The human mind’s capacity to work in the abstract is a tool and, just as a hammer can pound a nail or your thumb, your mind can work for you or against you.
Being able to ruminate, ponder, remember, compare and fantasize allows you to pursue goals beyond those just necessary for physical survival, momentary pleasure, and reproduction and to derive deep psychological and emotional satisfaction from achieving them. However, left to run amok, these tools can do more harm than good in the long run.
Regret is a good example of an abstract process with a dual nature. On one hand, when you screw up, your well-intentioned mind hopes that the nasty feeling of reliving and kicking yourself for something in the past—along with emotions like sadness, guilt, and shame—will be sufficient to keep you from repeating the same mistake.
What your mind doesn’t realize is that it’s beating a dead horse. You get it: you screwed up and wish things had happened differently. You can reach that conclusion pretty quickly, but that often doesn't stop your mind from continuing to pile on the regret, and that can impact your psychological well-being. For one thing, your confidence and self-esteem can suffer, which can impair your ability to act decisively in your best interests in the future.
One way to work with regret that you’re already feeling is to cultivate present-moment awareness with mindfulness meditation practices, which helps to loosen the grip that ruminative thoughts can have on you. However, what I’d like to focus on today is what you can do to nip the problem in the bud by removing the factors that give rise to long-term regret.
Loose ends, paths not taken, and fear of the dark
Before we talk about strategies, we need to talk about three innate tendencies of your mind that combine forces to set you up for regret.
- Have you ever been called away while you’re in the middle of doing something and then found your mind returning again and again to the unfinished business you need to take care of? That’s the manifestation of something called your “resumption drive” (or the "Zeigarnik effect").
Your mind abhors loose ends, and whether it’s a mundane one (the basket of laundry you need to finish folding) or one that connects deeply with your self-identity (the degree program you didn’t quite finish), it will nag you to tie them up.
- Short-term regrets usually concern something you’ve done (errors of commission), but the ones that haunt you over the long term are most likely to concern things you haven’t done (errors of omission). This is a big one, and it’s a phenomenon that has been repeatedly demonstrated in experiments.
It makes sense in light of your resumption drive: if your mind is already predisposed to return to matters that are left incomplete by your lack of action, then it stands to reason that regrets you have will arise from the same field of awareness more often.
- The single largest cause of inaction is fear. It’s a natural response to the unknown that’s intended to keep you from harm, but your mind also tends to err on the side of caution in the face of incomplete information.
It will fill in the blanks on its own, often making assumptions that increase the perception of risk and justify inaction. This, in turn, can begin a snowball effect whereby you turn inward, taking in less and less information (creating more and more blanks) and making increasingly uninformed decisions.
You could imagine a child, convinced that a monster lives under his bed, pulling a blanket over his eyes, hoping that his inability to see the monster when it emerges—in his fear-driven imagination—will also make him invisible. The darkness is a breeding ground for primitive, irrational, and counterproductive coping strategies and action plans.
The good news is that all of these innate tendencies, just like regret itself, are well-intentioned. If your mind had its way, you wouldn’t make errors of omission in the first place: you’d greet situations proactively as they arise and respond wisely to them in ways that enhance your sense of security and well-being.
Here are three ways you can get out of the way and let your mind steer you naturally toward a more regret-free life, and even help the process along.
1. Turn the lights on
If a big part of the regret problem is your mind’s tendency to fill in blanks with fear-multiplying assumptions, then the antidote is to minimize the number of blanks. Knowledge is fear’s worst enemy: just ask any parents who’ve successfully banished their child’s monster simply by turning the lights on and taking a quick look.
You can do the same by being receptive to input and actively seeking information. Nurturing a sense of curiosity and openness*—not just when you’re facing a decision, but all the time—keeps your information stores topped off and, more importantly, helps you establish a more productive habitual response to uncertainty: relaxing into it and surveying the facts and the blanks just as they are.
You’ll be less likely to be caught off-guard and retreat to your inner world of doubt and paralyzing assumptions, and better able to plan the smartest course of action, thereby decreasing the likelihood of regret down the road.
A fringe benefit of this more active engagement is that you’ll be better able to notice when you’re making good decisions and progress. Being privy to this positive momentum can boost your motivation to keep going which, combined with your resumption drive, will increase your chances of seeing your actions through and eliminating the source of the most worrisome, long-term regrets.
Studies have also found that an interesting chain reaction happens in these situations. Being aware that you’re doing well helps you feel better about yourself and infuses you with a healthy dose of intrinsic motivation—to the extent that it actually overpowers your resumption drive.
In other words, you continue acting not because of your innate drive to tie up loose ends, but because your actions have become deeply rewarding to you.
2. Intrinsic rewards and abstract goals
Which brings me to my second tip. We know that people motivated by extrinsic rewards such as money, belongings, and fame tend to be less happy than people who are intrinsically motivated.
Extrinsic motivation also hits you with a double whammy when it comes to regret: research shows that the promise of extrinsic rewards undermines the resumption drive, making you less likely to resume an activity that you’ve stopped.
Likewise, as with happiness and goal achievement in general, abstract goals (“I want to enjoy close connections with others”) beat concrete ones (“I want to be married and have two children within five years”).
Yes, it can be helpful to set short-term, concrete milestones because these help you work toward your goals methodically and give you reference points with which you can see and enjoy your progress. But it’s best to tie your overarching, long-term goals to abstract qualities, traits, or feelings you’d like to have. You’ll be happier, more persistent, and less likely to leave loose ends that way.
3. Pick an action and take it
Do your best to incorporate the above tips, but even if you aren’t successful in either or both of them, your best bet in general is: when in doubt, act. If you always make the best decision possible at the time, using the best information you have available, regret won’t have a foothold. It’s true.
As you practice reaching for the light switch in the dark rooms you encounter, paying attention to what’s around you and connecting with the light within you—the deeply-held yearnings of your core self—there won’t be many shadows left to scare you, nor justification for self-recrimination.
Will taking more action expose you to more short-term regret? Of course, because you’ll still experience less-than-ideal outcomes no matter how informed or aligned with your core values you are. However, taking action is a win-win for you in the long run.
If your action is successful, then you’re better off than the alternative. But even if you get it wrong, you’re still better off. If you happen to trip as you’re moving forward, that still beats being chained to the floor. While the unintended consequences may bother you for a while, ultimately that will fade; choosing to take no action will stick with you.
In other words, it’s better to regret something you did for a little while than to regret something that you didn’t do forever.
* Practicing mindfulness meditation can help here, too.