Bucket lists are productivity 101. You need to keep a running tally of your dreams, the standard thinking goes, to remind you of what you want in life and to turn up the pressure on yourself to actually make these dreams happen.
Yet as ubiquitous as this advice is, how many of us have joyfully scribbled down a long list of travel destinations, lofty goals, and crazy activities only to end up sticking it in a drawer somewhere and never consulting it again? If anecdotal evidence (and personal experience) is anything to go on, the answer is quite a few.
Writer Anna-Meyer Shine knows why. "While my bucket list inspires me to take initiative, it can also make me feel, well, overwhelmed. Like a shame-y reminder of all the things I haven't done. It can feel like I have so much left to accomplish - and that any moment I'm not doing something on the list isn't a moment well spent," she explained in Fast Company recently.
What's the antidote to the creeping stress that can come from keeping a long list of things you haven't done yet? Meyer-Shine and a bunch of other writers have a simple suggestion: have a bucket list if you want, but also write a "reverse bucket list."
"A reverse bucket list is where you sit down and write down all of the things that you have already accomplished!" explains blogger Kara Benz, who published hers online. Why is this worth your time? There are actually several compelling reasons to take a break from looking ahead and spend some time looking back instead.
1. It will make you happier.
A giant stack of studies shows gratitude rewires your brain for happiness and positivity, making it easier to see the good in life and find solutions when you run into obstacles. That's true for daily gratitude lists and committing to thanking those who brighten your life, and it's also true for celebrating all that you've already accomplished in your time here on earth. Put simply: a reverse bucket list will make you happier.
"What I didn't expect was the wave of gratitude that came over me when I read it in its entirety," Benz says of her reverse bucket list experience.
2. It will make you more motivated.
The problem with big goals (and awe-inspiring role models) is that they're intimidating. When the future you want seems impossibly far away it's easier to begin to feel hopeless and give up before you've even really started. Reverse bucket lists, on the other hand, show you that it is possible to accomplish important goals. In fact, you've already done it plenty of times.
"Taking stock of what you have accomplished can create a feeling of progress, which can boost self-esteem and motivation," writes Meyer-Shine. "It's why productivity enthusiasts praise 'done' lists - when we see that we've made progress, it's more encouraging than feeling like we're behind. And we can gain a major sense of fulfillment."
3. It will make you (pleasantly) nostalgic.
We think that it's the big things that make us happy - the gorgeous wedding, the luxurious vacation, the big-prize at work - but when scientists ask people to look back on their lives, they find that simply remembering mundane moments actually brings us great and unexpected joy.
"People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment," Columbia's Ting Zhang said of her research on the subject (done while she was at Harvard). Her work highlights the importance of "documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them," she commented.
That means your reverse bucket list won't just make you happy by exercising your gratitude muscles, it will also make you nostalgic for all sorts of small but beautiful past moments, and that too will bring you outsized pleasure.