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Last Updated on November 26, 2020

The 5 Most Important Things in Life You’ll Regret Not Pursuing

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The 5 Most Important Things in Life You’ll Regret Not Pursuing

It’s common to think about what the most important things in life are. We all seek to align ourselves with things that truly matter and that will ultimately add to our happiness and fulfillment.

How we set ourselves up to create a life well-lived versus a life half-lived is often more about the regrets we have over the things we failed to do rather than the things we actually did.

We regret more not becoming our ideal selves, or the person we truly wanted to be. We regret living an unfulfilled life. We regret living in fear and not having the courage to focus on the things and people that truly matter most.

What is important in life, really? With that question in mind, we’ll take a look at the things most people regret not pursuing and how to live a life grounded in what really matters

What We Regret Most

“I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.” -Jeff Bezos

Research has found that people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals, and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations, and responsibilities.[1]

Published in Emotion, the researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, making a distinction between the “ideal self” (not achieving goals they had set for themselves, their dreams, and ambitions) and “the ought self” (not meeting the norms and rules they had for themselves or fulfilling their obligations to others). They asked participants to list, name, and categorize their regrets.[2]

Across the different studies, the participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72% vs. 28%). Furthermore, when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self (76% vs. 24%).

“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life. The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you.” – Tom Gilovich

Let’s ponder a couple of questions:

What is it that you currently regret most about your life?

What do you most not want to regret about your life when your time is up?

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People regret their inactions more than their actions in the long term. Not falling in love, not hanging out with good friends, and not working toward a healthy body are just a couple of common themes.

Maybe you never started writing that book despite your love for writing. Perhaps you haven’t set up your own dream business because you were afraid of what people would think if you actually tried.

The thing is, taking action is that first step to ensure you avoid regrets. Confidence comes with taking action. Making a commitment to follow through and then having the courage to do it builds the momentum.

If we don’t fearlessly pursue these things, we start blaming ourselves for not taking action and the regret compounds.

The Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

If you are clear on our purpose and priorities in life, you can create the personal power necessary to push through, and take action on the things that matter most.

When you make a decision to focus on the most important things in life, you’ll move from “woulda, coulda, shoulda” to “I lived a life worth living” and “I made a difference.”

To get through the hardest journey, we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping. – Chinese Proverb

Bonnie Ware’s 2012 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying tells us much about living a life to minimize regrets.[3] Ware spent many years in palliative care, looking after patients who had gone home to die. When she questioned these patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, a number of common themes came up.

The five most common themes were, in descending order:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to life a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with friends.
  • I wish that I’d let myself be happier.

The most common regret, by far, was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.” According to Ware:

“Most people had not honored even half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices that they made, or not made.”

These themes are similar to the ones that came through when Guardian journalist Emma Freud asked the question on Twitter “What is your biggest regret?”[4]

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Being held back by fear, self-blame and bad choices around love, learning, and loss were the most frequent responses.

The most frequent regrets focused around:

  • Not doing the right thing/being there when someone died
  • Not speaking up
  • Not pursuing higher levels of education
  • Fear of following their dreams
  • Unrequited or non-pursuit of love
  • Self-blame around anxiety
  • Taking too long to make a change

The 5 Most Important Things in Life

Through all of my research, speaking to clients, friends, family and my own self-analysis of regrets in my life, there are 5 core things in your life that you’ll probably regret not pursuing if you don’t do something about them today.

A lot of the other regrets you may have are a by-product of not getting the core things right.

1. Becoming the Best Version of Yourself

We often let doubt and fear hold us back from living a life of purpose and passion. This stops us from constantly growing and becoming a better version of ourselves. We forget to cultivate good health and relationships with family members or practice self-care for better mental health.

We have a number of things we want to do in our lives, yet many of these things never see the light of day. We worry that we don’t have the right information to make the right decision. We’re scared of the changes that could happen in our lives and so take the safe route instead.

This leads to regret, self-blame, and self-doubt. However, it is within us to create that amazing life we want. It means not worrying about what others think or how we will be judged.

Be fully present, surround yourself with the right people that cheer you on, have more fun, and take more risks. No matter how many times you fall you get back up and keep moving forward.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain

2. Chasing Your Dreams

If you don’t have clarity on your bigger purpose, dreams, and goals, it’s very easy to get sucked into an unfulfilling routine made up of long hours at work, bland relationships, and unhealthy habits.

There is no growth, change, or transformation in this case. Rather than pursuing your dreams and growing every day, you become stuck.

When you have a clear direction for your life and your priorities are top of mind, you are clearer on the steps you can take to move forward.

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You are living a life of purposeful, passionate action. You fully trust yourself, so you are willing to take more risks in pursuit of your dreams[5]. Start setting your goals today.

Set goals to achieve the most important things in life.

    3. Not Living Someone Else’s Life

    Comparing yourself to others and living someone else’s life can only lead to bitterness, self-doubt, inaction, and heartache.

    “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” –Oscar Wilde

    We should make changes in our life because we want to, rather than because of the actions or reactions of someone else. Stay away from negative environments and negative people that can poison your progress, erode your confidence, and cause self-doubt to creep in. Surround yourself, instead, with lots of people that inspire you.

    Many of us get sucked into living the life that we think a good son or daughter should live, or what our parents expect of us.

    We often make key life and business decisions because we think it’s what will make our parents happy. We believe our happiness is derived through their happiness.

    It’s only later, when we become dissatisfied with our lives, that we start to question whose life we’re really living and if we’re truly focusing on the important things in life.

    4. Starting Tomorrow

    We always think we have more time than we do. In reality, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so the best thing you can do is start making a change today.

    Spending just five minutes now doing something significant, in this present moment, could help you move one step closer to your dreams.

    It could be a decision you make, a conversation you have, something you read, etc. The point is to focus on the present moment.

    For example, if you want to travel more, you can make a plan to save money each month for a big vacation. In the next couple of weeks, look up possible destinations and make an itinerary once you choose one. With each small step, you’ll get closer to achieving your goal, so start today, even if it’s just by creating a plan or timeline.

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    You can learn more about creating an action plan here.

    5. Spending Time With Family and Friends

    One of the biggest investments you can make in your life is to free up more of your time to spend with the people that matter most.

    This is often easier said than done. How do you balance your work commitments with being home for dinner with your family or spending more time with your children?

    Long hours at work can cause worry and stress. You’re worried about “not putting the hours in at work” and creating issues with your boss and co-workers, but at the same time your family is also relying on you to be there.

    It’s important to take control of your schedule to ensure you are there for both the everyday and the moments that matter in the hearts and minds of the people closest to you.

    One study of 309,000 people found that “lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%.[6] This is likely because social connection helps us reduce stress hormones and increase feel-good hormones that keep us happy and healthy.

    The most important things in life are often the most important people in your life, so make it a priority to spend time with them.

    Final Thoughts

    Too often, we don’t focus on and spend enough time figuring out how we can live the happy life that we want. This leads to recriminations, self-doubt, blame, and regrets.

    Create clarity around what and who is most important to you and your purpose, and then take the courageous steps to focus only on those things that truly matter.

    That way, you’re far more likely to create a life well-lived, rather than one full of regrets.

    More on Living a Fulfilling Life

    Featured photo credit: Katie Treadway via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Mark Pettit

    Mark Pettit is a Business Coach for ambitious entrepreneurs and business owners who want to achieve more by working less.

    How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work 11 Tactics on Increasing Brain Power, Memory, and Motivation Why Successful People Take Notes And How to Make It Your Habit 8 Time Management Strategies for Busy People The Importance of Sleep Cycles (and Tips to Improve Yours)

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    Last Updated on October 18, 2021

    9 Practical Ways to Achieve Work Life Balance in a Busy World

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    9 Practical Ways to Achieve Work Life Balance in a Busy World

    When I worked in college housing, I found myself in a position that made me so uncomfortable, I had some big choices to make. I could continue to do things the way my supervisor wanted me to, or I could look for another job. In favor of more balance, I chose the latter.

    This was a big choice for me. I was basically giving up a (rather) stable job that made me unhappy for the unknown.

    And you know what? Focusing on balance was the right thing to do.

    It was also the impetus that led me to FINALLY finish my book, Making ‘Work’ Work for You. I absolutely needed to take my work/life balance into consideration and make some drastic changes. I’ve done that. And I’ve found that this message is resonating out there in the world of higher education and many other fields.

    I wanted to share some of the tips and hacks that I’ve developed and learned over the years. These are strategies I’ve used to make the work day more palatable and improve my attitude about balance.

    1. Be Intentional on How You Schedule Your Time

    You may have one of those jobs in which one could easily be in meetings for a full day, leaving very little time to actually get your work done. Staff meetings, senior management meetings, committee meetings, supervisory meetings (also called One-on-One’s), disciplinary meetings…this list goes on and on. Where’s the balance?

    During my years as a Manager and Senior Manager, I was in meetings all the time and felt entirely too much pressure to stay late, work on the weekends, or god forbid you try to multi-task in those meetings! I’m blessed in my current position that I don’t have that problem – but I think a person can be much more intentional about time is scheduled during the work day.

    In the first place, you know the saying, “if you don’t control your calendar, it will control you.” So control it (I have a great planner for that!). You need work time? Schedule it. Call it just that: WORK TIME.

    I currently hold blocks of time as work-time and in the “location” section of Outlook, I write down what I want to get done during that section of time:

    • work on the science grant
    • clean up email box
    • web site changes
    • clean desk

    And I try to do this at least one full week in advance so that I don’t get overwrought with meetings before I save time for me.

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    However, don’t fill your entire calendar lest you get in trouble for not being available. I look at my recurring meetings first – which days are my busiest meeting days and which days are very open. I usually schedule a 2 to 3 hour block at a time, at least 2 to 3 times each week. My current supervisor actually really likes this strategy and has begun to try it for herself.

    If you are working for a company who schedules a great many meetings, you may need to speak with your supervisor regarding your need to schedule more work time; especially if those recurring meetings are frequent.

    Give yourself a month to get used to the meeting schedule, and then you can approach your supervisor about options you have to delegate or remove some of those meetings from your calendar.

    2. Deal with Additional Priorities and Opportunities

    Working in higher education, I haven’t always had the luxury of getting to decide for myself what’s important. But in considering how you are spending your time, think about the extra things you take on in addition to your regular work.

    I’m going to be the first person who tells you that getting involved outside of your job is super important – for the professional development, making friends, networking, etc. But you may have to limit that involvement or consider that it’s part of your free time instead of your work time. And make choices that sustain this.

    I was very active in my professional association once I moved to California, and I carried that with me a great deal. I chose to have much of my social life connected through that organization…and I chose to be involved rather than going to a movie or doing other social things on the weekends. When I became a runner, I had to further alter some of these choices of how to spend my time outside of work – I saw fewer movies and was less involved in my professional association. And then, during times when my volunteer work was really busy, I just was not training for races.

    But sometimes you really do need to make a choice between the extra work/responsibility and your home life. Saying “no” means that you can say “yes” more often.

    “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ try saying ‘it’s not a priority’ and see how that feels.” –Courtney Carver

    Figure out what projects mean the most to you. Which extra responsibility will you enjoy the most? Which project will aid in the advancement of your career, or help you to work with someone new and influential? Really consider this before taking on a new project or committee. It’s better to do a couple things really well than have mediocre performance in a ton of things.

    Of course…there’s always the “other duties as assigned” clause in many of our job descriptions. You know what I’m talking about, they’re usually at the very bottom of the page, that “catch all” which seemingly gives your supervisor or other managers the option to throw extra projects at you. This can be tricky to navigate, especially during times when you are short staffed and surviving budget cuts. Be honest with your supervisor if you feel overwhelmed. Remember that you must communicate with peers and committee members who are sharing the workload with you.

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    It should also go without saying that you ask permission to take on professional association committee work before you volunteer. It’s a common courtesy. It gives your supervisor the chance to assist you with skill sets and/or connections that could assist in your new project or committee work. If they’ve been in your field for some time, they could even have great suggestions and recommendations for you.

    3. Find Portals for Flexibility

    If you have the luxury of a flexible work day, then you can make room for longer breaks. You can be creative with your lunch hour or come in later/leave earlier when you need to.

    Do you have the ability to work from home now and then? Will your supervisor allow that? Are you lucky enough to have one of those gigs? Make sure you keep it in perspective and get your things done. Don’t take advantage or take for granted, because you might lose it!

    The flip side of this is having no flexibility – zero, zilch, none. Your work day is rigid and you have meetings, meetings, meetings. That’s tough. You may need to build in buffers between your meetings. Don’t schedule back to back meetings. Start a meeting at 9am, and if it’s over at 10:30, don’t schedule another meeting until 11am.

    Don’t go back to the office and work before the next meeting. Take a walk, get a cup of coffee, and breathe. Control your calendar, or it will control you.

    4. Put Your Work Day into Perspective

    You know what? It’s just work. It’s meaningful for you – you put your heart and soul into it. But it’s just work. If you can’t draw the line between where your job ends and you begin….that might be a problem.

    The big thing for me was being able to realize that I was no longer going home angry. That was a beautiful thing. I took my work home – in an emotional manner – for such a long time. I would be so frustrated with the tough day and/or negative students and/or a rotten staff meeting…I’d internalized so much of it and it made me angry.

    So I needed to draw that line and say, “I’m going home and I’m going to be me.” That’s it.

    5. Find a Buffer

    You may need a buffer from your work day into your home life. If you are a live-in professional, this can be difficult. I’m lucky to have figured this out for me in my current vocation.

    For two years, I was a walking commuter and listened to podcasts on my walk to and from work. Currently, I commute by car but the travel time is about the same. I still listen to podcasts but have been on a mad audiobook phase for the past three months. Jen Sincero just rocks. This usually clears my mind from any daily funk and puts me in a lighter mood when I get home.

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    Some of you may have very long commutes and so, time in traffic further complicates your transition time. Loud music may turn into road rage, so I recommend podcasts (again – I’m a big fan), audiobooks, comfortable/slow music. Even something that you are familiar with and can sing along. But any drive home can feature these things, and you really only need a few minutes to make it happen.

    During that transition time (otherwise known as your commute home), let go of everything that happened at work that day. The work day is over. What are you looking forward to once you get there? Spouse or significant other? Family, kids? Dogs? Someone making an amazing dinner for you? A very nice glass of wine and a fire?

    Focus on one of those things to think about while you let your work day go…and SMILE — even if you have to force yourself to smile. Because even just smiling will brighten your mood.

    6. Unplug from Technology

    Even as I’m writing this, I know good and well that I struggle with this myself. My husband and I have smart phones and tablets, and I often bring my work laptop home. So I myself am not the model of unplugging. Writing for The Bulletin, Sarah Comstock addresses the fact that technology has been a double-edged sword. Advances are helpful and convenient but “have placed an enormous burden of relentless pressure on people as expectations rise in parallel with the speed of technological progress.”

    Computers and gadgets are suddenly able to do just about anything; as human beings, we need to recognize that we can’t do everything. Being able to get away from our devices and technology is paramount to finding work/life balance.

    In the first place, the main reason we add our work email to our phones is for convenience and flexibility. Having that connection allows us to respond to certain requests maybe between meetings, or while otherwise occupied. It’s most certainly not meant to keep us from our families or friends or to occupy our down time. You pull out the laptop with the intention of doing some personal research or maybe you are checking your bank account, and the next thing you know you’re opening Outlook and responding to emails. Suddenly a 15-minute task turns into an hour, or two. Next, there’s the itching desire to “quickly check email” while you are at a restaurant with your significant other or friends and there you go again – you get caught up in an email chain of crap that clearly could wait until the next day.

    Does any of this sound like you? It’s me too, much of the time. Some different strategies to consider include…

    7. Do a “Detox” from Some of the Apps on Your Phone That Suck up Your Time

    These apps could include social media, games, fitness, or sports viewing. Based on a challenge I learned about on the Rich Roll podcast, for the entire month of June 2015, I took all social media off my phone. I did not check in anywhere, I did not tweet or post on Facebook, there were no new Instagram shots in my feed.

    That gave me some balance when spending time with family and friends – it was nice to just be with them and not otherwise occupied with distractions.

    8. Tackle Your Cell Phone Stuff

    Consider whether your employer requires you to have a department-issued cell phone; and if your institutional culture dictates that you have access to your email all the time. One of my previous institutions did require a department-issued phone with work email intact. I received compensation for this, but it was expected that email notifications be turned on and the focus be on staying up to date with all communication.

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    Thankfully, that is not the current culture for me. I do have work email on my phone, but notifications are turned off; and, in fact, from time to time I think about removing work email from my phone because I’d just as soon not have to worry about it. But given that my boss has work email on her phone, I model that example. And our classified staff members are not required to have email on their phone.

    If the culture of your institution or your department requires this – don’t be a rogue employee for the sake of balance. But consider other ways that you can insure that your work email doesn’t dominate your device. Are you able to turn off the work-related phone on the weekends or at night? Can you talk to your supervisor about expected response times?

    No one can check email 24 hours a day and still expect to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the office. That is NOT work/life balance.

    9. Set a Time You Spend on Checking Emails

    Try to keep your email at the office from dominating your day. I’m doing the best I can to open, read, and respond/delete to my emails as soon as I get into Outlook, and then close the application until the end of the day. I try to be at “Inbox Zero” before I go home. This insures that I’m not wrongly multitasking during the work day (which, by the way, there is no such thing as multitasking) or spending too much unnecessary time on email when there are projects to complete.

    A new strategy I’m employing is to not open my email until I return from my lunch break. This was something my current supervisor read about in an article, and I really love the reasoning behind it. When you start the day with email, you are letting others dictate your priorities rather than controlling these yourself. If the email truly is an emergency, that person will call you or come find you.

    Hit up your main priorities in the morning, and then settle into the questions after you get some food. I’m enjoying the productivity of my morning and the peace of mind I feel because I’m not letting others dictate my work day.

    Essential to unplugging and finding balance is the notion of separating. Don’t multitask your work and your life. Unless part of your job is posting to social media daily, leave all that stuff at home during the work day. Do you need Facebook and Twitter open on your computer while you try to write that report (or get your email to “Inbox Zero”)? In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests “the overuse of social media unwittingly cripples our ability to success in the world of knowledge work.”

    Social media is lots of fun, but in the office it’s just a diversion that’s keeping you from finishing your vital tasks. The sooner you get your stuff done, the sooner you get home.

    If you must make a personal call, check in with your significant other, or connect with your family; you can do so by taking a quick break and making your call from the break room or outside.

    The Bottom Line

    You’re probably scratching your head by now because most of these tips seem SO easy. They are! You just need to make the commitment to yourself, make the effort, and then go for it. You can do this!

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    Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

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