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The Use and Abuse of Regret

The Use and Abuse of Regret
Maze of Regret

Two weeks ago, I asked Lifehack.org readers what advice you’d offer to your younger self, knowing what you know today. The responses were a little overwhelming — powerful, powerful stuff. More and better responses than I had hoped for, to be honest.

I’m not sure what advice I’d offer my younger self.  I’ve messed up a lot, taken a lot of wrong turns, but even the wrong turns have led me to interesting places. I know I’d tell myself to be careful with those credit cards and student loans — 37-year old me isn’t all too happy with 22-year old me’s spending habits!

But other than that, there’s little that I’d want to change — and any advice I could offer myself would potentially have robbed me of some of my more foolish and enriching experiences, like chasing a girlfriend to London even though I knew our relationship was past saving. I spent 6 months in London, and another 6 traveling Europe and living in Heidelberg, and formed the relationship that would give me 7 good years of loving and support.

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but a good part of the question I posed was about regret, about what we would change if we had it to do all over again. I think regret can be pretty useful in the short term — for example, you regret saying something that hurt someone and make it up to them, or you regret making a mistake and resolve not to make it again.

But in the long term, regret has an insidious edge to it. When we start second-guessing our past, it’s a short step to second-guessing our present, and ultimately our selves. If the things that brought us to where we are today were mistakes, then it follows that where we are today — who we are today — is a mistake.

And that’s unacceptable. I’m not saying we have to accept every little thing about ourselves — obviously, as a writer for lifehack.org, I believe in the possibility of personal development — but I think we have to accept the core of who we are, or at least accept the reality of who and what we are before we can set forth on the path of personal change.

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Regret — the deep, long-term kind of regret — keeps us focused not on who and what we are but on what we did and what we should have done or not done. We cant fix the past, alas — we can only fix the outcome of the past in the present. Like my lifehack.org colleague Adrian Savage recently suggested, to move forward we have to be willing to let go of the past. Not deny it, but stop obsessing over it, stop combing through it looking for ways to undo it — and instead, start looking at the present for ways to change going forward into the future.

But maybe there’s another, more positive way to think about regret. Regret is, in a sense, what’s left when you subtract what you knew then from what you know now. As my question and our responses suggested, if we’d known at 15, 20, or 25 what we know at 30, 40, or 50, we’d have acted differently. We’d have made choices that our older self would be happy with (though they might have made our younger self miserable). Regret is what happens when you learn.

And in that sense, maybe regret isn’t such a bad thing, after all — it’s the trace that a lifetime of experience and development leaves in us. You wouldn’t want to guide your life with it, but you also wouldn’t want to be without it, at least a little bit. Not feeling regret would mean you hadn’t learned anything from your experiences — that maybe you hadn’t had any expedriences worth having.

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I think that’s the spirit in which you, our readers, responded to my “We Ask, You Answer” question. Not with the kind of regret that’s a negative dwelling in the past, but with the kind of regret that is, in the end, something rather more joyous: an embrace of the past, of the mistakes we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned from them.

It’s taken me a week longer to return to this question than usual (I usually write a follow-up a week after posting a “We Ask, You Answer” question) because — and I don’t mean to be funny here — when I really started thinking about the question I kind of regretted asking it. It wasn’t until I could wrap my head around the question as a way of bringing forth from the murky depths those things which have made us who we are today — the mistakes that have made us who we are today — that I felt comfortable revisiting the topic.

I want to thank everyone who responded for their efforts. The responses were amazing and well worth a read. Taken as a whole, they’re a not-too-shabby primer on life itself, and there’s a lot of good advice there. Which is what I’d originally hoped for — it wasn’t until after the fact that I started thinking about the “bigger picture” implications of all this.

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Next week we return to our regular “We Ask, You Answer” question with something quite a bit lighter! See you then!

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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