How to Write a Life List
Either metaphorically or literally, we could point to a list of steadily-pursued dreams that turned into accomplished goals as we moved through different phases of life.
The sad alternative, of course, is to come to the end of life unfulfilled – something best phrased in this intense quote from Thoreau I’ve been pondering a lot recently:
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them.
I don’t usually like to assume, but in this case I’m going to assume you don’t want that. If so, one of the ways we can overcome the “quiet desperation” is by clearly identifying the activities that help us to be more alive.
In other words, writing a life list can help us to live. This article will show you how to do it.
What’s a Life List?
A life list is simply a list of long-term personal goals, often expressed as “X things to do before I die.” Life lists are related to, but also different from the Ideal World scenario, the Annual Review, and your ongoing list of active projects.
These lists have become fairly common due to the popularity of the web site 43 Things. On this site, users create and share a personal list of, well, 43 things they want to do. You’ve probably seen some of these lists around the internet – if not, the site is at least worth a quick look.
While I appreciate any resource that gets people thinking about goal-setting, I’d also say that 43 Things is a “lite” version of goal-setting. This is not really a criticism of its design; it’s just a reflection of the way most people use it to think about their goals. Because it’s so easy to set up and add goals that other people have chosen, you can literally set up your life list in 5 minutes.
My philosophy is that goal-setting is not a casual practice. I intend to actually complete the goals I set, so I want to spend more than 5 minutes writing them down. If you agree and want to go further with building your own life list, keep reading.
Why Have a Life List
You don’t need a life list, but if you’re struggling with direction or just want to be open to personal growth, a life list can definitely help.
A good life list is an anchor. It grounds you in your purpose, gives you hopes and dreams for the future, and helps you understand more about yourself.
There is no right or wrong way to make this kind of list. You simply devote an hour, or however long it takes you, to thinking about your life. What do you want to do? To have? To be?
Again, there isn’t one way to do this, but it may help you to examine or revisit a few key concepts about lifestyle design.
What Goes On the List?
Many of the goals chosen by 43 Things users are “fuzzy” or representative of general desires instead of passions to pursue. Some of them are essentially desire habits rather than goals. “Drink more water,” for example, is a good habit, not necessarily something that should appear on a life list.
Here are a few vague, non-measurable goals (all taken from the 43 Things site):
- Travel the World
- Be Happy
- Eat Healthier
- Be In Shape
- Have Better Posture
- Save Money
- Make New Friends
In addition to being vague, you can probably see a trend there – all of them are aspirational goals related to personal well-being. Hold that thought and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
On the other hand, here are a few measurable goals (also taken from 43 Things users, which shows that not everyone follows the crowd):
- Meet the Dalai Lama
- Become an Ordained Minister
- See the Northern Lights
- Go on a Road Trip with no Predetermined Destination
- Learn American Sign Language
Think Realistic Big and Discard Fear
As you compose your own life list, remember that the basic rule of brainstorming is “Don’t limit yourself.” You should also avoid thinking about your present situation. This is your whole life list; it’s meant to be something you work on and refer to for your whole life.
In other words, throw out realism… or more precisely, what you initially think of as realism. As you go through the journey over a long period of time, you may very well find that what you thought was reality was actually quite limiting.
As much as possible, you should also throw out fear when you write your life list. The fear of failure, and even the fear of success, holds us back from attempting many of the things we secretly wish for. In the practice of actually achieving goals, it takes some time to work through this – but you can start by blocking the fear from entering your life list. If you have to, just tell yourself “It’s only a list.”
Adventure vs. Non-Adventure Goals
If you’ve been reading the site for a while, I realize you probably know all about vague versus measurable goals, as well as thinking big. Let’s take it a bit further.
In addition to the “be happier” goals that crop up, “adventure goals” are another frequent theme on most life lists I’ve seen. I define adventure goals as any goals that are physically challenging or involve adrenalin. Examples include climbing mountains, racing cars, swimming in lakes or oceans, completing athletic events, and so on.
When some people set out to write a life list, the majority of items on the list end up being these kinds of goals. I’m not entirely sure why; perhaps this is because their current lifestyle is more sedentary than they would like, or perhaps they just like being outdoors and overcoming physical challenges.
While I agree that physical activity is important in overcoming the “quiet desperation” of conventional living, I also think that focusing strictly on adventure goals is a bit basic. I have a fair number of adventure goals on my list, but I also have a lot of other goals.
When trying to figure out what to put on the life list, think carefully about the question, “What do I really want to do?” Remember, the idea is to dream big and avoid limitations. You can be in the Formula One and write a novel. The fewer limits you place on your list, the better it will be.
Again, this is a personal practice, so if you’re an adrenaline junkie and all of your items involve climbing Mount Everest or competing in the Olympics, go right ahead. Most of us, however, will want to think beyond adventure goals.
These categories may help you brainstorm:
Friends & Family, Travel, Business, Spiritual, Health, Service, Learning, Financial (Earning), Financial (Giving), Financial (Saving)
(Note: These categories are from How to Conduct Your Own Annual Review. As that article explains, the categories are suggestions and not meant to be exclusive. Additional categories for a life list might also include “Unusual Experiences” or “Big Achievements,” since most lists include a few things that are done only once.)
Experiences versus “Stuff”
Writing and thinking about life lists can often cause us to evaluate the way we spend our time and money. Interestingly, most of the items that end up being on the typical life list involve life experiences far more than things we wish to own.
This can reveal an imbalance in how our resources are actually spent. If the p on our list of ultimate goals consist primarily of experiences, but we know that we spend most of our time working to earn money, we’ve just discovered a source of discomfort or “quiet desperation” within us.
I’m not being judgmental – if someone really values owning “stuff,” then perhaps it’s best for them to focus on earning money to pay for it. I do think it’s fair to say, though, that most of us find the ownership of “stuff” to be somewhat fleeting in the end. As they say, you really can’t take it with you when you go.
Accomplishment is something worth being proud of, but the pursuit of significant goals is valuable by itself. In a couple of interviews I’ve done recently, I’ve heard the question. “What will you do after you’ve visited every country in the world?”
At first, I was perplexed by the question. After a few seconds of awkward silence, I finally learned to say that whenever I finish that journey, I’ll probably set another big goal. I also think at least as much about the process of the goal as I do about the eventual, hoped-for achievement.
Many challenging life goals require a great deal of process. Running a marathon (26.2 miles) requires at least 420 miles of training. To go to every country in the world requires spending a lot of time in airports and bus stations. At a certain level, you have to enjoy the process and the accomplishment.
Publishing Your Life List
What do you do with your life list when it’s finished? If you’re like most people, you put it away and forget about it. Of course, you’re not most people – you want to actually complete the list, right?
If public accountability would help you take your life more seriously, consider putting your life list online. Here are a few people who have published their life list for the world:
Publishing is optional, of course. I haven’t published my full life list online, but I spend a lot of time writing about some of the bigger goals (visit every country, write a full-length book about unconventional living, and so on).
Done offhandedly, life lists can be vague lists of dreams and desires – but when taken seriously, a well thought out life list can be deeply meaningful. While there may still be some benefit in thinking about goals even on a basic level, John Goddard, one of the original list writers, first wrote his list of 127 goals at the age of fifteen.
From exploring the Congo to typing 50 words a minute, John has gone on to accomplish most of the goals he set decades ago and even forge a career out of the experience. Naturally, the mere presence of a list is not enough. But I think that identifying the goals at a young age and striving to live consciously had a lot to do with John’s success.
By the way, like a lot of life design exercises, the structure is there to help you. If it doesn’t help, discard it and do it your way. It’s your list, after all. You’re the one who is going to make the goals come to fruition, so you might as well have them written down in a way that makes the most sense to you.
If you’ve never written a life list before, consider taking an hour or two to chisel down your dreams. I think you’ll find it insightful, inspiring, and maybe even motivating enough to shift where you put your focus. As mentioned, life lists can be private or public. If you’d like to share some or all of yours, feel free to do so in the comments. I can’t wait to see what some of you come up with!
Have you made a life list? What are some things on your list?
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Image of Pandan Reservoir (Singapore) by Ainer S