Living with a Life List

I adore New Years, because it’s the only time of year when it’s socially acceptable to ask other people about their goals.  

I think life is best lived with a large variety of experiences, and since I’m a very goal-oriented person, I keep a list of the experiences I want to have or achieve.  So in honor of New Years, I wanted to share with you one of the most important tools I use to achieve all of these goals: my life list

You can read my actual list here to see what I’ve done and what I’m pursuing.

So What Is a Life List?

Most people know life lists by their more common moniker: the bucket list.  A life list is a simple concept: write down all of the things that you want to accomplish and experience in your life.  Then go out and do them. 

The point isn’t necessarily to finish everything on the list; the hope is that the process helps you live a better life.  

If you want to make a life list for yourself, set aside an afternoon, brew a cup of tea, and make sure you’re uninterrupted.  Think of all the things you’ve always wanted to experience and the goals in all the important areas of your life—relationships, work, art, finances, travel—and write them down.  Here are a few things to think of while you’re going through the process. 

How to Make a Life List: My Life List Rules

1.  Life lists should be fun.  Remember, this is your dream life that you’re planning.  If you’re not excited and inspired to read through your life list, then you have the wrong goals on it.  Imagining your ideal life should be enjoyable!

2.  You don’t have to start from scratch.  If you had an important experience or accomplished a goal that you treasure, put it on your list already crossed off.  You didn’t spontaneously come into being once you started writing down your goals.  Your life list doesn’t have to be a blank slate either.

3.  Don’t make it a specific number of goals.  There’s no such thing as too many or too few life goals.  What matters is how much you care about them, not how many there are.  

4.  Make sure that each of your goals has a specific endpoint.  Don’t be vague, or you’ll never know when you’ve accomplished your goal and can cross it off your list.  

For example: "read the NPR Top 100 Sci Fi and Fantasy List” is a good goal.  It’s actionable and measurable.  But my prior goal of “read lots” was not. Had I read “lots” that year, or not enough?  It was impossible to tell.

5. You can take a goal off your list whenever it stops inspiring you, so don’t feel that adding something to your list is committing it to be there forever.

However, I have a personal rule: once a goal is crossed off, it stays put—even if I would no longer pursue it.  It’s easy to improve so much at something that the original goal seems naïve and unimportant. But leaving my completed goals lets me celebrate my accomplishments and doesn’t belittle my past successes.  Leaving those goals is a great reminder of just how far I’ve come.  

This means that a few odd goals get left on my list.  Seeing Green Day in concert was very important to 14-year-old Katja.  Today?  Not so much.

6.  I also cheat: if I have an experience that I never want to forget, but didn’t have on my life list when it happened, then I add it already crossed off.  

7. Make your list a living document.  It doesn’t have to be finished in one setting.  I extensively review mine at the end of every year, and tinker with it whenever I have a good idea for a goal. I read through it when I need inspiration or motivation.  I consult it when I draw up my goals for the year.  I am always working on at least one goal off of the list, and usually several.

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Once you’ve brainstormed your life list, I suggest coming back to it in a few days with fresh eyes and checking for two things: consumptive experiences and opportunity cost.

Goal #11: shoot with dream photographer Visioluxus.

Goal #11: shoot with dream photographer Visioluxus.

Consumptive Experiences

If you ask most people what they want to do during their life, you’ll get surprisingly similar answers.  (I know because it’s my favorite question to ask people.  I’m a hoot at parties).  They usually want to travel to a variety of exotic places.  Maybe they also want to try something adventurous, like getting a tattoo or going skydiving.

All of these are examples of consumptive experiences.  Consumptive goals are about having and experiencing, and not about achieving or creating.  They are primarily for yourself: your own betterment, your own experience, or your own entertainment.  

There’s nothing wrong with consumptive experiences; I have several on my own life list.  However, your life list is a plan for your whole life, not just a list of the extra things you want to do.  

Of course, make sure to do the things you enjoy.  Just when you go through your life list, make sure that your life’s work is included as well.  Don’t just experience things.  Build things for others, too.  Include goals that create value—whether that’s making art for other people to enjoy, or making the world a better place.  

Opportunity Cost

Dreaming up exciting experiences and projects isn’t the only part of making a functional life list—although it is a fun part.  You also have to prune your list.

If it’s not going to be a highlight of your life, then take it off.  This type of editing can feel vicious, but every goal you pursue has an opportunity cost: it takes up some of your time, money, energy, and other resources that could have gone to something else.  In a way, every goal you have on your list makes all the other goals harder to achieve.  Make sure you put your effort into the goals that really matter.

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If you don’t make this list—your dream life—your priority, then it will never happen.  Don’t just write up a list of what you want and let it languish in a drawer somewhere. 

Just remember: the goal isn’t to do everything off of a list.  The goal is to live a good life.  I’ve just found that the best way to be happy and fulfilled is to live a life full of exciting experiences and meaningful work—and a life list is the best tool I’ve discovered to do that.

So since it's New Years, I can finally be nosy: do you have a life list?  If so, feel free to share it or link it in the comments.