Living Without Regrets

If today was the last day of your life, what would be your biggest regret? I have a few things that instantly come to mind, like not spending enough time with loved ones, not keeping in touch with those I care about, not pursuing things of interest, working too much, not using my discretionary time effectively (and often using it to consume information mindlessly), and above all, not living up to my potential, and by extension, setting a poor example for others.

Here’s the thing: we don’t live with a sense of urgency. We get caught up in the “everyday busyness” of things while leaving the truly important things for the back burner (or never). We care more about what others think about us than what we think about ourselves, getting caught up in “their world” so to speak. We look at others who are “busy” and we do the same. We might as well be like that raging bull who runs everywhere without any direction or focus.

When I think of cemeteries, I think of all the unfulfilled dreams lying in those graves. All the people who didn’t live their lives to their potential or didn’t fulfill their dreams for one reason or another. I think everything else pales in comparison to this.

We take our life for granted, but we could be gone at any moment. Sorry to sound so morbid, but it’s true. No one knows how much time we have left on this planet, yet we spend our time living unintentionally and without purpose. We waste time on doing trivial things, but the fact of the matter is there is nothing worse than living an unfulfilled life only to meet one’s end earlier than anticipated. Of course, it’s too late for regret at the end.

We are all born with wild creativity, and we all have our own strengths/talents that we can use to make us feel alive. We can use it for our sake and for the benefit of others and help make the world a better place. Is there a cause greater than that? I doubt it.

You can’t talk about living a life without regrets without talking about Bronnie Ware, an Australian author, songwriter, and speaker who worked earlier as a palliative care-giver to comfort those who were going to die soon. She asked her patients about how they would have lived their lives differently and recorded their responses in her own journal. It started with an article on her blog that went viral and later a best-selling book. Now she mentors others professionally.

Ware says that in order to live a life free of regrets, we need to first face the fact that we are going to die soon. It should be the biggest motivation to live well, but it isn’t for most of us. It turns out when we embrace the shortness of life, we mature quickly. We focus on the essentials and spend less (or zero) time doing the trivial things. We put our attention on things that matter most to us. This is why when someone recovers from a life-threatening illness, their perspective on life totally changes. Having faced death so closely, they feel so grateful to come out alive on the other side. That’s when they start living a life of purpose with a sense of urgency. Of course, we don’t have to survive deathbeds in order to live free of regrets.

Here are some ways I’ve found to live without regrets.

Live each day as if it were your last, but set goals as if you’ll live forever. Spend time doing things of lasting value. Build a body of work. Focus on doing fewer but better things. This could be the projects you take on at work and the relationships you invest in. Remember, you can’t do it all and it’s futile to even try.

Live with a sense of purpose. Why do you do what you do? If you aren’t living a life that serves a purpose greater than yourself, boy are you missing out.

Figure out now what will matter most to you later in life. You’ll realize that few things matter in the end, but those few things are incredibly easy to deprioritize in the present, such as relationships and results, the person you become as a result of your character, the quality of time spent with those you cared about, or the contribution you made to the world through your work. Did you leave the planet better than you found it in some way? That’s what matters.

Sometimes you don’t have to look far. How are you spending your days now? Are you doing things every day as a way to learn, grow, and contribute? Are you growing personally and professionally? Why not? What’s getting in the way of living your ideal day and week? Once you answer these questions, don’t let anything get in your way of making these things happen.

Annie Dillard, a renowned American author, has famously said:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

We all have those things — things that we keep saying to ourselves that would be great to do if/when “we get the time”, but that time never comes for whatever reason. I call it the “I have always wanted to…” list. Make this unfiltered list over time and add things to it as and when you remember. Then, do those things in your everyday discretionary time, not someday in the distant future. The time to live is now.

I’ll share a couple of examples from my own list. I’ve always wanted to learn the piano as I love the sound of it and I’ve wanted to be able to play any tune I liked, but for whatever reason it hasn’t happened yet. Another thing on that list is to learn about film criticism (maybe take a course) so I can watch films and write critically about them.

Have the courage to express yourself — not just listen and understand others, but also feel understood by them. Without that, it really is a Lose-Win. When you don’t prioritize yourself, others surely will. Of course, being able to say no to others is a huge part of that.

I can think of a few people in my life (among friends and family) who have struggled with expressing their feelings and almost always sacrificing themselves at the cost of their own selves, only to feel resented and frustrated in the process — most notably, one of my aunts who has always been afraid to stand up for herself to her mother-in-law while always letting the mother-in-law dictate what she did or did not do.

Of course, it’s not entirely the mother-in-law’s fault, but mostly her own responsibility because we teach others how to behave with us. In my aunt’s case, she needs to show more courage because she has been sensitive to her mother-in-law’s needs all her life (at the cost of her own needs). Unless she learns to be courageous now (and prioritize her life of whatever time she has left), she’ll end up regretting that she did not stand up for herself and fully express how she felt and do things the way she wanted. Of course, if she decides to do this, she will likely face some resistance from the mother-in-law, which is to be accepted (because we naturally resist change). It will take her mother-in-law some time to unlearn the old behaviors before she learns the new ones.

It’s also important for her to be courageous now because she won’t be able to calibrate it later to having a true balance between the two (courage and compassion/sensitivity), which would be a true win-win for her and her mother-in-law. Believe it or not, in the long run, not only my aunt would be happier, but she would also be more respected in her mother-in-law’s eyes. It’s either that or she’ll have to find a way to leave the unhealthy relationship.

You have to be able to draw boundaries in your life when you find a part of it draining. This reminds me what my friend Lamya has said about having emotional boundaries:

Boundaries keep us sane. Living beings understand and express in their world through energy and when certain energies are draining, it means you need a boundary!

Make health your priority. I can’t resist calling it your “number one priority” (!). If you don’t take care of it now, it may not take care of you in the future. It’s easy to take our health for granted when we have no major health issues. The irony is we don’t think about it until we experience a major issue, at which point, we are compelled to change our habits, but for some, it’s already too late. Ware says the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize they have until it’s gone.

Keep in touch with those you care about. You will never “have time” for friends and family because “life” gets in the way. You must make time now. The least you can do is call them regularly even if you can’t spend time with them. This ensures that you keep in touch with them to catch up on things and to help them if/where possible to add value to their life. For instance, I (try to) call my friends once a month as a way to keep in touch. That way, even if we don’t end up meeting, we can catch up on the phone for a few minutes, which is far better than losing touch. This is one of those important and non-urgent things, but you won’t realize the importance of doing this until the very end.

Avoid postponing/sacrificing your everyday leisure/recreation for the weekend or some day in the distant future. It will never come. I wrote about the real reason we take a “vacation” as a break from work, but Work and Play go hand in hand. Make time for yourself and your relationships. Draw those boundaries, especially if none exist.

Avoid overworking yourself. It’s one of the things people regret later in life. No one wants their tombstone to read that they worked 80 hours a week, yet we pride ourselves on how many hours we spent at work or who slept the fewest hours. In fact, it only shows how ineffective and inefficient you are at managing yourself. What actually matters is the results/outcomes you produced in the shortest time possible, thereby leaving enough time for yourself and for your relationships.

Live your life the way you want. Stop trying to please everyone — by doing so, you risk losing your own identity. Embrace yourself. The things that made you weird before make you great today as an adult. You’re not here to live up to others’ expectations. Your time on this earth is yours and yours alone. You don’t have to justify it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As Alan Keightley has aptly put:

Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.

Be happy now. It’s a choice you make every day and not some destination you arrive at in the distant future. Avoid falling into the “I’ll be happy when…” trap. Stop telling yourself you’ll retire when you make x money, for instance. Be grateful for what you have now while you pursue all you want. Remember, every day you get is a gift you should be thankful for. Never take it for granted.

Simplify your life. Learn to make do with enough. You have everything you need and nothing you don’t. When you focus on what’s truly essential, you create space for yourself to open up more doors for opportunities because you’re not caught up in all the unnecessary distractions of life. Remember, it’s not about having “more time”. If you had more time, you would keep doing more of the same. It’s about creating space to live a happier and joyous life.

Here’s the thing. You only get one life. Make the most of it. Don’t settle. Your heart already knows what you want to do. Trust yourself. If you haven’t found it, keep looking. Keep growing. Never make work/career/business decisions based on money. No one on their deathbed ever wished they had more money, they were more famous, or they had more stuff. It just doesn’t happen.

Do good work. Make a difference in others’ lives. Define your own “success metrics” and avoid falling into the dogma trap, which is the result of living with other people’s thinking. Leave the planet better than you found it. Build a body of work you’re proud of that will outlive you and that others can learn from forever. We all have something to teach or share.

Because we have so much going on, we don’t find the space to think about what truly matters. Some might find themselves staying in bad jobs just because they didn’t have the time to think about staying or moving on. Look back at your days, weeks, months, and year to reflect on things that are working for you and things you could do better. At the very least, this will help you course-correct. Also, each of those time frames (daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly) are essentially maps that will give you a different perspective of your life.

One of things I do is plan my week (in terms of self, work, and relationships) and then at the end of the week, review the things I’ve accomplished in that week and log it. When reviewing your week, you can also think in terms of things you want to keep, start, and/or stop doing. At the end of each month, I’ll review the (4-5) weekly entries and make a broader list of things accomplished in that month. This monthly data comes in handy when reviewing at the end of the year, when I can simply review all the (12) monthly entries to get a sense of what I accomplished during the year. But you have to do the legwork now in order to do the annual review efficiently. This is a practice (as with anything) where being consistent can greatly help you. In doing all of this, remember that progress is far better than perfection. We tend to worry far more about what we accomplished in the short term and not as much on the long term. In other words, we tend to overestimate the things we do now and underestimate the things we do in the long run.

We don’t think long term. We are too caught up in the everyday business of things that it blurs our vision as to what truly matters in our life. We fall into the “I’ll be happy when…” trap and postpone spending time with our loved ones and pursuing things of interest to some day in the future, which never comes. When we overwork ourselves to a point at which it no longer becomes sustainable to carry on, we take a “vacation”. As if that’s going to change anything because we are back to the grind and the cycle continues. We get to a point close to the end and realize that all we have is regrets. Of course, it’s too late to contemplate then.

It’s ironic that we don’t live a life true to ourself. I mean, it’s our life. We have full control over our lives through the choices we make (or not). Almost every regret comes down to a lack of courage, which is ultimately a choice you make. Give yourself permission to enjoy life. There is no reason not to live your dream. You may not be able to fulfill all your dreams, but that’s not reason enough to fulfill at least some of them. The important thing is you must start now.

We need to build the courage to live a life true to ourselves. Until we do that, we can’t truly help others (even if we wanted to).

There is nothing worse than living an unfulfilled life.

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