You shouldn’t wait until the end to make your bucket list, according to new research

A list before you kick it.
A list before you kick it.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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A “bucket list,” if you don’t know already, is a list of things to do before you die. It’s a document that’s meant to name the big adventures life might feel incomplete without—getting a degree, finding a spouse, seeing the Great Wall of China, leaping from an airplane. The concept appeared in the public consciousness with an eponymous 2007 film in which Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play terminally ill men chasing the last few goals they want to achieve before they “kick the bucket.”

Public memory of the somewhat schmaltzy movie has faded, but the idea of the list remains, and turns out to be a surprisingly useful tool for crafting healthier, more satisfying lives.

Dr. VJ Periyakoil, an associate professor at Stanford’s medical school and director of the Stanford Palliative Care Education and Training Program, started asking patients about their own bucket lists as a way to get to know them better. She soon realized that the information helped her come up with treatment plans that better addressed what her patients actually wanted out of their lives—and helped patients stick with them. Telling a patient to quit smoking, for example, turned out to be a lot less effective than reminding him that it would be much harder to run a dreamed-of 10K with a smoker’s lungs. When another patient with terminal cancer wanted to take his family to Maui for a final vacation, she worked with him to delay radiation until the trip was complete.

To better understand the power of the list, Periyakoil conducted what she believes to be the first study on bucket lists. The research team surveyed 3,056 US adults between the ages of 18 and 80, covering a range of races and income levels. A full 91.2% had a bucket list.

The lists hewed to six categories: travel (78.5%), accomplish a personal goal (78.3%), achieve a specific life milestone like get married or see a grandchild’s birth (51%), spend quality time with friends and family (16.7%), achieve financial stability (24.3%), or do a daring activity (15%). But the daredevils probably won’t always feel that way.

“A bucket list is not something static. It’s a very dynamic thing,” Periyakoil told Quartz At Work. “The list changes over time and as people get older, their list becomes more cerebral and less physical.” Young people were far more represented in the 15% of people who wanted to skydive or run with the bulls, whereas older people were more focused on time with loved ones.

From a palliative care perspective, a bucket list is a helpful guide to doctors who want to make sure that their patients’ lives are as full and meaningful as possible, for as long as possible. But there’s no reason to wait until one is ill or aged to make one, Periyakoil said. Asking yourself what you really want out of life and revisiting the list regularly reminds you to make the small changes that will make the big goals possible—signing up for Spanish classes in anticipation of a future tour of South America, kicking cigarettes now so you can meet those grandchildren later. Not sure where to start? Stanford School of Medicine has a template right here.