Look forward and the path seems uncertain, the future impossible to predict. Look back, though, and all your dots seem to connect...except, of course, the dots that mark the actions you didn't take.

Those dots? They don't connect to anything--except regrets.

Research shows that more people regret things they didn't do than the things they did, even if things they did turned out badly. (After all, with time and effort you can fix almost any mistake--but you can't go back and do the things you dreamed of doing but didn't...which means you can only think about how today would be different if you had.)

And now a new study takes that idea even further, probing the kinds of regrets we have about the people we don't become, a natural extension of the actions we didn't take

Researchers focused on three things:

  • Our actual selves: The traits and abilities we think we possess; basically, who we think we are.
  • Our ought selves: The traits and abilities we think we should possess; basically, who we think we should be (think responsibilities and obligations).
  • Our ideal selves: The traits, abilities, and accomplishments we would like to possess; basically, our goals and hopes and dreams.

It makes sense that we regret not doing the things we think we are supposed to do: Working harder at our professions, working harder to be healthier...it's natural to regret not working harder on things we ought to accomplish.

But research shows most people (72 percent) feel regret related to their ideal self as opposed to their ought self (28 percent). In fact, when asked to name their single biggest life regret, 76 percent of participants cite an action not taken that would have helped them realize their ideal self.

That also makes sense. As one of the authors of the study says, 

"When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we're heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we'd like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life.

"The 'ought' regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they're behind you. To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our 'ought' selves that are extremely painful and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact.

"But for most people, those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves."

In short, we most regret thinking we didn't reach our full potential. We most regret not becoming the person we feel we could have become...if we only had tried. 

Because that is one mistake you can never go back and fix.

But it is one mistake you can stop making--today.

To start taking action to realize your ideal self--to become the person you want to become--do the following. (For a detailed guide to becoming the person you want to be, check out my book The Motivation Myth.)

1. Always make your goal tangible and specific.

Say you want to get in better shape. "Get in better shape" sounds great, but what does it mean? Nothing. It's just a wish.

"Lose 10 pounds in 30 days" is a specific, measurable, objective goal. Not only do you know what you want to accomplish but setting that specific goal also allows you to create a process guaranteed to get you there: You can set up your workout schedule and your diet plan...and then all you have to do is follow the plan.

Another example: "Grow my business" sounds great but is also meaningless. "Land five new clients a month" allows you to determine exactly what you need to do to land those clients.

Always set a goal that allows you to work backward and create a process designed to achieve it. It's impossible to know exactly what to do every day when you don't know exactly what you want to achieve.

2. Always make your goal matter.

If you want to get in better shape so other people will think you look better at the beach this summer, you're unlikely to follow through. Ultimately, who cares what other people think? (Your ideal self definitely shouldn't.)

But if you want to get in better shape because you want to feel better, and feel better about yourself, or to set an example for your kids, or to prove something to yourself...then you're much more likely to stick with it. Now your goal has meaning--not to your doctor, not to strangers on the beach, but to you.

That's true even if it's a silly goal, like when I did 100,000 push-ups in a year. You could say that's a meaningless goal, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could stick with something hard.

That goal meant something to me, because it made a difference in how I saw myself--which made it a lot easier to stay the course.

3. Always make your goal a positive goal.

"Stop criticizing other people in meetings" is a great goal, but it's a negative goal. It's a lot harder to give up or stop doing something than it is to embrace a new and positive challenge.

Plus, setting a goal like "stop eating sweets" means you constantly have to choose to avoid temptation--and since willpower is often a finite resource (although there are ways to develop greater determination and willpower), why put yourself in a position of constantly needing to choose?

Always pick positive goals--that way you'll be working to become something new (and awesome), rather than to avoid being something you no longer wish to be.

4. Always set your goal, and then forget your goal.

I know: We're told to focus on our goals.

Yet one of the biggest reasons people give up on huge goals is the distance between here, where you are today, and there, where you someday hope to be. If today you're able to run only a mile, and your goal is to run a marathon, the distance between here and there seems insurmountable.

So you give up, because there's no way you'll get from here to there

That's why almost all incredibly successful people set a goal and then focus all their attention on the process necessary to achieve that goal. Sure, the goal is still out there. But what they care about most is what they need to do today--and when they accomplish that, they feel happy about today. They feel good about today.

And they feel good about themselves, because they've accomplished what they set out to do today. And that sense of accomplishment gives them all the motivation they need to do what they need to do when tomorrow comes--because success, even tiny, incremental success, is the best motivation of all.

When you savor the small victories, you get to feel good about yourself every day, because you no longer feel compelled to compare the distance between here and there. You don't have to wait for "someday" to feel good about yourself; if you do what you planned to do today, you're a winner.

And that's why the most important step is to...

5. Always focus on the daily process. 

The key to long-term success is to create a process that guarantees a series of small improvements. Usually that means that what you do won't be that different from what other successful people do. (That's why one of the chapters in my book is called "Do What the Pros Do"; I show you how to choose the right person to emulate--and even how to connect with that person.)

Pick someone who has achieved something you want to achieve. Deconstruct his or her process. Then follow it.

Along the way you might make small corrections as you learn what works best for you, but never start by doing what you want to do, or what feels good, or what you think might work.

Do what is proven to work.

Otherwise you'll give up, because the process you create won't yield those small successes that keep you motivated and feeling good about yourself.

Which, if you think about it, is the perfect definition of success.

And is the perfect way to avoid the regret of not becoming your ideal self.