Photo: Shutterstock/Mauricio Graiki

Why We Should Stop Thinking of Travel as a Checklist

by Matt Hershberger Aug 20, 2014

In 2007, the movie The Bucket List came out, and pretty much no one saw it. You could glean the entire movie from the trailer: Two terminally ill men decide to tick off all the remaining items on their “bucket list,” which is the list of things they want to get done before they “kick the bucket.” Hilarity and heartbreak ensues. Then they both die.

I haven’t seen the movie, so that’s not a spoiler, it’s just what I got from the trailer. Maybe one of the items on their bucket list was “live forever” and that’s the last thing they checked off.

And even though I haven’t met anyone who has actually seen that movie — or it they have, they didn’t find it remarkable — everyone I know refers to their “bucket lists.” Oh, the power of a movie trailer.

It’s a particularly appealing idea for those in the travel community, because it forces us to sit down and make up the list of everything we want to do before we die. Once the list reaches a certain length, though, you start to realize that if you space it out over the presumed remainder of your life, you’re running short on time.

I’ve made several of these lists myself for this very site, and they can be a pretty fun exercise. But they’re not a good way to think about travel.

Lists are for things you don’t really like doing.

The other area in my life where I use a checklist is for work. I make a list of things to do for the day and I slog through them. And while it’s effective in terms of staying organized, it hardly encourages enjoyment of each item. In fact, I’d say the enjoyment lies more in removing an item from the list than it does actually doing the activity. And that’s the main problem with the bucket-listification of travel: It puts an emphasis on the having done and not on the doing.

Many people don’t have trouble staying in the present moment, so for them, making a list is probably much less of an issue. But I’ve actually given up taking photos while I travel because I’ve found it takes too much of the focus away from being in the present moment and enjoying my surroundings. Bucket lists do the same thing. Here’s an example:

I went to Paris with a few friends a couple years ago. We wanted to do all of the “musts” in Paris in basically a day and a half, so over the course of 36 hours we went to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Musee d’Orsay, and Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

It was exhausting, and we were moving too fast to really get to see anything. Then, this spring, I went back to the city with my fiancee, and instead of trying to see everything, we just lounged. We found cafes and drank coffee and ate bread until it was time to switch to wine. We read. We strolled around. We contributed to the collapse of the Paris “Love Bridge”.

It was an infinitely better way of seeing Paris than trying to rush through all of the sights, because we weren’t trying to check items off a list. We were just enjoying them as they came.

You need to accept that, as the title of the list suggests, you’re going to die.

I’m a big reader. For the past few years, I’ve been keeping track of all the books I’ve read on the website Goodreads, and then, when I see a book I want to read, I add it to their built-in to-read list. The list has grown to over 200 books for me. At the current rate I’m going, there’s a possibility I’ll get through that list in four to six years. But that’s presuming I don’t add any other books to the list, and it’s presuming I don’t read anything that’s not already on the list.

It’s also presuming I don’t die.

There are, quite simply, books I would love that I’ll never read. There are bands I’ll never discover, delicacies I’ll never eat, movies I’ll never watch, and, more importantly, there are places I’ll never go and experiences I’ll never have. Even if I live to the age of 100, I’ve only got about 72 years left, which is not enough time to travel the world and read all the books and do all the things if I want to fit in the other pesky little activities on my to-do list like, for example, getting married and raising a family and having a fulfilling career.

These lists are useful in terms of prioritizing what you want to do and what’s important to you, but they aren’t as useful in the actual execution — because no to-do list is ever truly complete. New things will be added, and some of the things you once wanted to do will start to lose their appeal.

You need to accept that you’re going to die, and that when you die, some of the things you would have liked to do will not have been done. Once you breathe out that little breath of resignation, you’ll be able to relax a bit and find enjoyment in the moment you’re in.

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