Why you should swap your bucket list with a chuck-it list
By Valerie Tiberius, The Washington Post
August 28, 2023 at 5:45 a.m. EDT
Valerie Tiberius is a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota and the author of “What Do You Want Out of Life? A Philosophical Guide to Figuring Out What Matters.”
On my father’s 75th birthday, he announced some news: He no longer intended to learn Spanish. He told me that for most of his life he imagined he would one day speak the language fluently, but this year, at this new age and vantage point, he was giving up that goal.
He seemed a little melancholy about it but mostly relieved that he no longer had this piñata of shame hanging over his head.
Best of all, he adopted a mental heuristic for this goal-no-longer that I believe has liberating potential for everyone: Learning Spanish, he told me, was now an item on his “chuck-it list.” (Full disclosure: My dad’s name for the list is a little saltier).
Bucket lists can be a fun, inspirational tool — they encourage us to chase new experiences, such as learning chess or going on an African safari. But let’s face it: They can also be oppressive, irritating reminders that you can’t afford that $3,000 flight to Johannesburg.
As a philosopher of well-being, I can tell you that philosophers tend to divide into three camps on the subject: hedonists, who think well-being is all about good feelings; objectivists, who believe we live well when we achieve things with value transcending the individual; and desire satisfactionists, who think well-being means fulfilling your own goals.
I am in the third camp. I like that this approach respects individual differences and explains why there are so many different good lives. But it also has a serious flaw: Focusing on pursuing our goals often leaves us running on a treadmill of desire and frustration.
The solution to this problem lies in choosing which goals to pursue. The mere pursuit of a goal won’t promote your well-being — you have to be selective. This is where the chuck-it list comes into play.
Are you the kind of person who is going to be on your deathbed regretting that you missed your chance to ride in a hot-air balloon, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”? Then do it! But when I really thought about that long-held fantasy, I let it go pretty easily, along with parasailing and completing a “century” (a 100-mile bike ride). I felt liberated when I moved these activities to my chuck-it list. It freed me to think about what I actually want to do — which is, turns out, shorter bike rides and flying only in the safety of a commercial airplane.
Of course, building the chuck-it list can be difficult. In his book “Four Thousand Weeks,” Oliver Burkeman reminds us of the old time-management trick of thinking of your goals as rocks that you have to fit into the glass jar of your life. The advice is to put in the big rocks (important goals) first because otherwise you’ll fill your jar with little, unimportant pebbles and won’t be able to fit in the big ones later.
Burkeman dislikes this advice: He points out that the metaphor presupposes that we can squeeze in all the big rocks if we start with them, which might not be true. I agree. Sometimes, it’s a big rock that we have to move to the chuck-it list.
Discarding goals that we really care about is difficult; failing to complete them can elicit sadness or regret. For my father, the relief of letting go of speaking fluent Spanish came tinged with sadness because he saw learning a foreign language as valuable. When you move things to your chuck-it list because you can’t physically do them anymore (e.g., a marathon), there’s also likely to be a layer of disappointment about aging and the reminder of mortality. The same can be said about goals on a bucket list made impossible by financial constraints or time limitations: They force us to come to terms with circumstances beyond our control.
So what should we do about these negative feelings?
My neighbor, a retired pianist and choir director, told me she took learning certain difficult musical compositions off her bucket list. She described the resulting feeling as “sweet loss” — sweet because she can still listen to those beloved pieces, loss because she’s not going to be the one playing them.
Accepting this wisdom requires a shift in perspective. Bucket lists tie the value of our dreams to our value as individuals. Once we cut that tie, we can still appreciate the value of our abandoned goals by finding pleasure in the achievements of others.
Shifting away from a self-centered perspective can help giving up goals feel a bit less bitter. And really, what is the alternative? Keep everything on your bucket list and try to stuff all the rocks into the jar? This inevitably leads to disappointment and frustration. It might also lead to missing out on enjoying what wasn’t on your bucket list — things brought to you by serendipity that you couldn’t plan for, or things you’ve been taking for granted.
This is why I believe your chuck-it list is just as important as your bucket list. As you age, you grow into a different person with new priorities; your goals should evolve, too. Give yourself permission to remove those items you’ll probably never get to. And most important: Don’t feel so bad about it.