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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

How a List Can Change Your Life

Just after I turned 36, I had a mid-life crisis. I realized that I was closer to 40 than 30, and I still hadn’t done many of the things I’d dreamed of doing with my life.

I had graduated from college, gotten married, and had three children in five years, and being a mom—scratch that, an excellent mom—was (and still is) my main priority. But, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something missing.

So instead of buying a sports car (too cliché), I made a list of 40 life goals—things I had always wanted to do, but just hadn’t. And then I challenged myself to achieve all of them by my 40th birthday. It wasn’t that I thought my life would end on the day I turned 40, but I wanted to make sure by then that it had at least begun.

Some of the things on my list were big, some were small, and some seemed kind of crazy, even to me. But, if I had ever dreamed of doing it, it went onto that list. I included things I had wanted to do long before I had gotten married and had children—from flying on the trapeze and going skinny dipping to getting a paid acting job and finding a religion.

And that typed-up piece of paper in 12-point Times New Roman transformed my goals from fantasy to reality. I’d had these dreams for years, but seeing them in black and white motivated me to move them off the back burner. It was like a permission slip to myself—when I felt shy (or selfish, or guilty) about doing something, I simply referred to my list.

I finally gave myself the green light to follow my dreams. And I hope you will, too. If you want to get started, this is my advice for creating a life-changing list of your own.

1. Get it in Writing

If your house isn’t quiet, go somewhere else (or at least invest in some earplugs). Carve an hour or so out of your day—I know that’s not always easy, but it will give your list the focus it deserves.

Take a piece of paper and write down the following: “I really wish I had ________.” Fill in the blank with something you’ve dreamt of doing, or used to dream of when you were younger—learn to paint, travel to Africa, start a business, whatever! Repeat the process until you run out of things to put in the blank.

Then, cross out every “wish I had,” and write “am going to” in its place.

2. Face Your Fear

Some of the things you write down might seem crazy. Or too big. Or too scary. That’s OK—keep them on the list anyway. If you’re like many people, what’s stopped you from pursuing your dreams in the past is the possibility of failure. But, ironically, the second you decide not to move forward, you are the one that ensures that your fear will be realized.

3. Take Action

It doesn’t matter how many goals you come up with—what matters is what you do once you’ve identified them. So, make a plan. Pick a starting place and time. Then, research who can help you (I promise, asking someone for help counts as an action. It's not a sign of weakness—it’s a sign of intelligence).

I started out with my easier goals, ones I could do in a day or less. And as I began achieving some of those, I built the confidence I needed to tackle some of the more challenging ones. Some required advanced planning and travel, but whenever I got stuck, I asked for help. Friends, travel agents, librarians, whoever—they all became my resources for information and support.

4. Seize Opportunities

Once you start working toward one goal on your list, you might find that opportunities to achieve others will arise without a lot of effort. For example, one item on my list was “take someone to lunch whom I admire, but don’t know well.” I invited Nancy Alspaugh, the executive director of Autism Care and Treatment Today! (ACT Today!). When I told her about my list, she told me about a charity run she was putting together. By the end of our meal, two of my other goals, “get involved in a cause I believe in,” and “run a 5K” were already in progress.

5. Make a New One

After you cross the last thing off of your list, make a new one. There’s no limit to what you can do, and no expiration date either.

Number 40 on my list was “write a book.” That book, 40 by 40: List it, Live it, Love Your Life, is all about how I achieved numbers 1 through 39 and what I learned along the way. Spoiler alert: I didn’t complete all of my goals before my 40th birthday. But, by then, I couldn’t have cared less. I was too busy being happy and living the life I’d always dreamed of.

Photo courtesy of Susan Cross.