Regret is one of the emotions that knits society together, as is remorse. Indeed, the concept of a society completely free of both emotions and their influence would be, in a lot of ways, anarchistic. Without the brake of regret, an even larger segment of the population than present would take action without regard to consequences.
However, as in all things in life, there’s a need for balance. Too much regret will hinder you as you try to reach your life’s goals, it will impact your family, your friends and your career. (Indeed, the entirety of Faulkner’s literary canon deals with people living with the consequences of making decisions based entirely on regret over past actions, which is one reason why they’re compelling reading… and to be honest, about as depressing as sequential words in the English language can be.)
Regrets come from three causes. Things you did, things you meant to do, and things you’d wished you’d done. The way to achieve balance in life is to consider all three sources.
Now, regret over things you did is a perfectly normal part of civilized life. Regret over hurting someone, regret over breaking a promise, these are all sane and sensible things in life, if kept in moderation. Regretting things you did in grade school while you’re in your thirties is not productive. So, just remember that with regret, time heals many wounds, and that these sorts of regret should have a sunset clause attached to them.
The best way to resolve these sorts of regrets are to talk to the person you hurt, and get it aired out. It’s almost always better to talk it out and explore the issue than to sit and molder and marinate in your own regrets and guilt.
The second form of regret comes from inadequate planning. You meant to do something, but you didn’t actually organize the effort needed to do it. The way to ameliorate this form of regret is to actively plan. Instead of making a new year’s resolution, and never following through on it, take the time to both write down your goal and define the steps needed to make it happen. Then, every morning, look at your list of things to do and check it to see that, every day, you’re making progress towards your goal.
In addition to breaking down your goal into requirements, and acting on them, it’s also important to visualize the goal being completed in the present tense. Don’t think of the goal as being something in the indeterminate future. Set deadlines, and make daily progress towards it. Visualize how your life will be when the goal is completed, and focus on that.
It’s even more important to make regular, measured, marked progress towards your goals, and to remain aware of them, to focus on them, and to reward yourself for each progress marker you reach. Take the time to reflect on accomplishing these goals. You put the effort into planning and achieving them, you should reap the rewards of them.
The last flavor of regret is regret over things you didn’t do. People are often times too considered and reserved in what they want to do with their lives, too worried about what others think of them. Everyone should go read Richard Feynman’s book “Why do you care what other people think?” Feymman, a Nobel prize winning physicist, and one of the most brilliant teachers to ever pick up chalk, made his career out of being an iconoclast, who thought outside the box, and did the things he felt were important, rather than bowing down to the societal norms.
With his wife’s permission, he regularly graded his student’s papers in a topless nightclub, talking to the dancers. He was a voracious reader and would try nearly anything, not for a thrill of some sort, but to gain the experience, and to make sure that he lived a life with no option left unexamined. We would all do well to emulate his attitude, even if we don’t always agree with his actions.
By following these steps, you can live a life where you accomplish more, and one where, when you look back on it, you’ll be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and never worried about the path less taken.