Making a Life List

How to make a list of life objectives without setting yourself up for disappointment.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
7 min read

What do you want to do with your life? It's a question usually pondered by new college graduates, people thinking of switching careers, and those experiencing a midlife crisis. Yet the query has recently gotten some new attention.

In, a web site where people can share their life objectives, some 40,000 people have reportedly posted their goals. The wish list varies. "Find a soul mate," "Write a novel," "Swim with sharks," and "Go to bed by midnight every day for a week" are some of the entries.

Several books with "live life to the fullest" themes have also been published of late, including No Opportunity Wasted: Creating a List for Life by Phil Keoghan, 101 Things To Do Before You Die by Richard Horne, and 2Do Before I Die by Michael Ogden and Chris Day.

"We're not here to tell people how to live their lives, but we are interested in the wide variety of possibilities and answers," says Ogden, whose book features stories of people who have accomplished a goal. Fulfilled objectives include parachuting from a plane, asking out a total stranger, and living in Italy for a year.

In the book, Ogden also shared his own experience of recording a music album.

"I thought, one day I'll be dead, and (I asked myself), 'What experiences do I want to explore?'" says Ogden. "For me, I wrote these songs, and I can play them on a guitar. But I can also hear the base, harmonies, and everything together in my head. I thought the only way to produce that is to record it."

Record his songs he did. After weeks of searching for musicians who could help him in his quest, he met a guitarist who had built a home studio for his own band. The guitarist helped him produce the tracks.

"In producing the album, I had the greatest time," says Ogden. "I knew that whether I lived five or 50 years after that, that I would always remember that experience."

The tale may sound inspiring, but does making a life list work for most people or is it mostly a setup for disappointment? WebMD discussed the issue with fitness and psychology experts and got some ideas on how to make an effective list of life objectives.

A few months ago, the Travel Channel listed "99 Things to Do Before You Die" on its web site. Suggestions included climbing Mount Everest, riding a leg of the Tour de France, and running or walking the New York Marathon.

The ideas can certainly stir up imaginations and raise the bar on what can happen in a lifetime.

"If the person has the willpower and drive to stick with the goal, I think it can be a huge [positive] moment in someone's life," says Sabrena Newton, a certified personal trainer in Kansas City, Kan., and a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise.

She says a goal can give a person's life a new focus and more energy, both of which can be beneficial, especially if physical activity is involved.

"Usually when people have a goal -- let's say a competition or they're going to climb a mountain -- that motivation is the only thing that will get them moving and exercising," Newton says. "When people don't have goals, they often just keep putting it off until another day."

On the other hand, goals may be detrimental to physical and mental health, especially if they are not realistic.

"Many times people have lofty goals. They come in and they want it all at once," says Newton. "You don't run 26 miles just because you decide to do it one day. Your body needs time to prepare."

Preparation is key not only for physical challenges, but for mental ones as well. Many goals require planning, hard work, and effort.

Unrealistic and poorly planned goals could lead to injury and disappointment -- big setbacks in the pursuit of life objectives. Unreasonable objectives could also set up a pattern of failure, says James Y. Shah, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Duke University, who has done extensive research on goal setting.

"If you are into a pattern of setting goals that are way too high for what is reasonable for you, you will potentially open up a cycle in which you set goals, don't attain them, feel bad about it -- and in fact, feel worse about it because you took the time to set the goals -- and then somehow try to make up for that by setting even higher goals," says Shah.

This doesn't mean people should avoid aiming high altogether. After all, the great accomplishments of Lance Armstrong, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been possible without a vision of the nearly impossible.

"There's a lot of goal research that has examined the importance of overcoming obstacles with the strong sense of self-efficacy -- the belief that you can do it. It can get you very far," says Shah.

So where is the line between taking on a good challenge and an unreasonable one?

Horne, author of 101 Things to Do Before You Die, says common sense should be used. "Don't bite off more than you can chew," he advises. Horne himself has tried to do nearly a quarter of the 101 things in his book. The scariest experience for him so far has been bungee jumping. He and a friend did it on a whim, and he reports feeling "scared to death" and wondering why he was doing it while standing on the edge of a bridge. Still, Horne says he doesn't regret the experience.

Putting together a life list can be fun, as fun as imagining travel to the Nile in Egypt, a sip of mint julep at the Kentucky Derby, and a ride on a Harley down an open road. These ideas were part of the Today Show's recent series on 50 adventures people should do before they die.

As enjoyable as life-list-making could be, writing down every conceivable thing you want to do in life could also become discouraging, confusing, and overwhelming.

"Being goal-directed is very important, but having a list of things to do in your life may … help you to be goal-directed or it may leave you confused because you don't know where to begin," says Steven Danish, PhD, director of the Life Skills Center, and professor of psychology, preventive medicine, and community health at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

In making a life list, Danish recommends making sure whatever you include in your list is in line with the direction you want to go in life. Shah agrees, noting everyone has limited resources. Setting too many goals or conflicting objectives could strain energy and attention needed for success.

"You can't do all the 101 or 43 things at once," says Shah. "There needs to be some hard choices."

Newton suggests using the SMART principle in making a life list.

  • S is for making your goals specific. Instead of saying you want to be healthy, for instance, choose a clear objective that will help you reach that goal, such as making a special effort to eat fruits and vegetables every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • M is for making your goals measurable. This serves as a yardstick for results. For example, in aiming for a Mount Everest climb, you'd know you succeeded when you reached the top of the mountain. Or in the goal to become 20 pounds lighter, you'd know you had met your objective when you shed that weight.
  • A is for making your goals attainable. This is the principle about being realistic. Yet it's also important to choose an objective that is not too easy. If it's too easy, you may lose interest in the goal. If it's too hard, you may give up before you even get started. "Little tiny goals -- taking it step by step to reach a larger goal -- is always a good idea," says Newton.
  • R is for making goals relevant to you. Some people may yearn to climb Mount Everest or complete a triathlon. Others may be more interested in staying at the world's fanciest five-star hotel or soaking in the mud and waters of the Dead Sea. The goal "has to mean something to you, or the person won't be as motivated to stick with it," says Newton.
  • T is for time-bound. Make sure goals don't linger forever. Success is more likely when you have an idea when to accomplish the goal and plan baby steps according to the deadline.

Flexibility is also key. Know that there will be roadblocks to reaching your goal. Some events may be outside of your control, such as losing a job or breaking a leg. This may mean you may have to change the time frame of your goal, or change your objective altogether.

"There is a value in dropping goals," says Shah. "Recognizing that a goal is no longer worthwhile to pursue, or is no longer reasonable to pursue can ultimately help you … not only with that goal, but it may help you with your other goals."

And with that, we leave you with making your own life list. What will be in it? Learning to dance? Seeing the northern lights? The world is your oyster.