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Get a Life List

Published: January 1, 2009

It’s easy, in the day-to-day hustle, to lose sight of your greatest desires. Reach deep, write them down, and put your dreams back on the radar.

I am a habitual list maker.

My assessment of a day corresponds to the number of items ticked off my list. But after swimming with dolphins (check), running a marathon (check), and giving birth with hypnosis (check), my list has grown mundane. Most days, it looks something like: drop my son off at preschool, write for an hour, brush teeth (and do it in the right order tomorrow).

As my goals have downsized, so have the quixotic quests I pursue that help to shape who I am. Perhaps that’s why the idea of a Life List is so appealing to me, and to so many other dreamers who are doers, too.

Evidence of the popularity of these lists is everywhere — bestselling books like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, No Opportunity Wasted: Creating A Life List and 101 Things to Do Before You Turn 40. Several social-networking websites, such as 43things.com, bring together like-minded list-makers to offer each other motivation and support. Hollywood has even made a movie inspired by the phenomenon: Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List, about a couple of cancer patients out to tackle some adventures before they go.

It’s not surprising these lists are in vogue. In our time-crunched, technology-minded world, they serve as a shortcut to self-expression and personal fulfillment. Measurable, results-driven and unwaveringly upbeat, Life Lists allow us to focus on our innermost goals. They clearly define personal desires and things we want to achieve, which is the first step to realizing our dreams.

Susanna Barry, a health educator at M.I.T., says that writing (and reading, and re-reading) a list of goals has deep and subtle power. “The process creates a mindful awareness that shapes our way of seeing the world. It encourages us to view our experiences with an eye toward ‘How can I contribute toward my goals?’”

But are these lists a shot in the arm or a recipe for disappointment?

Consider John Goddard, a motivational speaker who many regard as the grandfather of the Life List. The internationally renowned explorer jotted down 127 goals on a yellow pad when he was 15. From living with pygmies in Africa and headhunters in Borneo to exploring the world’s greatest rivers and highest peaks, he’s crossed off 112 goals in the intervening years (and made 400 more as an adult).

He’s also been trapped in quicksand, charged by an elephant, and nearly drowned—twice—while running rapids. Yet he continues crossing to-do’s off his original list.

Professionals advise that the key to an effective Life List is to set goals that are attainable, relevant, and measurable, with a mix of the serious and frivolous. To create a list, Barry advises, “Ask yourself 100 times a day: ‘What do I want? What’s my heart’s desire?’ Or even the age-old question, ‘Who am I?’ Ask yourself when you’re on your way to the bathroom, when you’re waiting for the light to change, when you’re drying your hair. Don’t worry about the answer. It’s like sending an e-mail. Just ask the question and click ‘send.’ The reply will come.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing, and the answers have come as a surprise. My list doesn’t include jobs I’ll have or houses I’ll live in. And it doesn’t include goals I know I can’t meet. I’m not aiming to do yoga every day of my life, because it’s not going to happen. Instead, I’m shooting for a healthy practice, and I’m closer to success.

“Articulating our dreams is a way to make deeper meaning of our lives, to live more authentically and express our true selves,” Barry says. It’s a lesson in receptivity and a chance to ponder a question many of us haven’t considered since grade school: What do you want to be when you grow up?

So get out a pencil, get quiet, and think about your list. Approach it with wide-eyed delight. It will provide a snapshot of your soul and a new way to savor your life.

And along the way, you just may collect a few checks.

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