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10 Things I Learned From Creating a Break-Up Bucket List

Ali can now cross this break-up-bucket-list activity off her list! (Photo courtesy Ali Burns)

In late 2012, I had a milestone birthday and my long-term relationship of nine years ended. I had met my ex within weeks of moving to London from New York and so most, if not all, of my life in London had revolved around my relationship. I loved my life and partner tremendously and was hit hard by the break up. Knowing I could easily spend years in bed wallowing over my loss, I realized that I needed to keep myself busy. Looking back on my own role in the failure of the relationship, I discovered that I had completely lost sight of who I was — separate from being in a couple — and vowed never to do that again.

I decided that I wanted to live the next stage of my life differently, so I made a list of things that I’d been meaning to do over the past few years but never quite found the time. Some were things that I’d never done, others were things that I hadn’t done in years and some were things I liked doing, period.

After my brainstorm session, I had literally hundreds of possible things to choose from. I knew I couldn’t spend each day checking off a new item (I did have a job after all), but I decided to challenge myself to do 100 things over the next 12 months. This was my 2013 New Year’s resolution. People started asking me about my progress and what I had done so far, so I started tweeting @BreakupList and set up a blog, The Break Up List, where I wrote about what items I’d completed thus far.

Since then, I’ve been honored and humbled by the responses I’ve received. What started as something just for me seems to have struck a chord with many other people. I’m happy to say that I completed 100 items in six months and decided to keep on going.

A year and a half on, I feel like a completely different person. I no longer need My Break Up Bucket List to help me survive my break up, but I continue on with it because it helps me remember who I am, pushes me to try new things and enjoy life to the fullest.

Here are 10 important things I learned from doing My Break Up Bucket List:

1. Keeping busy can be a good distraction. Having to do things on the list channeled my attention away from heartbreak and into more positive pursuits. Even if the distraction was only for a few hours, I realized I could briefly have fun, despite the devastation. My List contained every activity you could imagine: Some easy, some hard. From “Clean house of Ex’s things” and “Stay in bed all day” to “Play tennis,” “Drive a Porsche,” and “See a play,” to the ambitious “Get a new job,” “Kiss in Paris,”  “Forgive the Ex” and the outrageous, “Ride in a Helicopter,” “Be in a flash mob,” and “Meditate with a Buddhist monk in Thailand.” Over time, I had longer periods of enjoyment and much less misery. You know what they say, “Fake it until you make it”? Well, with help of The List (as I like to call it), eventually I made it.

2. Telling people about The List encouraged me to keep going. Research shows that the more people you tell about a goal the less likely you are to give up on it. Blogging and tweeting my progress helped keep me ticking things off my list and provided encouragement, feedback and other ideas from people of new things to add to the list.

3. It’s a great tool to help find out what makes you happy. Creating The List helped force me to think explicitly about what I wanted and what truly made me happy…and lit a fire in my belly to see items accomplished. Over the years I had been so used to thinking about ‘we’ that I forgot that ‘we’ also consisted of “me.”

4. Don’t rely on someone else to go with/buy things for you. If you want something, buy it or do it yourself. Get those tickets to that show, buy that ring or those flowers for yourself. YOU deserve it! Don’t worry about whether you’ll have someone to go with, don’t wait until another time; before you know it that movie will no longer be in the cinemas, that concert will have come and gone or that art exhibit will have closed. Try to find someone to go with and if you can’t, it’s a great excuse for asking someone that you might not otherwise have invited. It doesn’t have to be a date. Goes for new friends as well.

5. You’re responsible for your own happiness. If you don’t know what makes you happy, how do you expect someone else to know? Having to rely on someone else to make you happy is a tremendously unfair and a heavy burden for someone you love to carry. Some people get crushed by that weight over time. My ex had encouraged me over the years to get out and do more things, meet new people, etc. But I was deeply in love and when push came to shove after a hard day at work, I didn’t want to meet new people, play tennis, or see a movie with old friends. I just wanted to spend time with the person I loved most. But over time this meant that I wasn’t bringing enough back (or anything new) to the relationship.

6. Surround yourself with people who support you in doing your own List. It’s unrealistic to expect any one person to want to do all the same things you want to do, but any partner or friend should be willing to try some and encourage you to find someone else to do activities from your list. In retrospect, one of the warning signs that my relationship wasn’t quite right was that my ex did not want to (happily) do things that I wanted to do.

7. Push yourself to try things you may not like. How do you know what you might like if you don’t try it? Some things surprised me, like jumping in a pool fully clothed or going on a spontaneous road trip. Others I didn’t like at all. But even the ones I didn’t particularly care for, like going to a strip club, I enjoyed just for being brave enough to try.

8. Sometimes you need to be selfish. You know what they say about putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others, right? You can’t be there for someone else if you don’t have oxygen yourself. After my break up, my parents really wanted me to go home for Christmas. Christmas is a time for family, after all, and the idea of me being alone in London really upset them. However, I couldn’t face the idea of going to various parties and having to explain to friends and extended family that I had been dumped. My parents were upset and hurt, but I was so fragile that I needed to look after myself. It was the best thing I could have done. Avoiding a week of pain and having time to myself helped me start the new year in the right frame of mind. It was over this period where I had the idea for The Break Up List. I’m not sure the idea would have come to me if I had been busy at my parents.

9. Don’t get involved with someone too soon, but don’t wait too long either. There’s an old adage: the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. While there is something to be said for a nice distraction, that is only true if you are both in the same place looking for the same thing. Do yourself, and more importantly someone else, a favor and don’t get serious with someone too quickly. Likewise, don’t wait so long that you become fearful of getting back on the horse again. Be confident that you’ll once again find love and that attitude will attract someone when the time is right. I met someone special speed dating soon after the break up. We spent much of the year together, but in retrospect it was too much too soon. I was honest, but totally naïve, about what my wounded heart would need once it recovered. I ended up hurting someone I cared about and I regret that. Don’t let the novelty and flattery of someone new cloud your judgment. Give yourself time to heal and find yourself again.

10. Don’t wait for a break up to do what makes you happy. This one seems so simple, but it took me a while to truly understand what this meant. I shouldn’t have waited until a break up to do what made me happy. I will never know if my relationship would have survived if I hadn’t lost myself and what was important to me so completely. At the time, I thought love was enough; I was wrong. I’ve had many people read my blog and say they were going to start a list that day, even though they weren’t going through a break up. I think that is the most important lesson by far.

I realize now that if you stop bringing your own interests to a relationship it gets stale and atrophies. I wish I hadn’t waited until a break up to start my List. Better late than never.

4 Comments

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  2. Kate K says

    amazing post – im starting a list tomorrow, and im in a relationship. what a great refresher this article is for ANYONE – single or tied down.

  3. There’s some really good advice in your 10 lessons learned. I’m going through divorce at the moment and when I discovered your blog I immediately thought I should definitely make a Break-Up List! But then I realise I have one. On New Year’s Eve I made a list of things to do in 2014 – some big like go on holiday, go in a hot air balloon, and some small like drink champagne, draw cartoons, go swimming. It’s nice to think of this as a Break-Up List – lots of new adventures for my new life!

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