Reverse Bucket List: Look Back Before Looking Forward


Everybody has a bucket list — a random list of things we'd like to do, be, or have before we “kick the bucket.” Some people make do with rough mental compilations, while others prefer their bucket lists typed, formatted, and prominently displayed. (See also: Goal Setting, Defined and Deconstructed)

But what of the bucket list? Where is the context? How satisfied will we feel about our lives today if we're constantly studying a list of things we haven't done? Where do we even begin with a list like this, instigated no less by a big clock in the sky counting us down towards an unknown “bucket date?”

I get panicky just thinking about it.

Although a bucket list can be motivational, I believe that in and of itself it can be more crippling than empowering. In order for a bucket list to reach its true potential, I think we should first start with a Reverse Bucket List.

What's a Reverse Bucket List?

In order to gauge where we're going, it's always good to know where we've come from. Creating a context of our journey thus far is imperative to understanding why we want the things we want, and ultimately, how to get them.

A Reverse Bucket List is a list of things that we think are “bucket list worthy,” but that we've already done. It's a creative way of reflecting on your life thus far and taking note of the some of the experiences that really sang to you.

Not only is it fun, but you might be surprised by what you've already done in your life. (Conversely, you may realize you need to get out of the house more.)

Either way, it's all good.

Reverse Bucket List Exercise

You may want to structure the exercise of making your Reverse Bucket List using the method for devising 100 ways to change your life.

By doing it as a fast-paced brainstorming exercise, you may be surprised at what makes its way on to your Reverse Bucket List. There are no right or wrong answers — only your own answers. It's your life, and your reverse bucket list; write down as many things as you can, without worrying about what you're actually writing. We'll get to that later.

Here are a few general ideas to get your reflective juices flowing:

  • Achievements or awards you've received
  • Fears you've conquered
  • Careers you've had
  • Friends you've made and people you've met
  • Places you've traveled to
  • Anything that's worthy of a story you tell other people
  • Goals and milestones you reached
  • Childhood dreams (no matter how silly in retrospect) you achieved
  • Bizarre or fun things that have happened to you or that you've done 

What to Do With Your List

This isn't a pesky to-do list or a vision board that requires prominent display as a reminder of what you need to do or where you're going.

Instead, it's more in the act of constructing and initially reviewing your Reverse Bucket List that you will see the benefits.

Once you've finished writing out your Reverse Bucket List, read through it. What do you think? Do you notice any themes? Are there any gaps? How does reading this list make you feel?

Regardless of whether you feel there's too little or too much on your Reverse Bucket List, you might discover some of the things on it are surprising, even illuminating. And they might lead you to your next step.

The Next Step

Using the observations you made above, now is a great time to project your Reverse Bucket List forward. To reverse the Reverse Bucket List, as it were.

Here are some exercises you can do from here:

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Guest's picture

Thanks for the article. Great thoughts. We need to look back more often in order to keep ourselves focused on the right way to go.

Guest's picture
A. W.

Wow. This is a fantastic twist on the bucket list. I imagine it would help a lot of people more realistically construct future goals that will be genuinely meaningful (rather than, as is too often the case, anticlimactic and unfullfilling).

Guest's picture

This is a very good idea, since not only it provides a way to appreciate the good things that happened in your life but it also makes you more self-appreciative - your self-esteem will sure benefit from it. Thanks, that was a really great article!

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I've done this. When I first heard of bucket lists, I thought that I've already done most of the things that I've wanted to do, so I decided to include those things when I made my list. The first one was "teach someone how to read" which I did when I was 6 (I taught my little brother to read). It's also fun to add silly things that are more important when you're a kid like "get into one tree by climbing another tree and crossing over." And it's fun to put things that seemed like a big deal at the time like "have an entire conversation in a foreign language." (Admittedly, I just ordered a jelly doughnut in German and handed over a reasonable amount of money for the payment, but the cashier didn't switch over to English on me!) (And admittedly, I only knew the word for jelly doughnut because of the "I am a jelly doughnut" mistake that some famous guy made.)

I never thought the bucket list was crippling, but then I did feel kind of bad that I couldn't think of very much to put on my list before I thought to include things I've already accomplished.

The most surprising thing I learned is that even though I've gotten to do a lot of interesting travel, it has never been because I made a goal to go to a particular place and then worked to achieve that goal. Instead, I either get invited on other people's travels or I have friends or family who move temporarily to exotic locations and then invite me to visit. It's so much easier going someplace new when other people already know a little bit about the place. When visiting friends, though, do find out if they prefer to take you to all the cool new places they found or if they would rather take you to places they've never been to. You can always visit the places they're bored of on your own when they're busy or need some free time to themselves.

Another interesting thing I learned are that most of the items are not lifelong dreams that I slowly worked my way toward (though I did get to "graduate from a good college"). Mostly I've either just taken advantage of opportunities (like "learn to ski" at a place with free ski lessons) or gotten carried away with something new I was learning (which is how ended up teaching my brother to read). And I've still gotten to have a nice life, so that makes it less disturbing that I can't think of many more things that I want to add to my list.

Guest's picture

Debbie, I had similar results when I did this for a class. Very enlightening, wouldn't you say? And, doesn't it make you feel really good about yourself?

Guest's picture

For our 25th wedding anniversary, I made an ABC list of the places my husband and I have traveled to together. A wonderful reminiscence and affirmation of the fun places we've been already. We also have a bucket list ... but it's totally additive to life's enjoyment so far.

Guest's picture

The phrase is "make do" not "make due."

Amy Lu's picture
Amy Lu

Oops! Thanks for catching that, Marci!

Guest's picture

I did this recently, as a result of a question in a class I was taking. I realized that I am a very lucky person - I actually don't feel that I've missed out on anything. It resulted in two things. It changed my attitude about my life in general ( I am not as 'whiny' about things as I used to be...) and made me re-think my goals regarding what was really important to me.
Retirement is on the horizon, and I've redirected my plans to more volunteerism, and just learning about things. Nothing I NEED to do to feel complete. I wish this for everybody.

Guest's picture

This is one of the best articles I've ever read. As a 65 year old, "panic" does indeed set in. But by looking back I can see how much I've done--and realize that OMG I haven't missed life--I've lived it. If I have time, there are things I'd like to do--and can relax about it. If there isn't time--it has been a heluva good ride!! Thank you for writing this!!

Guest's picture

the reverse bucket list--brilliant! Although, I was already doing this in my current bucket list; I simply mark things I've already done as "crossed off."

It is great to look back at that list and see photos of those experiences. Whenever I have a rainy day, I tried to do this. Draws a big smile on my face :)

- Maria Alexandra

Guest's picture

Nora, Loved it and included it in today's article about "habitat for humanity" and wealth in life :)

Guest's picture

I was talking to my daughter about this subject (before I saw this post) and found it interesting that she said "but I haven't done anything yet". She is 25. So I sent her a list of what I could think of for her off the top of my head. She speaks/reads/writes Arabic, knows American Sign Language, plays the guitar, has won a singing contest, has lived in 4 states, performed in a play, been in the military, played the oboe. When she replied she said "it sounds like a lot more when you put it that way". It is funny to me that she couldn't see the interesting things she has done in her life as interesting or unique. I am going to challenge her to do a reflection with me at the beginning of each year going forward (rather than the traditional resolutions exercise).

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