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Activating Retrospective Desire

Author: Josh Katz


Let’s start with some Oxford Language Dictionary definitions:

  • Retrospective: looking back on or dealing with past events or situations. 
  • Desire: a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.
  • Activating: to make active or more active

On top of that I’ll add some language defining my usage of the combined terms:

  • Retrospective Desire: experiencing and expressing a strong feeling of wanting or wishing for something to have happened in the past differently than how it did. Wishing to have gone about things differently than one did.
  • Activating Retrospective Desire: re-framing the instinctive past tense desire into a present tense objective. Becoming a navigator instead of a passenger by utilizing that desire as a guide for future action.


A short version – Summary of the Method:

Step 1 – start recognizing when you’re feeling or expressing any form of past tense wishfulness. Any sentence that contains phrases like, “I wish I had…”, or “It would have been great if…”, can be a trigger to reflect and activate this protocol.

Step 2 – define the feeling clearly. What was it that did happen, and what did you wish happened differently?

Step 3 – start brainstorming about how you can engage with that wish immediately in the present tense. Brainstorm what it would mean to do that thing now. 

Example: If you were wishing you had spent more time with your kids, you could brainstorm something specific you’d like to do with them, then call them up and invite them to do that thing. 

Example: You wish you had said something was on your mind in some particular situation but didn’t. Think specifically about what the thing was and why you didn’t say it. Then imagine reaching out to that person right then, or at the appropriate time, to try communicating it now. It could be an email, phone call, whatever. If that seems unimaginable, perhaps start by talking to a friend or counselor about what it was and why you are having trouble communicating about it. 

Step 4 – do the thing

Alternative Step 0 – even if you don’t want to take any action on anything right now, I think it’s worth it to simply start paying attention to how often you and people around you express retrospective desire. Once you start hearing it and thinking about it,  you may begin naturally contemplating ways to shift your perspective over time.


A longer version – Method Explanation

From my observation, it seems to me that very innate to human nature is to often be wishing we had done different things differently. I say human nature because I’m almost certain that my dog doesn’t do that. I run with him off leash in the morning so he can chase whatever he wants. And I really don’t think he’s sitting on the couch right now thinking, “wow I wish I had chased that bunny more earlier, I could have gotten it.”

That said, I have absolutely no basis for that belief. I wish I had studied dog psychology more when he was younger… 

Back to humans, sometimes its usage refers to major long term things, like wishing to have chosen a different line of work, wishing to have lived somewhere else, wishing we spent more time on something, wishing to have spent more time with our kids, wishing to have traveled more, and things like that.

Sometimes we use it to refer to things we did in specific situations. Like wishing we said something that was on our minds and we really wanted to say but didn’t. Wishing we didn’t say something we said and now feel bad about. Wishing we didn’t go to a party we’re at, or wishing we had bought some different thing than the thing we bought.

Something that I think is super cool about Retrospective Desire is that it holds a serious gold mine of personal perspective and instincts. My anecdotal observation is the vast majority of our best self-reflection and brainstorming actually happens unintentionally and subconsciously through Retrospective Desire. Without even thinking about it we are describing an alternative path to the one we’re on that instinctually we feel would be preferable. 

I think that’s worth noting, because I think there is something really cool and positive about wishing for something, even in the past tense, which I think we typically express with a negative connotation. I think its cool because it means we’re alive and feeling something, wanting something. That’s really not always the case. Sometimes life just feels really numb or matter of fact, and we can’t even think of something we would want that might be better. And I think that’s a really difficult but common place to be in. 

So I think being in a place of experiencing Retrospective Desire is a really positive thing. And I think an even more enjoyable state of mind is to be moving from experiencing that Retrospective Desire and not doing anything about it, to Activating that Retrospective Desire as a way to have more of the life we want, in all the little and big ways.


  • If you’re wishing you didn’t go the party -> start leaving now
  • If you’re wishing you traveled more -> think about somewhere specific you want to go and book a trip
  • If you’re wishing you didn’t say something you did -> call up that person and tell them you wish you didn’t say it, and apologize if its appropriate
  • If you’re wishing you bought something different than you did -> buy it now! And return, sell or donate whatever else you bought. Yes you may be buying a second thing and spending more money, but what’s the point of having something we don’t want?
  • Once you get into the mind set, you can literally do this for any retrospective desire.

Here are the classic reasons I find people don’t Activate:

  • Aren’t aware that they even can, stuck in passenger mode vs navigator mode with life mindset
  • Feel they’ve missed their chance, too old now
  • Don’t want to spend any money, its too expensive
  • Afraid of what other people will think if they do

So there’s all these reasons why we don’t want to Activate, but if we instinctively wanted something to happen before, then in my experience almost 100% of the time it is really positive to try implementing that thing wherever we are now. If we don’t, we’ll just keep experiencing the same retrospective desire over and over again.

An invitation to reflect and reach out

Are you aware of any retrospective desires you have? Have you thought about them consciously and not pursued activating them? If yes, have you reflected on any reasons why you don’t? How do you feel about the fact that you’re not activating?

If you’re having any thoughts along those lines I would love to hear from you and I’d be happy to share my thoughts on the potential applications and applicability of this method to your particular situation.

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