What to Do When Your Bucket List Is Too Damn Long

What to Do When Your Bucket List Is Too Damn Long

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Productivity

In her famous poem The Summer Day, the late Mary Oliver asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.” Pose this question to a multipotentialite and you might as well get comfortable—you’re in for a long answer.

What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Write a book. Travel to Antarctica. Learn French, then learn five other languages. Start my own business (called The Cat’s Pajamas, where I literally sell pajamas for cats). The list goes on. The list goes on so long, in fact, that you become keenly aware there’s not enough time to do it all. You can’t cram everything you want into one lifetime.

Even if you’re not a particularly anxious person, this thought can cause a great deal of distress. It’s exciting to have so many hopes, dreams, and pursuits, but it can be disheartening to make time for them all, only to realize that your time remaining becomes more scarce each day. Life would be easier if you could just focus on one thing, but you’ve tried that. Sure, it might be easier in some ways, but it’s not for you. 

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am compelled to do everything, even though it’s not literally possible. So how do you deal with the stress of trying to pack everything into your one wild and precious life? Here are some ideas.

Treat your time like you treat your spending.

The writer Paula Pant says, “You can afford anything but not everything.” It can be helpful to think of time the same way. You can do anything but maybe not everything, and especially not all at once. But while there may not be enough time to do all the things, you can still experience quite a bit in one lifetime. 

When it comes to spending, personal finance experts always say you should prioritize the things you love over the things you like. For example, if you love the idea of travel more than you like those fancy new sneakers, forget the shoes and save as much as you can for an epic trip.

Translating this to time, you could make a list of everything you want to do this year, but pick one or two that are especially important to you. This can work for sequential multipods who like to focus on one thing at a time. The idea is, you focus on those one or two projects for the time being and ignore everything else on the list—for now. After a set amount of time, reevaluate your list. See how you feel about your level of depth and commitment with your main two projects, and how excited you are about everything else.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone. You might find that giving yourself time to dabble in those other areas makes you happiest. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of doing everything at once, focusing on one thing at a time might help wrap your brain around the overwhelm.

At face value, the concept of Essentialism—focusing on one thing—seems to be at odds with multipotentiality. But I think they actually work really well together. You can use essentialism as a strategy to optimize your multipotentiality.

Live each day like it’s your… first.

I’ve always hated the advice to live each day like it’s your last. Where do you even begin? I’d just spend the day in bed, eating soup and watching reruns of The Office with my husband, cat, and dog. That’s how I’d like to die. This is not helpful advice for seizing the day.

“Live each day like it’s your last” suggests you have to beat the clock. The problem is, most of us already feel like we’re in a race against time. And racing against the inevitable is overwhelming to the point of apathy. Writer and registered nurse Leanne Delle has a different take on this advice: Live each day like it’s your first. 

Delle says, “If we live each day full of wonder and appreciation while discovering a genuine sense of joy, I believe that motivation for our truest passion would be more likely to present itself… I would argue that we can deal with day-to-day routine and responsibilities while pursuing our passion. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

This is a much more practical and realistic approach. It’s easier to seize the day when you don’t feel like you have to hurry up. Instead of being filled with pressure to do everything as quickly as you can, you can take your time and enjoy the experience. You might be surprised at how much you can do when you don’t have the debilitating pressure to do it all.

Make a “Stuff I’ve Done” list.

When I’m feeling particularly stressed out, I turn to my favorite de-stressing activity: list-making. I love lists, but crossing things off of them can make you forget what you’ve already done. For example, let’s say you’ve made a list of new year’s resolutions, you finish something on the list, and cross it off—now, it’s gone. It’s like it never existed. You forget it even happened, moving onto the next thing without allowing yourself to fully soak in that feeling of accomplishment or fulfillment.

When I make my goals for the upcoming year, I’ve started to make a “Stuff I’ve already done” list, too. Last year, for instance, I published my first personal essay online. I also got a byline in Travel + Leisure. I went on a trip to New Orleans with my best friend. 

When you start tallying up everything you’ve done throughout the year, you might be surprised at how much of it slipped your mind. Look through your photo history to jog your memory. If you’re anything like me, you take a zillion photos every day. Looking through them occasionally will remind you of the little things you’ve forgotten about: that cute latte art, the delicious sandwich you had with a friend, or the weird-looking bug you encountered during a hike. This exercise can make you realize that, in trying to do everything, you’ve already done a hell of a lot.

Being pulled in different directions by our multiple interests, hobbies, and passions is often frustrating but I think I’d feel more frustrated if I never even tried things. After all, you might not be able to do everything, but there’s a lot you can do. And if you want to enjoy doing it, it’s probably best to stop trying to beat the clock. You have one wild and precious life, but don’t let the pressure to make the most of it keep you from doing anything at all.

Your turn

How do you deal with the pressure to do everything? What helps you find the balance between cramming as much into this lifetime as possible and taking the time to enjoy those things?

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.


  1. Susy says:

    Such a timely message for me. “Not enough time” has been my life motto. Age has brought a certain amount of wisdom for me. Keeping my focus on the ultimate purpose of my life is a start. I’m an artist who has a strong desire to help others find their own creativity, so I teach. I work in a variety of mediums in my projects and I teach others to be brave and try new things too. Variety is the spice of my life and I’m passing the idea forward. thanks for your words of wisdom this morning.

  2. Shamir says:

    Hey there, thanks for this article. I need to try the “already done” list for sure, so many times I’m overwhelmed by the “you haven’t accomplished anything” but in fact it’s not like that. I found useful to find some tools to help me out with the projects I have at a certain point of my life, I found really handy an app called Boosted, where you can track how long have you spent in a week onto a specific subject/project (even though I’m sure there will be hundreds of these apps). I love because you can track even sub-projects , making it realistic (so many times things are more complex than just an A to B thing.). Another thing that I really find helpful is to remind me to trust my process of growth. One can’t always have an overall look on the journey one is shaping, that doesn’t mean that journey isn’t real at all. So I kind of remind me multiple times to trust my process of craving a path out this world and reality, and things I really care will be accomplished, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.

  3. Catherine says:

    Thanks for this advice! Too often I get in a state of: ‘there is so much I want to do, it’s overwhelming so I’ll just do nothing.’ Then I just feel like an observer, watching life pass me by…

    • Shannon says:

      Wow, Catherine – I could have written the same thing. I too get overwhelmed and then I shut down. Not very productive and can be depressing. I do love the idea of looking at each day with a fresh new perspective! I need to look at all I have done and feel the joy that it brought at the time.

      • Krsitin says:

        This happens to me a lot, too, especially when I start comparing myself to others. For me, there’s a fine line between being inspired by what someone else is doing and being distracted by it because I feel like I should be doing that, too.

    • hanieh says:

      exactly me too.

    • Gina says:

      I unhappily spend much of my time making lists and end up not getting anything done. Then I feel like a bum. It seems that since I have gotten older I have lost my energy to follow through on ideas. But I never seem to lose my hope so I remain optimistic.

  4. Katie says:

    “Live each day like it’s your first” I LOVE this, thank you!! (And PS: I’d also sit in bed with my husband and cat and watch The Office if it were my last!)

  5. Kaye Sims says:

    Thanks for the good article.

    I love the list idea.
    I sometimes (often?) do a TaDa! list rather than a to-do list for a day or a week or a month, but now I’m thinking it may be fun to do a yearly version.

  6. Courtney says:

    Thanks for the advice!! Question – where do you post your personal essays?? I’ve been getting into writing a lot more lately and I’d like to start publishing some of my work.

  7. Giulia Bozzao says:

    It is always inspiring to read the articles and the comments below. Thank you everyone:):)
    It is a little bit difficult to answer this question because there’s no one general solution (It would be so easy!!!), I think that it could be good to focus on the next step or on the one you have not completed yet.
    It helps to finish something cause it gives you the feeling to go ahead.
    I always start feeling overwhelmed when I think about all the things I want to do and all the skills that I would have to have to do all the that things. I feel blocked and I get anxious.
    When it happens I try to focus “here and now”, I return to be conscious about what is real (what I have already done or I’m doing) instead of what is in my head (the fear for the future).
    It helps me!!

  8. John Aurelio says:

    Hi Kristin,

    I don’t live under the pressure to do everything, even though I always have a full day. The notion of being subject to that perspective,where I am under pressure, is foreign to how I approach life. Interestingly enough, I seem to have accomplished more than I ever intended just by being true to myself.

    One thing that I see as a problem – yes I am multipotentialite – is the tendency that people have today with writing about the multitudinous ways that people have found to perfect your day, your job, your procrastination, and there seemingly is no end to the advancement of self. And the pressure is greater than ever before to multi-task but isn’t it a truism that multi-tasking is a fallacy. Research it.

    The problem with the quest for all things, is that if your eyes are riveted on your desires and the things that you want to achieve, the things that you want to have, the places that you’d love to visit, and many other things besides, is that you will end up intertwined and unhappy.

    Life is more than the sum of our accomplishments and goals. It is a good thing to have the ability to be invested in those ideals, those accomplishments of every sort; not simply a hop from job to the next to add to your list of “accomplishments”. Who ever said that was what life is about? I would like to apply some of the pressure you feel to challenge that same person. Life is more than you and me but it is about us and everyone that comes across your pathways. There is an ebb and flow to life and your purpose will become clear, but please find your meaning first of all.

    I starred as Don Quixote in sixth grade and life was teaching me lessons already. In real life at that time, I was actually chasing the wind(mills). If you use Don Quixote as an example, see what he learned in the end. Life has meaning. What I would do is find out what that meaning is for you and be true to it before all else. There is so much to discover. Focus on the “other” persons and wield your multipotentialite skills and zest and step outside of yourself for a change, and find the meaning of life in yourself and others. Pressure; who said, you? Let it go. You have to start with that one thing – meaning. If you lived your whole life and did all those things, acquired everything you ever wanted, would you be happy(along with the pressure?).

    Lastly, here is some food for thought – The quote “An unexamined life is not worth living” was published in Plato’s “Apology.” Sometimes called “The Apology of Socrates,” this book contained Plato’s recollections of Socrates’ last speeches. — Socrates would not live without that answer.

    James Allen wrote the book “As a man Thinketh” — in the 1900’s. He set out to find what determined the lives of men(women included). Notice he starts by saying, in his title albeit, that is what you think that governs how your life proceeds. “He never wrote theories, or for the sake of writing; but he wrote when he had a message, and it became a message only when he had lived it out in his own life, and knew that it was good. Thus he wrote facts, which he had proven by practice.”[1](this is from his the recollections of his wife).

    For reference:

    Seek, and you will find. I did and I am happy today. Yes I have been down the road but if I told you some of the things that I have seen or if I halfway provided you with the things that I have accomplished — with help of course, I have done far more that I ever set out to do and I am amazed and happy this day.


  9. Anna W says:

    Just getting around to reading this…I can vouch for “I’ve done” list. It is so very satisfying. As for the rest of it..and this may sound a little too spiritual…I am counting on the fact that I will either keep pursuing my dreams on the other side or in my next life time!

  10. Kristal says:

    Yes, good reminder.
    I constantly sit and tally all the stuff I’ve done – it helps HELLA lot when I look at the list and say, well shit. I’ve done A LOT OF STUFF. Instead of stressing out over the “things I want to do but not yet done” and “results I’m still waiting for”. :)

    The clock – best friend or arch nemesis? Still trying to figure that one out on a personal level. Doesn’t help that I’m a Doer – which means the inclination is that the clock is against me. Hehe.

  11. Queen says:

    I really love this ‘you can afford anything but not everything’ part.

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