8 Habits that Will Help You Live Life Without Regrets


Live Life Without Regrets

“Living a life with no mistakes and without any regrets is extraordinarily hard to accomplish. A lifetime of making choices brings with it the knowledge that at least some actions were ill-considered…To live, it seems is to accumulate at least some regrets.”

This excerpt comes from a fascinating study from Cornell University. After sifting through mountains of data, this report provides a lot of useful insights into how and why regrets occur.

Living life without regret is certainly difficult – chances are you already have one or two. But with the knowledge from this report, I’ve been able to devise a few simple habits to minimize them as much as possible.

It’s been said that regret is “an insight gained a day too late.”

For many of us, those insights come decades too late.

Instead of waiting to see what regrets await me, I’d rather take action now. Here are some ways to reduce those thoughts of “what might have been…”

1. Make time

“I don’t have enough time.” It’s a simple, common excuse, but can keep you away from realizing your biggest dreams to your smallest goals.

Even if you don’t think you have enough time, you have to learn to make it.

Take a lesson from John Grisham. While writing his first novel, he worked 60-70 hours a week, using any time in the morning or during courtroom recess he could find.

By most people’s measures, Grisham had no time whatsoever to write a novel. But by fitting his writing in whenever he could, he found enough to launch his writing career.

Find time to do those things you want – otherwise, you’ll miss out on some important goals.

2. Do the things that push your potential to be everything you can be

When people talk about regrets, they often mention the actions they wish they had done. But it’s more specific than that. It’s not just actions, it’s fulfilling actions that matter most.

If you look at regrets closely, a common theme emerges – the failure to reach our full potential.

Abraham Maslow described it as self-actualization – the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and becoming all you can be.

Think about some ways people express regret.

“What would have happened if I had just tried harder in school?”

“What if I had developed my artistic skills?”

People often regret unrealized potential – the unexplored skills or wasted opportunities for personal development. It’s important to find something meaningful and fulfilling that can challenge you and make you grow as a person.

3. Live by these words: “It’s better to try and fail than fail at trying”

Imagine putting all your effort into achieving a massive goal, but you fail to make it happen.

Now imagine a second person who has the same exact aspirations but never even tries. They don’t even take the first step because they can’t find the courage.

Despite failing, you’re still leaps and bounds ahead of the second person. You tried. That’s something you can feel proud about for the rest of your life. The other person can only wonder “what if…”

4. Listen to your “shoulds”

The Cornell study highlighted that it’s the things we should have done that are often the ones that we regret the most.

“I should have studied more in college.”

“I should have told my father that I loved him before he died.”

“I should have traveled more.”

“I should have tried writing a book.”

Think about it for a minute. Years from this moment, what will you say you should be doing right now? Reflect on the answers until you understand all the “shoulds” you have floating around in your head.

Simply put, do this:

Step 1: Ask yourself: “What is something important I should be doing right now?”
Step 2: Go do it.

5. Use unhappiness as a mentor and guide

I don’t see unhappiness as a completely negative emotion. Sure, it’s not a pleasant feeling, but it serves a useful purpose.

Sadness is a signal that something in your life needs to change. Think of it as a signpost telling you that you’re heading in the wrong direction. Listen to it. Learn from it. If you completely ignore or avoid it, you’re missing out on an opportunity to make positive changes and get on the path that’s right for you.

6. Act on your impulses more often

As the Cornell study highlighted, it’s the actions we didn’t do that we most regret. But what keeps us away from taking action to begin with?

Psychologically, we put more emphasis on immediate consequences more than long-term ones. For example, someone will stay in a job they hate far too long simply to avoid the short term pain of quitting. Of course, when they’re still in that job years later, they regret not having quit sooner.

One way to get around this obstacle is to act on your impulses. Get into the habit of making quick decisions and immediately doing them..

The longer you wait to take action, the more you start to focus on the short-term consequences rather than the long-term benefits. In a sense, you talk yourself out of doing it.

With each minute you wait, your will to act weakens. Then you just put off a decision you wish you’d made sooner.

7. Find the silver lining to bad decisions

If you’ve ever made a mistake, then congratulations – you’re human. With all the decisions and choices we face, we’re bound to do or say something we wish we hadn’t.

Rather than seeing those bad decisions as something to forget, you can use them to move into a better future. See each bad decision as an opportunity to learn and grow wiser. If you can use the bad decisions from your past to make you a better person today, you’ll feel better about them and they’ll have served a useful purpose.

8. Spend more time on love and relationships

According to another study from Northwestern University, the most frequently mentioned topics of regret are about romance and relationships.

More than any other topic – including education, work, travel, money issues and health. Love and relationships (especially family relationships) were listed more than any other.

Both romance and relationships highlight the importance of the people we hold closely in our lives. Most people in the survey regretted a lost love connection or a family squabble or a time they were unkind to a family member.

This is a great reminder to cherish the people around us – the people who give our lives meaning and joy. By building stronger and closer bonds with our loved ones, we can help avoid any possible regrets of things that might go wrong.
photo credit: Thomas Hawk

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  1. Time is a funny thing because you only get a certain amount of it so you have to figure out how to make the best of it. It basically all comes down to priorities. If something is important to you, as your dreams and goals should be, you’ll have to find a way to make time for it. Sometimes its just a matter of looking at what you do spend your time on, it could be a waste by productivity standards.

    Listening to your shoulds is a good way to avoid making the same mistake twice. It may not be the exact same thing but you can hone in on your intuition.


    • Time is the reason why I try to eliminate the things that don’t matter to me and fill my life with more things that do. I’m always looking for more ways to use my time better and that helps a lot.

  2. You’ve touched on many important points here. #2 is definitely what I am trying to do right now. #4 to me can be a guiding light at times, and completely misguiding at other times. Sometimes you sort of wallow in a feeling like you should do something different, to avoid the short term pain of doing the required work now. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which, especially if it is tied to one of your big long term goals.

    • It can be hard to confront the short term pain of something for the benefit of your long term goals. I try to think of what my future self would tell me. If I imagine I would think differently in a few years than what I’m doing now, I take that into consideration. I’d rather do something now that’s tough than regret it later when I’m older.

  3. I want to have great (and true!) stories to tell at the senior center when I get older. That helps drive some of my decision making, definitely in terms of saying yes to opportunities that arise.

    • That’s how I look at it too! For some reason I imagine myself when I’m 80 reflecting over my life. When I’m that old, I want to be proud of what I’ve done. I don’t want to look back and wonder what might have happened if I had said yes to an opportunity or not tried to reach my big goals.

  4. Making time for the things we enjoy is so essential. It might take longer to complete a project or book if you work on it here and their but eventually it will be done. It’s about doing something of value. Great post!

    • Providing value is right. I tend to choose projects that provide both myself and others something of worth. It can make finding something to do a little longer, but I find it more fulfilling to do something you enjoy and that also provides value.

  5. This was a really cool read, it reminded me of a collection of surveys that was published last year, based on reports by palliative carers and nurses. They asked people who knew they were dying about regrets – invariably it came down to relationships and choosing to be happy. Wish I had the link.

    Anyway, I love the point about ‘failing to try’. I think the whole fear of failure thing is a big barrier for many of us and keeps us from doing things we perhaps should.

    • I read that survey in preparation for this post, although I didn’t include anything directly from it. It’s a good read though and provides an interesting perspective.

      I’m glad you like that point about “failing to try”. I shoot big sometimes and it doesn’t always work, but I never feel bad about it. It’s those times I don’t try that I regret. I’d rather see what I’m capable of doing than wonder what I might have been able to do.

  6. Great article Steve.

    It connects well with your previous post about fear.
    Most of us accumulate regrets because we’re too afraid to take something different. It scares the shit out of us.

    But your strongest point is listening to our intuition and acting more on our impulses. Because when you’re true to yourself, you can never regret what you did. You mostly regret what you did when you were untrue to yourself.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Being afraid to try something different kept me from doing more when I was younger. I’d try to stick to the same things rather than try something new. That only leads to the same results though – I’d rather see what’s out there and push myself to try something new. Do the same things and you’ll only see the same results.

  7. Nice article Steve, I’m all about improving our (good) everyday habits.

    Something else I’m big on & if I may say seems to be an important underlying tenet to most of the 8 points you make here is to learn from our experiences (and then obviously to use what we’ve learned in some way, e.g. to form better habits).

    • Experience is a great teacher, isn’t it? That’s why I’m not so afraid of making mistakes. I’m more worried about making the same mistakes twice. If you keep experimenting and learning and adapting, you’ll get places.

  8. As always, Steve, these are great items.
    I may be missing something really obvious, but I couldn’t find an e-mail contact here on your blog. Wanted to make sure I got the #1000Speak info to you.
    Blog post that inspired it: https://summat2thinkon.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/we-all-need-the-village/
    Blog post that put it in motion:
    Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/1000VoicesSpeak
    Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306227992909657/
    Blog: http://1000speak.wordpress.com/about/
    Call to Action video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Im_saJBRAD8
    Still plenty of time to join in – and we aren’t stopping after the Feb. 20th event date, either! Give me a holler if you have any questions.

    • Thanks for the info. I have email contact info on my about page. Although it was missing briefly so if you haven’t checked in a while, you might have missed it.

  9. Whoops – forgot the post that put it in motion: http://yvonnespence.com/all/1000-voices-for-compassion/

  10. This is a great post and a good reminder to stop and think the next time you are about to make an excuse for not doing something.

    I trick myself like this all of the time. When I don’t feel like working, I tell myself to just put in 15-20 minutes to make some progress on my goals. Before I know it, I get consumed with doing the task and end up motivating myself through the progress I’ve made.

    • That’s a good trick. I tend to do that too, but usually focus on just five minutes. That’s short enough to do something quickly, but enough to get you sucked into something. Well, whatever works to get and stay motivated is what matters.

  11. 1 and 4 are my favourite, Steve. Make time for all the should’s. Not doing the should’s makes me feel incredibly guilty ! It’s like I’m sabotaging myself before I’ve given myself a change.

    The other thing is I ask myself – will I regret not doing this? If the answer’s yes, then, onwards !

  12. What a great post!
    Use unhappiness as a mentor and guide…so true!
    Also step out of your comport zone more often and you will see that the things that you were afraid of are actually not that scary after all and often help you to get a step closer to happiness.


  13. All great reminders. I’m really trying to focus on #1, #2, #3 and #6 this year. So, in essence, I’m trying to to be brave and try new things.

  14. My takeaway from this post is “Years from this moment, what will you say you should be doing right now? Reflect on the answers until you understand all the “shoulds” you have floating around in your head.

    It is more meaningful for me than simply what I should do now. I can think of a dozen things I should do right now 😉

    • I’ve always liked that idea of thinking what your future self would say to you right now. That way of thinking has guided me well.

  15. Lauren Grace says:

    Steve, I came across your blog as part of a project assignment for my strategic communication class at Penn State. All that is left for my bachelor’s degree is a few days and finals. Stressed and anxious and feeling totally out of control of just about anything in my life. Although, I suspect I am not the only one feeling this pressure right now. Your point “It’s better to try and fail than fail at trying” really hit me between the eyes. Not that I will fail to complete this portion of my education because I am almost to the finish line. But I have and continue to try. And trying does feel better than not. Thanks for reminding me.

    • I felt the same way when I got my bachelor’s degree. I felt it again when I got my Masters. I think most people go through a little bit of anxiety and stress when they’re on the verge of completing something that has taken them so long to reach. So there might be pressure now, but it will be worth it once you’ve finished.


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