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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 October 15, 2019

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why we procrastinate after all

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

So, is procrastination bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How bad procrastination can be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

Procrastination, a technical failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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