Why I Hate “Bucket Lists”




The term “bucket list” appears to have originated as a type of sorting algorithm in computer programming.

Since an eponymous 2007 film, it has come to stand for a checklist of things to do before one dies.

In any bookstore you can find tomes consisting of lists of things to do before you “kick the bucket.” Fifty Places to See Before You Die, or 100 pieces of music to hear before shuffling off this mortal coil.   A Hundred Books to Read before commencing to pine for the fjords.

Of course there are places I’d like to go with my children, and adventures I hope to be able to share with them.   I’d even like to be the kind of person who could parachute out of a plane or zip line through a rainforest, but none of my hopes and dreams in this life consists of solitary indulgence.

My problem is with parading around with “bucket lists”; I recoil from their premises.


1.  They seem ragingly self-serving, to no greater purpose.

One need look no further than the 2007 movie, in which a cancer-stricken character travels the world checking off goals like riding a motorcycle on China’s Great Wall and driving a Mustang . . . all the while putting yet more distance between himself and the daughter whose estrangement he claims to bemoan.

2.  They tend to highlight conspicuous consumption and rarefied privilege.

So you want to have pizza delivered by drone?  Go on a lion safari?  Fly to France for dinner at the Chevre d’Or?  If you possess the financial means, have at it.  Nothing wrong with spending your resources as you see fit.  But I have no urge to tick off expensive gimmicks which benefit no one else and treat them as monumental notches on the post of life.

3.  You Can’t Make Magic Happen.

On the rare occasions when the movie characters’ bucket lists veered away from partaking of the seven deadly sins, they purported to aspire to something slightly grander than a big-ticket macho event–like “witness something truly majestic.”

I wonder first at the timidity of wanting only to “witness”–to use one sense, implicitly from a disengaging distance–a magnificent sight.

More fundamentally, I believe you can’t plan to experience something magnificent any more than you can plan to encounter a “thin space.”  Magic happens, but you can’t buy it, you can’t summon it at will, and it tends to require being engaged with all of your senses–and sometimes a sixth.




4.  It’s All About Me.

One character in “The Bucket List” belatedly met his granddaughter, then checked off from his list “kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.”

First, Blechh (as my husband Jim would have said with regard to this cloying plot point).

Second, let’s consider what did not appear on that list–like reconciling with his daughter, meeting and making up for lost time with his granddaughter, or telling either one of them how important she was to him.

5.   Tossing around a term like “bucket list” trivializes the experience of terminal illness.

This is a particularly sore spot with me.  Although I concede being more trigger-sensitive than some on the subject, obviously nearly everyone eventually will experience either his own terminal illness or that of a person he loves beyond measure.

In the film, the cancer patients who took off with bucket lists in hand were in fine enough fettle to cavort around the globe, away from their families, at untold expense.

They were not so exhausted from treatment that they slept eighteen hours a day.

Their veins were not swimming with chemotherapy drugs which would have made enjoying food impossible, or made it seem like they were swallowing crushed glass as they sipped French champagne at a four-star restaurant.

They likely did not spend time pondering whether they would feel well or solvent enough to take one last family trip, or whether they should invest in travel insurance if they did, lest the people they loved need to bring their bodies home, or what it would be like for their families if they were to die far away from home.

Their minds did not dwell on the prospects of their beloved children, siblings, and parents continuing to need them, and on the devastating grief they knew would be experienced by the people they loved.

The lists Jim made weren’t for him at all, and broke my heart.

There was nothing whimsical about them.

When he was undergoing aggressive treatment he sat at his desk and on a yellow pad started to write out things I’d need to do in the yard every fall to stave off  abject disarray.

“I can’t, I’m not ready to think about that,” I said, selfishly, from over his right shoulder, as I tried to wipe away silent tears with my forearm, before they splashed onto the wide old pine floorboards.

“But it will be easier for me,” he said softly.

That was all that mattered.

After he died, I burst into tears every time I opened a file in his desk drawer and saw that he had spent time making meticulous lists–even spreadsheets with “worst case scenarios”–to help me handle finances and keep track of the children’s tuition payments; his medical deductions, which splintered into endless lists of co-payments and prescriptions and medical minutiae; the resources he’d put aside for a retirement he’d never have.



Before I die, I don’t want to amass a list and check off things I’d like to do.

I want to learn to be a better parent, a better person.  I want to be more like Jim, who had no end-of-life list for himself, and used his short time to be with his family and friends; to fully appreciate all that was around him rather than consider what he had lost; and to leave his profession and our world better for the gift of his time and his being.


Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

28 thoughts on “Why I Hate “Bucket Lists””

  1. This is an awesome post. I noticed early on when taking care of the seriously ill that they didn’t usually take off on a world tour, even if they felt reasonably well. They tended to hunker down, enjoy their family, homes and the small pleasures of life. That doesn’t play well on the big screen, but it can be even more beautiful and meaningful.

    On the other hand, the “bucket list” phenomenae is probably one of the few ways our youth-obsessed culture even acknowledges that yes, death is inevitable and happens to all of us. I think taking a trip you’ve been dreaming about, sending that letter with words that have been haunting you, or addressing whatever “shoulds” that linger in the recesses of your mind and heart can be very liberating- and knowing that we only have so much time on Earth can be a great motivator in moving forward. The mistake is believing that the dying behave like the young, should behave like the young.

  2. Thank you! That’s wonderfully put: you put your finger on what I was having the most trouble trying to articulate (and therefore gave up on): going on a dream trip (which we did, after much thought and various concerns) or just writing a letter can be so wonderful and meaningful to those you leave behind–it’s those small-screen, intensely personal engagements which I celebrate. Just something that drives me nuts about the “bucket list” jargon…..

  3. Oh, what a marvelous post. Or maybe I think so because I happen to agree with every single word you’ve written. Especially #3. That is exactly right. Almost every wonderful, glorious, magical moment in my life has happened accidentally and can’t be replicated even if I were to try. Number #4? Blech is right. I’ve not read enough of your posts to understand about Jim, but he sounds like a wonderful, loving man. I am so sorry.

  4. Hi Stephanie,
    Great post. I also always disliked the term “bucket list,” though I am all in favor of people figuring out what matters to them and what they would like to experience. But as you describe so beautifully, when people see “the bucket” looming, it’s rare that they have the energy to do much on any of their lists. This post is also a wonderful reminder to me to reflect on who I want to be and what I want to do both in the future and in the here and now. Thank you.

    1. I have somewhat sheepishly run across some of them after posting them. I’m not critical of goals and aims for one’s life per se . . . . just the way they’ seem to have become “pop-culturized” since that film.

  5. Oh, I’m so glad you wrote this! Simply beautiful. I, too, abhor that term as well as its modern meaning. It’s like “we gotta live before we die” mentality. It robs our culture of the simple joys right in front of us everyday—and the greater satisfaction that comes from being a kind, generous, and loving person.
    And #3 is absolutely truth. Though magical moments cannot be contrived, one can provide circumstances in which they exist. And then stop to enjoy them when they occur, especially those unplanned ones. Each walking moment deserves appreciation.
    And #5? If only the world could read this!
    An excellent post and I agree. May we keep our priorities straight and work to build a legacy of love. After all, it’s gift that keeps on giving, generation to generation.

  6. Thank you for this real and sound perspective. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin; much grace is needed to use them both beneficially. My Jim never made any lists, never prepared much for his death. He concentrated on trying to live…and maybe that was denial. Oh, well. I sold the property, the kids moved out on their own, we all changed, and life goes on.

  7. What wonderful priorities and beautiful memories — the last vacation together will always be in your hearts — as will the time that you spent together as a family — Jim was always thinking of you and the children and his extended family members — what love for all!!! AM

  8. this is a great post Stephanie – and a bittersweet reminder of how special Jim was and how precious time actually is. there is something to be said for living a full life every day and not waiting for any special occasions or incredibly difficult life situations.

    1. Thank you, Patty! It means so much to me when I can bring some of Jim back, and keep on learning from his grace myself. He didn’t waste any time.

  9. Well put. While I support people creating lists of things they would like to do in their lives, I also recognize that the most powerful experiences in my life are typically between me and another person interacting authentically and openly. So bring on the big trips or the fun experiences. They enrich me. But people fill my soul.

  10. Beautiful writing…..and your husband must have been a wonderful man. May you and your family be blessed. Thanks for sharing. I hate to make bucket lists too though I couldn’t write it out like you did. I feel making such a list doesn’t let you enjoy the day to day life and experience by focusing only on the things in list…Life is all about little moments .

  11. I thought I disliked the movie because I loathe Jack Nicolson. But I love Morgan Freeman, No, you’ve put your finger on it. On all the “its,” in fact. What snopes.com calls the “glurge factor”, which you call Blech. On the ridiculousness of the dying being in shape to skydive. On the myopia of the wishes. A calculated commercial commodity, that’s what we’re dealing with here. I remember thinking, How did Morgan Freeman look in the mirror in the morning?
    A bucket list itself, though, is not so bad. The one in your personal summing-up is an excellent one. And as someone commented — for the young, who maybe are still sure they’re immortal — it’s a way of sorting out fleeting desires from something that might be passionate.

  12. Great post about something I have also been thinking about. Why so many people seem to have these bucket lists. Life is not really about that. You put it very clearly down. Thank you for an interesting post.

  13. So well said! Jim sounds like a in incredibly caring loving person. I try to follow my mom’s advice, which is to live every day as if it were my last. Having lost my dad when I was eight and my mother at thirty-four, before either of my kids was born, I take nothing for granted. No bucket lists here, unless it is to clean out my basement before anything bad happens to me, so the kids don’t have to deal with it. We still love to travel as a family and I hope we always can, but we have just as much fun sitting around the table playing games or brainstorming a new story plot. At every parting with spouse or kids, we say goodbye with a kiss and “I love you.” It seems that your Jim said, “I love you,” with every word and gesture.

  14. Thanks for an awesome post. I too have always loathed the idea of a ‘bucket list’, and I cringe when I hear my friends mention that they’re ‘crossing off another thing’ on their list. It sounds beyond self-serving to me. I love your reasons, and I am so sorry for your loss. He was such a caring man, that is certain.

  15. This is a beautiful post. My heart goes out to you. I really appreciate you sharing your life with so many people. I love your writing.

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