Question: how often do you think ‘damn, I really regret taking that job/going on that date/having that relationship/buying that house/taking that trip?’
Slightly different question: how often have you wished you had done those things?
If you’re like most humans, you’ll regret the opportunities you didn’t take, rather than the ones you did. Plus those regrets will center around the same particular things (see more below).
So can we really experience fewer (if any) regrets?
Fewer regrets = better decisions
The simple way to avoid having regrets is to improve the quality of your decisions. Decisions with your time, attention and money in particular.
This is not easy to begin with, but it can become easy the more decisions you make.
Some of us are regularly called on to make large decisions – where in the world to live or travel, whether to continue or end a relationship, whether to stay or leave or job. The larger decisions you are making, the better generally, as it indicates you are taking your time and life seriously.
Some of us might have some fear, apathy and inertia to overcome so we can start making big decisions. To you guys, I would stay start with the small stuff, and build up courage over time. Refuse to see maintenance of the status quo as a goal if it’s truly causing your discontent.
7 ways to avoid common regrets
Know what people generally regret
It’d be arrogant not to take advantage of the research out there on common regrets. We (people) aren’t all that different really.
Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware recorded these top five regrets of dying people (get the tissues out):
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Other regrets that key studies such as this one have highlighted:
Can you see how any of these might be on your own death-bed list of regrets, should you carry on as you are?
Think about what is genuinely regrettable from your immediate past
Fundamentally, we learn through experience, and so what we know we regret can help us to avoid future regrets.
Not everything that turned out negatively is regrettable. Learn to distinguish things that are genuinely regrettable, rather than things that were painful but also educational.
My own small personal regrets over the past few years have centered on not spending time getting to know other people. I am therefore much more careful about avoiding that now. Prior to that, I was regretful about failing to nurture my passions and interests. That is much less of a concern for me now that I have re-designed my life.
Similarly, through life experience, there are things that I can put into the category of never-ever regret: exercise; reading; learning; spending time with people I truly connect with; writing. This helps to take the decision making out of how I spend my time, so I can worry about the bigger things, such as what to create and with whom to make my emotional investments.
Get really clear on what and how it is you have been spending your time and what you would do differently. Start with considering your five most recent, most important decisions.
Understand your current values (and use that to develop your own fuck it list)
Related to the above, a key in making effective decisions is understanding what really ignites your flame. Freedom? Love? Your children? Making the world a better place? Your art?
Make a list of things you truly value. Here’s a few things from mine:
- Learning experiences.
- Short trips.
- Novel experiences.
- Clear space for creative pursuits.
- Healthy, quality food.
- Parks (and recreation).
- Sea and sand.
- Minimalist living.
- Love and passion.
- Reading books and quality blogs.
- Mind altering drugs.
If you wanted to, you could extrapolate those values into your own fuck it list.
Learn to recognise when you are driven by fear
Fears come up for all sorts of reasons. Ambiguity. Past painful experiences. Limiting beliefs. Without knowing when you are being pulled by these, you’ll make decisions that you could later regret. That’s because you haven’t followed your heart; your nerve has instead gotten the better of you.
How to know when you are fear rather than heart-led?
You have to look closely at your intents and be prepared to be radically honest with yourself. We all have the tendency to justify our decisions by telling ourselves stories that make us look good. If you really want to improve your decision making, then it’s time to be real about what your drivers are.
Are you staying in an average relationship because you’re scared of being alone? Are you staying in a soul crushing job because you are scared of what others would think if you quit and retrained in something more aligned with your passions?
Go through life decisions with a fine tooth comb and check that you are in things for the right reasons.
Let go of the idea of perfection – embrace ‘good enough’
The uncomfortable truth is, there is no objective way of knowing that you made a good decision. We can only do the best we can with our current limited knowledge and experience.
Acknowledging this should free you up from paralyzing indecision. Sometimes what’s needed is just an outcome either way.
Plus, very rarely is a decision irreversible.
Choose your decision – and keep choosing it
Strictly speaking, this isn’t about making better decisions. But it’s as significant as anything else on this list because of what happens when we spend time in resistance to our decisions.
If you aren’t accepting a decision but aren’t doing anything to change it, you will become angry, sad, frustrated, apathetic and a person that suppresses their desires. And these are all prime states for fueling some later regrets.
Lie in the bed you made. Make the decision every day to choose your current situation, until you no longer feel that you need to. (And consider that that might be sooner than you are allowing yourself to believe).
We are more likely to make good decisions when we are in the higher states of peace, joy, excitement and fulfillment. Part of making good decisions is taking care each day to generate these states.
Select reflect over regret – and be mindful of the bigger picture and forces unknown
Positive reflection is always a good thing. The process of reflect-decision-reflect is really what intentional living is.
Be as objective as you can about what worked out and what didn’t about your most recent five large decisions.
Something that helps me a lot is the idea that I may have not got what I wanted, but I got what I needed – be that a lesson, or whatever. Making that a part of your mantra or life philosophy is truly comforting, because it is a nod to forces and future unknown.
Plus, when you are truly paying attention, you can begin to see what what you want is actually a lot more nuanced than that person or that thing. Usually we are craving a feeling rather than a specific outcome.
How meditation can help
Regular mediators will know the value in that special ‘past-less’ time in drawing on internal resources to resolve dilemmas.
If you don’t yet have a formal meditation practice, consider starting one. You could do as I do and use the opportunity of your exercise time to meditate (this works especially well if you enjoy practicing yoga).
Taking the time daily to get out of your head means losing the stagnant quality that your decisions can take on when you are deciding things based on your ‘old’ mind. There is no inspiration or creativity in a mind obsessed and addicted to its familiar habit loops and thought processes.
In other words, meditation helps you become more of your real self. It’s that self you want to consult with when making decisions.
5 rules for avoiding romantic regrets
Karl Pillemer PhD interviewed 700 older folk for their perspectives on avoiding romantic regret. Some cool stuff emerged.
These guys said pay attention to the following five rules:
- Pay attention to your intuition.
- Carry out due diligence.
- Make sure your values are aligned.
- Check out their families.
- Express yourself!
Summary – Reflection and managing fears are key
We all regret things from time-to-time. And that’s not so bad, as our regrets can be used to guide future decisions.
I’m a big fan of the value in positive self-reflection. This seems to be the key thing I think, if we want to avoid the common death-bed regret type scenarios.
The other big thing is courage, specifically the courage to be authentic to self.
So let’s have our radars attuned to any dominant fears preventing us from doing the things we truly want to do, and being who we want to be.