Applying SMART Goal Setting To Your Bucket List


You are not poor because you don’t have money.
You are poor because you don’t have a dream. 

-Randy Gage

When I taught psychology, I used to ask my students to come up with ten items for their bucket list – the list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket”.

Five minutes into the exercise, the whining begins.

“Miiiiiiss…. this is so HARD!”
“Missssssssss, I don’t know what to write…”
“Miss!!!!!! I have two, is that ok?”

So, I may be a little bit further on the checklist/bucket list aficionado continuum than most people (lists and spreadsheets galore), but really? These kids (they are not, but I call them that anyway), range in age from 18 to 50, with most of them in their late teens and early twenties, and they cannot think of ten things they would like to do before they die.


Maybe, it’s just me. Maybe, I’m not explaining it right? I’d rather believe that, and take responsibility, than to actually believe that there is such a rampant lack of dreaming in my class. It sucks not to have a dream.

I do realize that there are people with lists (hello, brothers and sisters!), and people without lists (gasp!!!). However, even if you have never sat down and wrote out some of the things you’d like to accomplish, how do you know what you want? Or… how do you NOT know what you want?

My students represented this divide quite clearly – I did not have to sell the idea of a bucket list to the list makers. They already had a list. And if they didn’t, they loved the idea of (yet another) list. It’s the other half of the class, that I am interested in bringing over to the dark side of list making.

If you are thinking: ‘Would you chill out with the bucket list already?”, you probably belong to the latter category of individuals.


Let me try and sell the idea.

A GOAL is a certain desired result that you commit to achieve. It’s a different from a dream. The key words are “I will” vs. “I wish”.

So why would you WANT to have a list of goals?

1. Motivation

Having a goal increases motivation for carrying out behaviors necessarily to achieve that goal. Lack of motivation seems to be one of the biggest struggles that people experience, when trying to implement a behavior change.

Well, nothing motivates you not to skip a run more than knowing that you have a race coming up. Or to practice your French, if you know that you will be flying to Paris in three months. A specific goal reminds you of WHY you are doing something, and it may just be enough to get through the daily grind.

2. Happiness

Wait. What? No, seriously.

Again and again, research shows that setting goals that have personal meaning and then achieving them is strongly associated with well-being. In other words, it feels damn good to set out to do something, and then… you know? DO IT. In fact, it often feels so good, that you go ahead and make another goal. Before you know it, you are moving mountains! Or changing the world! Or something like that… 🙂

What’s a good goal?

You may have heard of SMART goals – the abbreviation is used quite frequently in project management and personal development.

A good goal is:


“I want to feel better about myself.” Awesome. What does that mean? Would you feel better about yourself if you spent more time with your children? If you got into graduate school? If you were able to do handstand push-ups?

“I want to get bigger.” Sure. What are we talking here? You want to gain ten pounds of muscle? You want to see abdominal definition?

“I want to travel the world”. Me too! Now, where would you start? If you were going to go today, where would you head first? And chances are, as soon as you ask yourself that question, a country or two pop into your head. There you go.


How do you know whether a particular goal has been achieved? “I want to be an honest man”, a student says. That’s an amazing goal. But how do I know whether and when I’m there? I want to eat more vegetables. Fantastic. How much more? Five servings a day? Two? Fifteen? Put a number on it.

In social science, we talk about operationalizing a variable, defining a concept, so it’s possible to measure. You want to study altruism and kindness? How are you going to assess them? Amount of money people donate to church every year? Whether or not, they help a little old lady cross the street? Number of hours they spend volunteering per year?


Reality check straight ahead. Anyone can get in shape. Anyone can run a marathon (yes, anyone). Not anyone can become an Olympic athlete. Consider the possible limitations. Consider whether your goal depends on other people. Consider the schedule. The children. The spouse. Can you realistically work out every single day for an hour? Can you realistically move to France, if your parents are in Canada (or Jamaica, or Georgia), and depend on you?


Your goal. Not mine. Not your mother’s. Your boyfriend’s. YOURS. So make sure it is rewarding to you. Make sure YOU want to do this. Do YOU want to quit smoking? Lose weight? Get an MBA? Try to differentiate between “I want” and “I should” and “I think I should want”.


It has a timeline. You want to learn French. That’s great. Without a deadline, five years from now you will still want to learn French. Do you want to achieve your goal by the end of this year? By the time you turn 50? Once you’ve established a timeline, ask yourself why this particular date. The further away the due date is, the more we need to consider what it is that we will be able to do today, in order to get closer to that goal. If my goal is to get a black belt in karate by 2030, then can I start today by researching the different types of karate out there?

Hope I made a strong case for having a bucket list in your life! Consider what are some of the things you’ve always wanted to do. Turn them into SMART goals.


Posted March 5, 2013

4 responses to “Applying SMART Goal Setting To Your Bucket List”

  1. Kym says:

    Kaizen sister checking in! I’ll share the ones that seem the most achievable now that I’ve spoken them into the universe! These all aren’t exactly SMART goals, but hey. You never know, right?
    Spend a year traveling around the world cooking
    Taking cooking classes at the local CIA
    Working with one of my favorite Food Network chefs (My A-team: Alton, Aarti, Aaron, Alex or Anne)
    Taking a photography class. This one is the most tangible and would make a nice birthday present to ME.

  2. Amy Lawson says:

    A few bucket list items:
    Qualify for the Boston Marathon (and run it)
    Hike the Grand Canyon
    See the Northern Lights
    Visit Hawaii (and many other places– as a matter of fact, most of my bucket list items involve traveling to new places, so I’ll end here.)

  3. […] junkie, this is not the first time I talk about my bucket list on the blog. In fact, I wrote about bucket lists in general, and why you should have one, I quoted a number of items from the list in the article In Pursuit of […]

  4. […] this post? Read why you should have a bucket list, how I add/remove items to the list, and 30 things a woman should do before turning […]

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