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May 12, 2008

How To Stop Regretting The Past And Start Building Your Future

If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I’d like to do …” – Jim Croce

This has certainly been a challenging and thought-provoking action-provoking series of posts at Rock Your Day.  I hope all my regular readers are feeling a little more balanced than this time last week.  But the ride’s not over yet – today we’re going to talk about how to take your regrets - those things that have been gnawing at your conscience and keeping you up at night – and turn them around so you can pack more of what matters into your life before it’s too late.

Why We Avoid Thinking About Our Regrets (And Why We Shouldn’t)

As human beings we tend to avoid pain whenever we can, and thinking back to missed opportunities and bad choices is a pain most of us simply don’t want to deal with.  When phrases like “too late,” “if only,” and “the best years of my life,” start rattling around in our minds, we tend to try to find something else to think about (or worse – we don’t – and we end up locked into a period of depression).

And that’s natural.  When we regret things, we acknowledge that we’ve screwed up, that we’ve either damaged something beyond repair or missed an opportunity that will never come again.  Maybe it’s a career choice.  Maybe it’s our approach to being there for other people in our lives.  Maybe it’s a lifestyle choice that leaves us tipping the scales or tempting fate.  Whatever it is, it hurts, and it hurts a lot.

And so we feel like crap, and many times we try to find something to numb the agony, like food, or TV, or web surfing – or tragically, by hating ourselves for our choices and feeling paralyzed by the pain. But coping by distracting yourself isn’t coping at all – and in fact will only open the door to more choices that will give birth to more regret.

But we shouldn’t let regret weigh us down and sap our energy, because regret isn’t supposed to do that at all.  Regret isn’t supposed to be a psychological punishment or purgatory for our past transgressions – it’s supposed to be an indicator that something about your habits and behaviors must change, right now, damn it.  Instead of feeling that our brain is beating us up and sending us on another guilt trip, we need to realize that it’s actually trying to help us by slapping us hard in the face and shouting “snap out of it and get your a$$ in gear!” And that’s a message that’s just too important to ignore.

How To Turn Paralyzing Regret Into Energizing Action

There’s no magic formula or easy way out of regret – the pain and emotion is very real and very powerful.  But you can chip away at it, bit by bit, by shifting how you react to it and how you talk to yourself when you are experiencing it.  Here’s a simple 7-step process that will get you on the road to transforming paralysis into power.

  • First, prepare yourself by deciding that you will now look at regret as the voice of an inner friend of sorts rather than an adversary, as someone who is trying to make you realize that you can do more and have more of what truly matters in your life.  Tell yourself it’s all right to hear the voice of regret, because it’s really there to help you (although it’s help of the ‘toughlove’ variety).
  • Then, take control by confronting your regrets head on.  Don’t wait for something to trigger a memory, catch you by surprise and depress you when you guard is down.  Take the initiative and ask yourself “What do I regret about my personal choices and behaviors over the last 5/10/etc. years?”  And then listen.  Really listen.
  • Next, focus on one of those regrets and ask it/(yourself), “Ok, I’m listening.  What are you trying to tell me about how I should live my life differently?”  Then listen.  Take your time.  Discover what it is you know you should be doing and what behaviors you need to change (or attitudes you need to move past) in order to get more of what matters in the future.  Get clear on what needs to change.
  • Then, ask yourself “What will I lose if I don’t do this?”  Look ahead another 5/10/etc. years and see what will happen if your present behaviors continue.  Taste the flavor of potential regret and let the reality of the situation sink in: this will be your future if you do not change.
  • Next, decide that you will not settle for that fate and that you will take control, no matter how hard you have to push yourself.  Grit your teeth.  Put your foot down.  Draw the line.  Get frustrated enough that finally, damn it, you’re going to make the necessary changes, even if it hurts
  • Now, come up with a simple sentence you can repeat in your head to remind yourself what your new standard is (For example: “I refuse to let work force my family time onto the back burner.  I put family first, and schedule work in around it.”).  Since you have to break an existing habit, you need something consistent you can repeat over and over again so that you can snap yourself out of it when you’re lapsing into your old behaviors.  This is the most critical step; if you have trouble breaking a habit, 99% of the time it’s because you’re not doing this step, and you let the urgencies of life sidetrack you.
  • Finally, ask yourself “What do I need to focus on to make this change easy?”  This will be a change in perspective for most people because we believe that habit change is hard.  It’s not necessarily hard (read: difficult) as much as it is hard work (read: putting in effort every day).  But there are things you can do to make it easier.  Enlist someone’s help.  Get a coach or a friend to hold you accountable.  Find ways to make the process less painful (too much to go into now, but I may write on this later).  The point is, if you ask yourself “How do I make this easy?”, and you keep asking yourself that, you’ll come up with answers you can use.

The Big Question:  What Should You Change?

Your regrets are little messengers telling you something.  They’re putting pressure on you to do something different now, before it’s too late.  What are your regrets telling you?  As you go into your week, mull over these areas where we tend to have the most regrets:

  • Family – What did you miss out on growing up?  Are you leaving the same legacy for your family, or pushing for something greater?
  • Career – Is the cost of what you’re pursuing worth it?  Are your fears holding you back from taking bold steps?  Are you going through the motions or training yourself for a better tomorrow?
  • Self-image – are you beating yourself up for something that happened a long time ago?  Are you holding on to limiting beliefs that keep you from pursuing opportunities to show what you secretly believe you’re really made of?

I’m sure there could be a hundred bullet points here, but the important thing is to listen to that internal voice that’s nagging at you to change something now, befor it’s too late.  Don’t let regret for past action/inaction hold you back from doing something today that will make life better for you and those who you care about.  You can’t store time in a bottle.  But what you can do is drink today deeply, down to the last drop.  Don’t waste a sip.

23 Responses to “How To Stop Regretting The Past And Start Building Your Future”

  • May 12, 2008 Brett Legree


    Thanks for this today, especially this:

    “What do I regret about my personal choices and behaviors over the last 5/10/etc. years?” And then listen. Really listen.

    Now I know exactly what to think about this week while I’m working on your 15 minute challenge, during the introspection part.

    (To be honest, I think I had already done that a little anyway. But this is a good focal point for the week.)

    This is going to be fun – time to kick some a$$.


    Brett Legree’s last blog post..canada 2, greece 0. a story about running.

  • May 12, 2008 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    This is a long post that I’ll have to absorb and think over.

    I’ll add one thing:

    Breaking a habit or establishing a new one TAKES TIME. People always set up new habits suddenly without easing into them and set ridiculous time frames for accomplishments.

    “I’m going to quit smoking today.”
    “I’m going to play guitar an hour a day starting now.”
    “I’m going to cook great meals every night.”
    “I’m going to wake up at 5am daily from now on.”

    Guaranteed failure. Establishing a new habit takes at LEAST two weeks of conscientious effort before it starts to begin being a habit – and even then, more time is needed to root the habit firmly.

    So shed your old ideas, yes. Get new ones. And give yourself a freakin’ chance to ease into it so you don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work overnight or even in a few days.

    Use the “tomorrow’s another day and I’ll try again” theory, or even the smoker’s “I’m not going to smoke for one hour. Maybe the next hour I will, but I’m only focusing on this short period right now because I *know* I can do it.”

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..Should You Specialize in Website Content?

  • May 12, 2008 Brett Legree


    That’s a hell of a good point – we are bound to stumble, when starting something new. We have to give ourselves a break, pick ourselves back up and try again. We’re all pretty busy and as you say, these things take time.

    It’s like losing weight or getting in shape – it took a while to get to where you are, so it will take a while to get to where you want to go.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..canada 2, greece 0. a story about running.

  • May 12, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @James @Brett –
    I use this method all the time. I think Brian Tracy once said “There are no unreasonable goals – only unreasonable timeframes.”

    And there’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous members take it “one day at a time.” Because all you *can* do (if you want to build/break a habit) is focus on what comes next, not just the future …

  • May 12, 2008 Dorian aka coffeeister |_|)

    Damn straight, Dave, James & Brett! As a proponent of living w/out regrets, my utter lack of them can create the illusion I’ve not made mistakes (HA, as if I’m not human?!), don’t recognize when I have or don’t give a damn that I have. Admittedly, quite a bit of the latter comes into play but only because I own my idiocy, declare my idiocy, learning from it so I can leave it behind. To hell w/past idiocy, I have new idiocies, er, risks to take on!

    You’re on a phenomenal train of tho’t, Dave, & I can’t thank you enough. So in line w/my own priorities & means of achieving them are these recent posts (not that previous ones weren’t but – you know – all the MORE so ~_^), I quoted one recently on my blog:
    (|_|*cheers*|_|) @coffeesister ^_^

    PS: I even linked to another one in the post after that!? Enough already! NO, I take it back, keep rollin’; the niebu’s strong w/you..

    Dorian aka coffeeister |_|)’s last blog post..Mum’s NOT the word when it comes to mine <3

  • May 12, 2008 Brett Legree


    What Brian Tracy said makes a lot of sense – put your mind to it, and you’ll get there. Eventually.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..canada 2, greece 0. a story about running.

  • May 12, 2008 Michael Martine | Remarkablogger

    What is the real reason you did something you regret?

    This takes us into territory most of us would do anything to avoid, because we have to deal with issues about how we were raised and treated as children. Many people were psychologically and emotionally (if not physically or sexually) abused as children. I was never sexually abused, but I was emotionally and psychologically abused. I have spent a long hard time digging at core self-sabotaging behaviors in my life to find their causes.

    Personal transformation and self-actualization has been my life’s work. That I have achieved some success at this point is the result of all of this painful, difficult work which has taken years. It is the scariest thing I have ever done.

    And it is worth it.

    Wow, I had no idea I was going to say any of that. I’m tempted to delete it but I’ll leave it because it may help someone.

  • May 12, 2008 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    @ Michael – Thank you for not deleting it. That was a fantastic thing to read and makes me feel really proud that I’m one of your friends.

    I think we feel comfortable with what is familiar, no matter how fucked up it is. And I also think that we become the people we are today because we were fucked up – and turned around to look back while saying, “Enough. Let’s quit this and figure it out.”

    It’s hard, it’s long and it may never be fully resolved. But you’re right. Any change is spectacularly fulfilling. No matter how painful and scary, you get through it. Then when you look back a second time, you realize…

    “Wow. Look how far I’ve come.” And it feels good.

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..Should You Specialize in Website Content?

  • May 12, 2008 Dave Navarro

    @Michael –
    Thanks for your openness – I’m sure it’ll resonate with some of the readers today.

    Growth isn’t easy. I’m working through some self-sabotaging/plain-selfish attitudes right now, and it’s frigging hard …

  • May 12, 2008 Michael Martine | Remarkablogger

    @James – I do marvel at how far I’ve come. Every day. It’s a very good feeling. And it’s true that nothing succeeds like success. :)

  • May 12, 2008 Sandy Naidu

    There is a lot we can learn from self analyzing…I view regrets as missed opportunities…There are a few in my life…But the aim is to have the same regret twice in life…So I try to learn from the past regret and try my best not to repeat it…

    And @Michael thanks for not deleting your comment.

    Sandy Naidu’s last blog post..Finding A Baby Sitter Made Easy – Meet Delia Timms

  • May 12, 2008 Loraleigh Vance

    Surperb post. I couldn’t agree more.

    In a reverse way of thinking, I’ve had to stop thinking about regrets. I was using them to waste time and energy that is better used to improve my future. That is where your post led us anyway, so maybe it is the same thinking.

    I’ve had a lot of experience changing habits having been an alkie, pot head and cigarette smoker most of my life. It sure feels good to get it all out of my life but as Michael was mentioning, then there are the core issues to work on.

    We are all works in progress and that’s the beauty of it all. May we never stop.

    Thanks for your inspiring post.

    Loraleigh Vance’s last blog post..Clarification of the Niebu-lous Niebu Etiquette

  • May 12, 2008 Wendi Kelly

    I used to have “I love Jim Croce” Doodled all over my grade school folders.

    ( Just gave away my age didn’t I)
    Great song….great Post. Read it twice just so I could hear the song again. :)

    Thank you for your honesty. I think you are right on about your observations. The abuse part is true for me too. And if you go through your life not wanting to be a victom but a survivor, then you spend your life climbing up on the rocks. The mountain looks like it’s too high and then one day you look down and it’s hard to believe you’ve come that far…one rock at a time.

    And I’m glad you didn’t delete…we are all climbing together. Have faith in your words..Somebody needs to hear them.

    Wendi Kelly’s last blog post..Balancing Balloons

  • May 13, 2008 @Stephen Productivity in Context

    I saw that you changed the feed, what about the e-mail version?

  • May 3, 2009 GC

    Thanks for your words.
    I left my job and career in finance two years ago to pursue a career in acting. I
    trained at drama school but found that I hated the lifestyle when I graduated. The long resting periods between jobs was awful.
    I cant shake off my regret at my desicion however. I just cant do it. I had a great job that paid huge amounts and that door is closed to me now for various reasons.
    How do I move on?

  • Jul 23, 2009 cm

    I’ll tell you what i do. I spend a lot of time wondering why everybody else is happy and today I finally figured it out. Its because it never occurs to them not to be. Something a long way back must have given me the impression that I had no right to be that everyone else could be but I couldn’t because I wasn’t good enough. Isn’t that completely crazy? But let me tell you that attitude has kept me from taking jobs maybe even keeping out of good relationships and I’ve been a lot of time looking at other people thinking but they arent perfect but they still have x,y and z.
    I never expected to be writing that anyplace today!!! But I’m glad to have found the space to write it!!

  • Jul 23, 2009 cm

    Oh and I do sympathise with the guy who dropped out to go to drama school. You are one of those extraordinary people who took the risk and gave it a go. I admire you.

  • Jul 2, 2010 Manish


    You have rightly said that we need to change our habits in order to get things moving. But its not just about habits. Its also about fear. And that, i believe is the biggest block.

    So my question is, how do u get rid of that fear, or rather, how to generate courage to overcome that fear ?


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