The Biggest Wastes Of Time We Regret When We Get Older

The Biggest Wastes Of Time We Regret When We Get Older

We spend a lot of energy looking for shortcuts to save time, and sure, those shortcuts add up. But when I look back, my biggest time regrets aren’t spending too much time on Twitter or mismanaging my daily tasks. Those are bad habits, but there are bigger, more systematic time wasters that have really gotten in the way. Fixing these will free up a massive amount of time and energy. Illustration by: Sam Woolley

Not Asking for Help

My first week on my first job out of university, my boss handed me a huge spreadsheet. He told me to organise it in a way that made zero sense to me. Being a quiet, timid person, I simply nodded, walked back to my desk and stared at that spreadsheet for like an hour, hoping to make some sense of it (yep, just like George Costanza and the Penske file).

Finally, my coworker came in, and I confessed I had no idea what to do. He broke it down for me, then dropped some advice that’s stuck with me ever since: “You might feel dumb asking questions, but you look dumber when you don’t get it because you failed to ask.”

It was harsh, but true. And not only did I look like an arse, I could’ve also saved a fair amount of time that day by simply asking my boss what he meant. It made me wonder how much time I’d wasted by not asking for help over the years. As dumb as you might feel asking questions, it’s the fastest way to get an answer.

Similarly, asking for help is a great way to, well, get help. This is why networking and finding a mentor are hugely valuable. If you feel stuck in your career or need to learn new skills and have no idea how to get started, talking to other people in your field will go a long way. Even if it’s just shooting someone a short email, asking for help is like a shortcut for your career. Try Leo Widrich’s formula for asking for help via email:

2-3 sentences of honest appreciation. There is a reason you are asking someone for help. They have a lot of experience in that field, worked on a startup/idea related to what you are working on or else. If you do this, it shows them you have thought about why picking them out to ask for help.

1 sentence that states a single, focused question people can give you an answer to. Here is one that worked very well when I asked Noah:

“What was the single, most valuable user acquisition strategy for Mint after you hit 100K users?”

Here’s another way to look at it: if you’re not asking for help, you’re probably not challenging yourself enough. If you have all the answers, you’re not learning new skills, trying new things or moving forward and out of your comfort zone. There are a handful of reasons we don’t ask for help, but it’s usually because we’re too proud or scared, and that’s a huge waste of time, because it keeps you from moving forward.

Trying to Make Bad Relationships Work

Relationships require maintenance, but there’s a difference between maintaining a good relationship and trying to force a bad one that doesn’t make much sense to begin with.

There’s a lot of emotion in romance and friendships, so sometimes it’s hard to tell when you should keep trying or you should just call it quits. Like a lot of people, I made some common bad decisions that wasted both my time and the time of the person I was with. For example:

There are good reasons for wanting to make a relationship work, but those aren’t good ones. They cloud your judgment, prolong your unhappiness and distract you from things that matter to you most. At the same time, it’s hard to say all bad relationships are a total waste of time, because you learn a lot about yourself from them. That’s a valid silver lining, but still, the sooner you learn those lessons, the better.

Similarly, not dealing with the emotional impact of a breakup is also a big waste of time. When a relationship ends, we usually go through the typical stages of grief associated with loss. It’s easy to get comfortable with denial and convince ourselves we don’t really care and we’re fine. In reality, ignoring the pain only prolongs it. Our work suffers; the rest of our relationships suffer.

Dwelling on Your Mistakes and Shortcomings

Learning from your mistakes is one thing. Dwelling on them wastes your time, diminishes your confidence, and keeps you from getting on with your life.

Dwelling also makes you more apt to repeat your mistakes. In a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers asked subjects to spend money during an imaginary trip to the mall. Before “shopping”, some subjects were asked to recall a past financial mistake. They found those subjects were more likely to incur debt. A press release for the study concluded:

Perhaps the most surprising, Haws said, is that searching through the past can negatively affect behaviour, depending on the ease of recall, even when past examples are positive…Instead of dwelling on the past, Haws said, her research into behaviour suggests that setting goals for the future can positively change present behaviour…In short, if we want to have better self-control, “Look forward,” Haws says. “Don’t look back.”

When you think about your own experiences, it probably makes sense. Dwelling makes you feel like a failure. When I feel like a failure, it’s easy to tell myself there’s no point in trying, because I already suck. (Hence, getting further into debt when you already feel like an overspender.)

Of course, you don’t want to skip over your mistakes and ignore them either. The goal is to glean something from them, then release the failure. I like Emilie Wapnick’s process for doing this:

In order to let the past go, you must forgive yourself officially.

Feel the embarrassment or shame one final time. Really feel it throughout your body. Next, tell yourself that everyone makes mistakes and you know you that that outcome was not your intention. It was an accident. Finally, make the decision to forgive yourself and do it. It helps to even say it out loud.

From now on, it’s OK. You are forgiven.

Every time the thought comes back, simply remind yourself that you have already been forgiven, so there’s no reason to feel bad anymore. Then push the thought away.

One of my other big time regrets is not allowing myself to fail out of fear of my own shortcomings.

For years, I stayed in a comfortable place and didn’t try to do things I wanted to do. I wanted to travel after high school, but I went to university close to home instead, because I was too shy to meet new people, and I was afraid I couldn’t make it in another city. After university, I wanted to be a freelance writer, but I decided to find a more stable, accessible job instead, because that was easier. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live a stable, comfortable life, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons: because I was afraid to fail.

Eventually, I got tired of this. I decided to find work I actually enjoyed, travel more and live somewhere else. I made a ton of mistakes along the way, and even when I did succeed, I felt like an imposter. Still, I think the bigger mistake was not trying sooner. Even if I failed, I would have learned from my mistakes much sooner.

Worrying Too Much About Other People

It’s easy to waste time worrying about other people, too. Don’t get me wrong — your friends and loved ones mean a lot to you, and you want to spend time nurturing them. But we also spend a lot of time fretting over problems that don’t matter in the long run.

For example, I spent years getting annoyed with people who undermine me. I complained about them, tried to understand them, wondered what was wrong with me that I inspired that kind of behaviour. Those habits always lead to a dead end, because they didn’t involve action. The older I got, the less tolerant I became of this behaviour, and I learned to nip it in the bud.

I also indulged another time wasting emotion: jealousy. I compared myself to everyone, wanted what they had, and felt inadequate. Like most negative, destructive feelings, the first (and biggest) step to overcoming it is understanding it.

I paid attention to my jealousy and what triggered it, then learned that it was less about the other person and more about my own feelings of inadequacy. In short, I embraced that jealousy. Envy is a bit different, but it often comes from the same place, and here’s what writer Trent Hamm suggests in dealing with your envy:

The question is, why do you want it in your life? I like to use the “five whys” when handling a question like this. Whenever I’m trying to answer a “why” question, I repeat it five times, asking it of the answer I come up with for each question. When you identify a particular strong desire that you have, step back for a moment and break it down into small pieces. Then, see if there isn’t a way for you to address those smaller pieces in your own life. Again, let’s take that international trip. What elements am I desiring when it comes to that trip? I want to expose my children to different cultures…. The thing is, when I start breaking that trip down into small pieces, I start seeing pieces that I can easily incorporate into my own life.

Once you understand why you feel jealous or envious, you can take action to take care of the problem, whether that means processing the emotions or coming up with goals for yourself. Either way, that’s a lot more productive.

Most of us are probably guilty of all of these at some point, and really, they’re human nature. Regret is another big waste of time, so there’s no point in beating yourself up over these. The sooner you learn from them, though, the sooner you can free up your time and energy to live the life you want.

This story has been updated from its original publication.


  • Smoking. What a massive waste of time and money. Not to mention how inconsiderate it is to everyone around you. I’m envious of the people I know who were smart enough never to have even tried it.

    • It wouldn’t be a waste of money if we weren’t taxed so much for it, and the time I spend smoking is a welcome break away from what I don’t want to do. The only reason I quit was health reasons. I don’t like inflicting smoke on other people, so that was never a issue – just the way it kills you.

      • So it’s the tax that makes it a waste of money, not the fact that there are literally zero benefits…and that it slowly kills you.

        • A lot of people enjoy smoking. Enjoyment is a benefit to them.
          Also, I read his comment as the price being high was the issue (which is caused by the tax), not that he didn’t like paying tax.

      • You don’t have to smoke to take breaks. Just go and read a book for a few minutes, or if reading’s not your thing listen to music. Or if you hate both of those just go stare at a wall and count to 300. Break achieved.

        • I live in an area with predominantly elderly people. The health of those who have smoked for most of their lives is pretty poor, and these were the lucky ones to reach 70 years of age or more. I’ve asked them what they would have done differently and they all say the same thing – I would never have started smoking if I knew what it would be like. However, back then they didn’t know the health problems that they’d have.

    • Yup, I have friends who are always complaining about debt or not having enough money, Yet they smoke several packs a week. Every time i point out how much money they could save by quitting. They get defensive.

      • “…They get defensive.” Unfortunately, the addictive qualities of modern tobacco will do that to a person. Despite two close calls (heart attack and mini-stroke), my father kept smoking, always insisting he could quit ‘whenever he wanted to do so’. He finally did quit – only because he suffered severe stroke and was hospitalized…where he remained until his death.

    • See the part of the article regarding “worrying about what others are doing”.

      Read it again.

    • I smoked for 20 years. Spent the last 10 years of that trying to quit. Every year I tried something different. It is a serious addiction and Big Tobacco made sure you were hooked. I tried the patch, the gum, first generation e-cigarette and always went back. Cold turkey was really the only way to go. I highly recommend Allen Carr’s book on quitting smoking. It’s a totally different approach to it.

      • I used Allen Carr’s DVD to quit smoking cold turkey and it completely worked. I went 10 years without smoking a single cigarette (and feeling pretty great for it) and celebrated with my first smoke in a decade. It was like being a teenager again – headspins and a gross taste in my mouth, but with the knowledge and experience to know I get absolutely nothing positive from smoking, and I remain a non-smoker. For those like me that rarely read books, hunt out Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking video.

  • Poor financial decisions. Making a bad decision as an 18 year old means you spend the next ten years working to catch up to zero. If I could go back in time I’d change a few poor money related decisions. I’d have actually got so many hours of my life back that I could have spent doing other things, or working to save money rather than just pay off debt.

    And picking the right thing to do at Uni (or not go in the first place). Uni is a big waste of time and money if you pick something that you didn’t really want to do and wind up not using what you studied. Unfortunately that’s the nature of life for a 17/18 year old coming straight out of high school not really knowing what you want to do and being pushed into a choice by parents.

      • I assume that’s some sort of crack about not going to uni? There are plenty of options that don’t require university. Lots of trades can earn a ton of money and are actually useful in life as well. Plumber, electrician, builder etc.

        And I’d like to point out I said *first* picking the *right* thing at uni. I still think it’s worth going if you actually have a plan. But spending anything up to 6 years on a degree that you *never* use is a waste of that time and then all the time you spend trying to pay it off. Why do engineering when you’d rather be a journalist, or a developer, or an accountant…

    • Work is the ultimate waste of time.
      And by the way taxation in any form is theft, written into law to bully soft citizens into paying up. The money never goes to good use. It is way more effective to manage our own small suburban communties and contribute the necessary costs, in money and skills.
      Can you imagine how much more free time everyone would have if we all just stopped paying tax……
      All governments are the enemy.

      • It is way more effective to manage our own small suburban communties and contribute the necessary costs, in money and skills.

        Sooo, local taxes rather than federal taxes?

  • Fear of failure. Similar to not asking for help – the fear of failing keeps people from starting things. I grew up in a household in which it seemed every decision and every action was met with criticism or ridicule. Show them my [exam grade, homework, project] and the result was pretty predictable: Focus on the mistakes or criticize the quality. Even today, it manifests itself in partially finished projects – if I never finish it, I can make excuses for any imperfections. Even though it has been over 10 years since my last parent died (and 20 years since the more critical parent died), I live in the fear of never good enough – despite having a successful 25 year career as an engineer; no outstanding debt; and most importantly, two wonderful children who brighten any room they enter…I just can’t get past wondering if I’m ‘good enough’ yet?

    • I don’t know you Willie but it does sound like you’ve done a great job. Take some time out and smell the roses. Sounds to me like you earned it. 😉

  • After smoking for 14 years I quit in 1971 because the price per pack went to 35 cents. I thought that was outrageous. But I still love being around people who smoke, especially cigars.
    The media did an extremely successful, yet inherently evil, job of brainwashing us into believing that we need to be entertained. Pro Sports, movies, cable, satellite. Just how many hours does a man have to work to have enough after-tax (take-home) dollars for the family to enjoy a day at the game? And the media continue to give billions of dollars’ worth of free press to the entertainers!

    In God’s grand plan of things it matters not who wins the game

    • Netflix is dirt cheap and has no ads. We have no TV in our house and we couldn’t be happier. We digitally rent the occasional movie and buy the occasional blu ray (especially the big Pixar ones, the kids get lots of worth out of them) but you don’t need to spend much.

      If you are hooked on sports that sucks a bit though 🙁
      Shop around for other things you need that give you sports. I think Optus was giving 12 months free with their mobile plans.

  • The one thing that I’ve kicked myself for (over and over again) is going with my gut instinct on big decisions. People generally say go with your heart, when in fact I realised I should’ve gone with my head. What made sense to me at the time turned out to be a stupid decision based on one of many possible futures. I know hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, but I wish I had a mentor during those times who was brave enough to say, “Pull your head in, suck it up, and just get on with the job.”

    • Issues of the heart lead with your head. Issues of the head lead with your heart.

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