The bucket list: rarely has a phrase been adopted so quickly in the travel world, and it had little to do with the quality of the 2007 movie of the same name.

The explanation for the rapid adoption is simple: we discovered a phrase for a concept every traveler knows well: compiling a list of lust-worthy destinations and experiences.

Peru's magical Machu Picchu, a fixture on many a bucket list. Image by Mikel Oibar / Nervio Foto / Moment / Getty Images

Bucket lists can be wonderful, as motivational as they are good for small talk; but, like any worthwhile concept, there are critics. Arguments against them include:

  • Travel becomes a box-ticking exercise, not about pleasure or gaining a deeper understanding of the world
  • A list leaves no room for spontaneity
  • Destinations and experiences can’t be reduced to simple items on a list
  • Bucket lists encourage bragging and one-upmanship
  • Bucket lists tend toward the extreme rather than the achievable
  • Thinking about death? Yucko. So morbid

There’s a simple retort to nearly all of these arguments: it’s just a list. If it’s not improving your life in some way, rewrite it. Or scrap it. A list can’t kill your spontaneity any more than it can force you to be a braggart.

You don’t have to write out, print or laminate your list, nor do you have to sit and contemplate your demise when you’re prioritizing your travels like the characters in the movie, but every traveler – bucket list critics included – has a list, either on paper or in their head.

If having a list is inevitable, how do you make sure it isn’t just a string of dreamy destinations, but something that might, dare we say it, lead to self-improvement and even benefit others?

Here are six elements to include in a healthy bucket list:

A few front runners

These are the easy ones: the places you definitely want to go and experiences you definitely want to have. All that remains is doing them, which is often harder than it seems. These can be new places, new experiences in favorite destinations, or even repeats. This is where most people start – and stop – their bucket list tinkering. A list that includes obvious goals is good, but motivation requires a bit more.

Include the obstacles

It might seem counter-intuitive to add obstacles to a list intended to inspire action; but an understanding of what stops you from doing something might actually help you achieve it. Don’t just put ‘Corsica’ on your list and drift away without contemplating the difficulties – put ‘Corsica: need to ask for time off, find wealthy boyfriend/girlfriend.’

And the place you’re never going to reach

Stranded in the South Pacific, Pitcairn is an ambitious choice of destination. Image by Michael Dunning / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

I’ve had a long-time fascination with Pitcairn Island. I even half-heartedly started to make plans for a trip there with a friend, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen. There’s a practical function to having one of these on your list, though: they make everything else seem easy by comparison. Wondering whether you can scrape together the funds for a trip to Tokyo? Easier than getting to Pitcairn.

Think of someone else for a change

If your bucket list is composed entirely of places to take selfies, it’s time for a rethink. Travel has the power to be a force for good when you take others into consideration. Who do you know that could benefit from a trip? Which family member or friend overseas is overdue a visit? Fundamentally, whose life can you affect in a positive way? Some opt for volunteering abroad; some prefer a smaller, more personal approach. My father is getting older and doesn’t get around as well as he used to, but his favorite place in the whole world is the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. On my list: going there with him again, even if it takes a team of mules.

Reserve an empty slot

Arguably the most important aspect of a healthy bucket list is a permanently empty slot reserved for spontaneity and serendipity. I also regularly forget items on my list, so it helps to leave some wiggle room. When a friend invited me to join him in Eastern Oregon to look for miniature moonworts, I said yes before I even knew what I had agreed to. A fixed list is limiting: you grow and change; your list should grow and change with you.

Go to Humptulips

Keep your clogs on: this isn’t me suggesting you to do something unseemly in a field of flowers; Humptulips is a place in Washington State. I have no good reason to go there, but the giggling boy in my brain insists that I visit. Usually, he’s best ignored, but in this case I agree with him. There are places that simply catch your imagination; because of something as simple as their name, or a story you read as a child, or for reasons you can’t quite fathom. Leave them on your list. What’s life without a few whims, after all?

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