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, told me the term’s first known use was in 2006, in an article that announced the film’s production. The dictionary adopted “bucket list” into its the database in 2012. “It clearly is a term that became very popular very quickly,” he said. “Six years is remarkably fast for any word to enter our dictionaries.”

Per an article by The Wall Street Journal’s leading linguist and lexicographer, The Bucket List screenwriter Justin Zackham came up with the phrase in making his own checklist of the things he’d like to do before kicking the bucket. After a few years of keeping his list pinned to a bulletin board, he wrote the script. He told the Journal that although he and director Rob Reiner batted around other titles, “Everyone seemed to like it, so it stuck.”

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru | aaabbbccc/Shutterstock.com

The term goes back much further, even. Slate found via Google Books that “bucket list” has been floating around in literature for perhaps centuries. Word Spy figures its first uses could go as far back as 1785. The original bucket list might even be the oft-quoted mashup of passages from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

Since Bucket List dropped, the same plot device has popped up in episodes of Glee, Parks and Recreation , and NCIS. President Obama cracked jokes about his bucket list at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And countless travelers have made one while passing time on an airplane, or trying to fall asleep on the bottom hostel bunk.

Travel writers lean on them, myself included. They’re cheesy, and mostly harmless. Weird thing about organizing your life goals around a literal deadline, though: It has a way of ratcheting up your anxiety.

Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy | Muratart/Shutterstock.com

Research has shown that if you want to get a thing done, it helps to write it down. A 2011 study by profs at Wake Forest found that unfinished tasks incite distraction, and simply making a loose plan can ease stress and anxiety. When done right, a bucket list should function as your life’s biggest to-do list. Pick up dry cleaning. Rake lawn. See sunset from hot air balloon over Buddhist temples of Bagan, Myanmar. Defrost chicken. Floss.

Done wrong, though, a bucket list can become a domineering reminder of how your life hasn’t turned out the way you expected, a self-made source of FOMO.

Megan Bruneau, a psychotherapist and wellness coach who writes extensively on mental health, warns travelers not to overcommit. “Bucket lists can make people feel like they’re not enough until they’ve done X, Y, Z,” she says. Likewise, don’t let social media dictate the expectations for travel plans, lest rich kids make you hate your own life.

“It’s important for people to understand the reasoning behind their lists -- not just to go skydiving to put it on Instagram, at which point it becomes attached to ego,” Bruneau says. “Ask yourself: ‘If no one knew I was going to do this thing, if it didn’t become this story I would tell at a party, would I still want to do it?’”

She suggests making a bucket list then putting it away for a while -- or forgetting about it completely, as I did -- so that it continues to be an exercise in dreaming and healthy goal setting, instead of a source of pressure.

“The point is not to do everything on the list, but to let yourself fantasize,” she says. “Let those positive experiences create hope and inspire you. The moment you start putting it up on your wall and obsessing over it, you risk the list becoming draconian and self-punishing.”

 Chiangmai, Thailand
Chiangmai, Thailand | Patrick Foto/Shutterstock.com

Don George, the author of Lonely Planet’s How to Be a Travel Writer, remembers starting his bucket list about 30 years ago, when he landed the travel editor gig at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle. What started with checking off Uluru and Angkor Wat has evolved over time to now include even more hard-to-reach places -- Antarctica, Bhutan as new dream experiences.

Like many of us travel writers, he doesn’t want people to live their lives as a checklist -- hitting 100 countries just to boast the hundo rather than to get to know and become enriched by each country on its own merit. Ultimately, he thinks bucket lists are destined to be just a trend.

“The notion that you have a limited number of days left in your life that you need to prioritize will always be around,” he says. “But I have a feeling (the bucket list) has a shelf life as an idea or a term. It will change as the world or tech changes. Maybe VR will morph the way we think about bucket lists, because we’ll be able to go anywhere, anytime.”

That’s the dream, distant thought it may be yet. Even now, though, a bucket list feels less than vital. In the rush of packing at my parents’ place, I completely forgot to take my old list with me. And I doubt I’ll miss it.

Bucket lists might be the roadmap to wanderlust, a way to start a conversation with your future self, but they’re also rigid, confining. Instead, maintain your own compass, and you’ll discover, as I have, that life surprises you with things you never expected to find. When you’re looking back on your life at 80 -- or, hell, even at 30 -- the best stuff, I’d bet, will be the things high-school you had no idea were out there waiting for you.

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Barbara Woolsey, a Berlin-based writer who has traveled to over 30 countries, has contributed to publications such as USA Today, VICE, and The Guardian. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.