Forget the bucket list: Use 'time buckets' to plan a meaningful life

Bill Perkins.Alain Brin
  • Bill Perkins is the CEO of BrisaMax Holdings; after training on Wall Street, Perkins made his fortune in Houston as an energy trader.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, "Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life."
  • In it, he describes how the "time bucket" approach can help you plan the experiences you want to have in life, and discover more about yourself.
  • Draw out a timeline of your life with different intervals, and create a list of the experiences you definitely want to have; drop them into the interval that feels right.
  • Don't focus on money, and instead focus on the experiences that are meaningful to you.

Time buckets are a simple tool for discovering what you want your life to look like in broad strokes. Here's what I suggest you do. Draw a timeline of your life from now to the grave, then divide it into intervals of five or ten years. Each of those intervals — say, from age 30 to 40, or from 70 to 75 — is a time bucket, which is just a random grouping of years.

Then think about what key experiences — activities or events — you definitely want to have during your lifetime. We all have dreams in life, but I have found that it's extremely helpful to actually write them all down in a list. It doesn't have to be a complete list; in fact, you can't know right now everything you'll ever want to do, because, as you know, new experiences and new people you meet tend to reveal unexpected additional interests that you'll want to pursue. Life is all about discovery. And you will revisit this list later in life, too.

But I'm sure you already have some ideas about which experiences you'd want to have at some point, some perhaps more than once. For example, you might want to have a child, run the Boston Marathon, hike the Himalayas, build a house, file a patent, start a business, volunteer for Doctors Without Borders, dine at a Michelin-star restaurant, attend the Sundance Film Festival, go skiing 50 times, go to the opera, take a cruise to Alaska, read 20 classic novels, attend the Super Bowl, compete in a Scrabble tournament, visit Yellowstone, see autumn in Vermont, take your kids to Disneyland three times, and so on. You get the idea. Be as creative as you want.Advertisement

Your list will be your own unique expression of who you are, because your life experiences are what make you who you are. Key point: As you're making your list, don't worry about money; money at this point is just a distraction from the overall goal, which is to envision what you want your life to be like.

Then, once you have your list of items, start to drop each of your hoped-for pursuits into the specific buckets, based on when you'd ideally have each experience. For example, if you want to go skiing 50 times in your life, during which decades or five-year buckets would you like to have those ski days? Here, too, don't think about money just yet — rather, think about the point in your life when you'd really like to have each experience.

Some of these bucketing decisions will be easier than others. In fact, you probably already have a decent idea of some of the wonderful experiences you'd like to enjoy in your lifetime. As for your other "wish list" items, well, for example, you can always travel to a faraway place. But as we've noted, it's always easier to travel when you're in your forties or fifties than when you're in your seventies or eighties. The point is, today's the day to start actively and consciously thinking and planning for your years ahead.
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In general, using the time-buckets approach will make you begin to realize that some experiences are better done at certain ages. Mountain climbing and attending loud concerts, for example, are much more fun when you're younger. Not surprisingly, the most physically demanding activities tend to fall on the left (younger) side of the timeline. You probably won't be skiing much at 80. Yes, some people run the Boston Marathon in their seventies, and one exceptionally fit woman named Katherine Beiers completed the race when she was 85. But these individuals, of course, are outliers. And even for Beiers, the marathon at 85 was not her first — but her 14th.

A season for everything: Time buckets vs. a bucket list

As you go through this bucket exercise, you'll come to see for yourself that there's a season for everything. That being said, you might begin to sense that some desired experiences conflict with other experiences. Or you might realize that some of the activities you want to do won't happen at all unless you begin to plan for them now.Advertisement

And just to clarify: This list is the opposite of the so-called bucket list, which is typically a single accounting of all the things you hope to do before you "kick the bucket," so to speak. The more traditional bucket list is usually put together by an older individual who, when confronted with their mortality, begins to scratch out a list of activities and pursuits they not only haven't done yet but now feel compelled to do quickly, before time runs out.

By contrast, by dividing goals into time buckets, you are taking a much more proactive approach to your life. In effect, you're looking ahead over several coming decades of your life and trying to plan out all the various activities, events, and experiences you'd like to have. Time buckets are proactive and let you plan your life; a bucket list, on the other hand, is a much more reactive effort in a sudden race against time.

Now, you might notice as you fill up your time buckets that some experiences are more flexible than others. For example, you can still enjoy visiting libraries, watching classic movies, reading novels, and playing chess well into your old age. Taking a cruise can be enjoyable at just about any age. Still, as you start filling up your time buckets, you'll probably see that the experiences you want to have in life don't fall evenly across the ages. Instead, they naturally cluster during certain periods — taking on roughly the shape of the right side of a bell curve (see figure below).Advertisement

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As long as you're still ignoring the money factor, and still focusing primarily on your health and your free time, that bell will probably skew to the left — because you'll want to have most of your experiences (especially those with physically demanding activities) when you're at peak health to enjoy them, and before you're constrained by the demands of parenthood. If your life plan includes children, the experiences you want to have with them will cluster a little later, probably creating a peak around your thirties and forties. Again, all that's true even if you don't take the cost of experiences into consideration.

Okay. Remember, we've been focusing only on two key components of your time buckets: your physical health and your life's dreams. We deliberately pushed financial concerns off to the side, because it's always too easy to blow off our dreams by simply saying, "Sounds really nice, but let's face it ... I can't afford that." Focusing on money distracts from the hard truth that time and health are fleeting.Advertisement

Excerpt from Die With Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life by Bill Perkins. Copyright © 2020 by William O. Perkins III. Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Used by permission of the publisher.
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