Don’t do anything that you will regret later

This is a great rule for living. Don’t do anything that you’ll regret. So simple. So challenging for so many. if you struggle with regretful decisions, large or small, you are not alone.

The idea here is that you want to feel good as much as possible. Life is already full of tragedy. You will get your share of bad feelings. You don’t need to pile on unnecessarily. Yet, for some of us, it is hard not to self-sabotage. We do it on autopilot. It’s almost as if we enjoyed it, including the familiar shame that inevitably follows.

To really get this one, you will need to move beyond impulse and into a broader view of your decisions, especially with impulsive or autopilot choices. Can you do that? Why is it so hard to forego junk food, for example, so that you will feel good throughout your day and maintain a healthy weight? Or sleeping in? Or watching too much television?

We’re talking about bad habits and self-indulgence. Food, drugs, gambling, breaking up with a partner for no apparent reason, screaming at your kids….any behavior that causes regret by virtue of doing it. You can get specific if you’d like. For example, maybe gambling is fun and you don’t feel bad afterward unless you make a rash decision to gamble beyond your budget.

Don’t do ANYTHING that will make you feel bad afterward.

This rule for living requires three things:

  1. Forethought. You must consider how you will feel in a little while if you follow your impulse.
  2. You must be willing to sacrifice the short-term pleasure or distraction in favor of long-term self-respect.
  3. You must know how to manage the thoughts and feelings which prompted the impulse, usually by dealing with them directly within yourself.

FOMO. Fear of missing out. Often impulsivity is driven by scarcity thinking or fear of missing out on something. A plate of donuts – forbidden fruit – is sitting on the counter in the lunchroom at work. You feel the craving, the emptiness that demands to be filled. The inevitable pull toward the chocolaty treat. Like a preprogrammed bot, you find yourself reaching toward the donut.

You know you’re going to regret it but a voice in your head says, “Screw it! I can eat what I want and besides, how often do I just happen upon my favorite donut? If I don’t eat it, someone else will and I’ll miss out on that rich, soothing, nearly euphoric taste.

Are you going to take the plunge into donut-land? Yeah, probably. And you’ll regret it and swear that was the last time. You’re officially getting your shit together! You know the drill.

It’s excruciatingly hard to miss out on something pleasurable when it’s at your fingertips. In the moment, immediate gratification is all you care about. You’ll deal with the consequences later. With this pattern, you get moments of sensory delight but are miserable day in and day out. To you, however, those moments are worth it because – hell – life is pretty pointless anyway. Why not capture as much pleasure as possible?

The faulty logic that supports regretful decisions

The rule don’t do anything that you will regret is a guide to behavior. This rule is not related to philosophy. It’s pragmatic. It doesn’t matter whether or not life is pointless or what life means at all. It’s a rule to follow regardless.

Claiming life is pointless is just an excuse. What matters is how you feel. It makes no sense to make yourself feel bad because life appears pointless. It’s more logical to suggest that feeling good is the better remedy for the pointlessness of life. Besides, if life didn’t matter, you would never regret bad decisions. You can’t have it both ways.

Any excuse you make to knowingly do something regretful is bullshit on principle.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the excuse is true, all else being equal. Life may be pointless. OK. But that has nothing to do with following your damaging impulses. You’re using the perceived pointlessness of life as an excuse to do something you’ll regret. Regret is regret. It sucks, whether or not life is pointless. Feeling good feels good, whether or not life is pointless. The excuse is bullshit.

The same goes for every other excuse you might make:

  • I’ve had a bad day.
  • I’ve had a good day.
  • I deserve this donut.
  • Everyone is eating them.
  • I’ll never get this opportunity again.
  • I’ll start over tomorrow.

None of the above, or any other gem you might come up with, justifies doing something harmful that you are sure to regret. Which of the following makes sense?

  • Life is good, so I’ll do something regretful.
  • Life is bad, so I’ll do something regretful.

Neither! Right? Regret is regret, no matter how you justify it. Why go there at all?

Why do we do it?

I don’t know. Programming. Familiarity. Social pressure. Maybe you’re an emotional masochist. Maybe your mother didn’t breastfeed you long enough. I don’t know. If you need to understand, seek self-understanding. But don’t fall into the trap that you need to understand before changing your behavior. You don’t.

Insight can be helpful. Or it can offer further justification for bad choices. It cannot make the decision for you. And there is no substitute for simply avoiding what makes you unhappy. It’s the best case scenario.