What’s the half-life for regret?

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Randall Munroe does the math.

A half-life is the time it takes for a substance decaying at a certain rate to decay by half. However the half-life is determined by probability, that is over the course of many experiments the average time it takes to decay. It’s a term traditionally used by scientists but I’ve decided to borrow it.

Regret is not a term traditionally used by scientists, at least not in the workplace, because it is a more emotional than practical response. We all have them, some more than others:

Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
– My Way, Paul Anka

How many of us can say so confidently that we have so few regrets? Or express such conviction about the choices we have made?

It’s the beginning of  new year: the time for reflections and resolutions. For the analytically-minded this should mean a detailed process of looking at the things that happened in 2011, attempting to devise practical learnings from them, and putting a plan together for 2012. For the rest of us it’s a more haphazard process of deciding if we want to put ourselves under the pressure of a resolution, let alone feel the need to.

We apparently learn from our mistakes, practical things that have qualitative and quantitative impact on ours and others’ lives, but do we learn from our regrets, which are so much harder to evaluate?

Thinking about regrets I have there are three big ones: two I can and will fix over time, because they are choices that haven’t yet run themselves through the sands of time. One I cannot fix, but it happened within the last 6 months and I think perhaps it will not be a regret this time next year. The other regrets I’m trying to pin down are not so much regrets as memories of being embarrassed or frustrated, and anything before 2000 feels too long ago to be as worked up about.

In my focus group of 1, I’m starting to wonder if what begins as ‘regret’ fades to a nostalgic feeling of what if. Did Paul Anka recognise that as we take the time to look back on a life lived, the regrets we may have fade to a more subtle poignancy? Perhaps the regrets that we have felt over the course of the year decay, in which case the time we have available to learn from our regrets is already on the wane. Anka’s song goes on to say:

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Going into 2012 I have made some resolutions, nice practical ones that I can qualify and quantify. But I’m wondering if perhaps the best resolution I can make is one that tries to minimise the regrets I might have over the next few months, whether because I make my choices with impunity or because I try to learn from them before their half-life kicks in.

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