There are all kinds of strategies for thinking about time that aim to inspire. We often look forward in order to envision the life we want and then use that aspiration to create a plan to create our future. Of course, we are also cautioned to “live in the present” so that we do not allow precious hours to slip away. After all, tomorrow never comes, it is always today.
But, I would like to suggest a different orientation. At least once a year, it is important to take a lesson from research on regret. When you ask young people what they regret, they focus almost exclusively on actions they performed. They regret getting drunk at a party, cheating on an exam, or getting into a car accident.
However, when you ask people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s what they regret, they focus on things they did not do. They regret not traveling the world, spending too little time with family, or never learning to play a musical instrument. When you can see the end of your life on the horizon, you realize that there are many things that you have not done that you will never do.
Luckily, human beings have a remarkable capacity for mental time travel. We can imagine ourselves toward the end of our lives and then imagine ourselves looking back on our lives to decide what we would regret. From this vantage point, we can see the things we have not yet accomplished that we would like to do before it is too late. We can determine the contributions we want to make to this world that we have not yet achieved.
Once we identify those contributions, we can return to the present and start to plan for how to turn those dreams into a reality. That planning requires some hard work, because making a real contribution involves figuring out how to add a whole new set of routines into a life that is already probably very busy.
I started using this technique in my mid-30s. I realized that I would regret not learning to play the saxophone. Inspired by this realization, I generated a specific plan (what psychologists call an implementation intention) to get me on my way.
Some of the steps were obvious like finding a saxophone teacher and buying a horn. Others were less obvious. I had to figure out all of the obstacles that would get in my way of achieving my goal. I had to find the time to practice daily. Looking at the way I spent my time, I realized that if I stopped watching television that I could use that time to practice and that over time I would eventually have something to show for it. Over a decade later, I have indeed learned to play the sax, and I am part of the horn section of a blues band.
There is real power in looking back in order to look forward.