The concept of a bucket list entered popular culture with the 2007 movie of the same name. Since then, it has become quite commonplace to follow Carter (Morgan Freeman) and Edward (Jack Nicholson) in keeping a written list of the things you want to do before you die.
Before leaving office, former-president Barack Obama announced (or creatively implied) he had put together a “fuck-it list.” His version was a list of policies he had enacted, without fear of political backlash.
Certainly, there’s a lot to be said for making either kind of list.
Yet there are also some places where these lists might go wrong. For one thing, we might wish that Obama’s list were longer — and had started before 2016.
At the same time a bucket list keeps track of large life goals, it also runs the risk of being overrun with the wacky and the petty — that is, things that are not actually important but that you might want to do only to say you have done them. For most people, skydiving would seem to fall into that category.
To complement your bucket list and to keep your focus on what is truly important as you get older, you might want to consider making a chuck-it list. This would be a list of the things you might have always wanted to do but now find unimportant or undeserving of your time.
For example, as someone who loves literature and enjoys writing, like so many of us, I have always wanted to publish or even just write a novel. Of course I have several ideas and have even started a handful of them. But I’m starting to think it’s not going to happen — not because I’m too old to attempt anything new or so large, but because my days are filled with other enjoyable activities and projects, some of them even creative, that are more important to me. What’s more, after reading more and more great literature — curse you, Edith Wharton! — I’m starting to realize that my novel would probably not be very good.
Travel should be another category on everyone’s chuck-it list. The list of places I have not been is rather long. It includes some places (India, Australia, Iceland) that 10 or even 5 years ago, I would have put on a bucket list. But I have come to find that travel is not a great priority for me. It’s quite a commitment in terms of time and money that I often find is better spent on other things.
For instance, I recently bought myself the guitar I have always wanted: a black, American-made telecaster. It cost about the same as any one of those trips, and is now a constant source of joy.
Many years ago, I realized that my Amazon wish list was a sort of chuck-it list. When I really wanted to read a book, I would buy it and read it; for the books I put on my wish list, that never seems to happen. Now I’m starting to realize that, between the books I want to read and the books I want to re-read, I have collected enough reading material to keep me occupied and fulfilled for more decades than I hope to have left. There is simply too much media to consume these days. Everything but the best of it should be put on a chuck-it list.
You might also have occasion to put some people on your chuck-it list. It is unfortunate, of course, but there are instances when people need to be cut from your life — either because they add too little or because they consume too much. For all of its ability to bring us together, social media has done serious harm to the practice of friendship. Quality has been upended by quantity, and we have come to know and rely on fewer and fewer people, even as our social circles grow larger and larger. If we are going to be mindful about who we call friends and how we allocate our time, some people will need to be chucked.
After being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, neurologist Oliver Sachs wrote a graceful and moving op-ed in the New York Times (“My Own Life”; “There is no time for anything inessential,” he offered. Apart from his work, this included his friends. It was not a list of novel or new activities, but more of how he filled his remarkable life, albeit with less fluff. We would be wise to follow his lead.
It’s unfortunate that so many truths about life come to us only at its end. But if it is true at the end of a life, then it should be true for other times as well, when we still are in a position to put that insight to use.
Life is not finite, and there comes a time when we all have to realize that we are not going to get it all done. That is one of the things that makes time so precious.
Do not feel guilty about putting things on your chuck-it list. Being able to prioritize what it important is itself a grand accomplishment.
Just chuck it.
This was first published for The Ascent.