Quit Saying “If Only”

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“If only I’d done more networking, I’d be able to find a new job.”

“If only they’d stop bothering me with trivial meetings, I could finish this project.”

“If only I’d gotten that promotion, I wouldn’t hate this company.”

“If only I were younger, I bet they’d listen.”

One of the more self-destructive phrases to use in discussing your work life is “if only.” And yet we hear it all the time, and maybe even say it ourselves.

These two words might simply mean that if we had done one thing we could have avoided big problems down the road. At times the assessment can be accurate, like if you find yourself saying, “If only I had studied I probably would have been a better student.”

But frequently the phrase is weighted with mournful meaning that goes far beyond what the words seem to say. “If only” can suggest that you are in despair about the past and are dissatisfied with the present. People who say “if only” seem to be throwing up their hands, casting blame for the current situation and declining responsibility for creating change.

“If only” resonates with woulda, coulda, shoulda. It feels like the speaker is bogged down in a yesterday that can’t be changed. Or is immersed in a today that is out of control, when what would be helpful is taking steps toward a better tomorrow.

Maybe you occasionally say “if only” out loud when you’re at work. Or perhaps it’s a silent refrain that pops into your head when you’re worrying in the middle of the night, making you to feel even more sorry for yourself.
You’ll be a happier, more productive person if you get over the “if only” habit. Start here:

  • Don’t use it as an excuse. You’ll sound like you’re not coping if you tell your boss or client, “If only we had more time we could do a better job.” Reword your sentence to suggest that you are aware of the problem and are taking action: “Here’s our plan to manage the time pressure.”
  • Don’t use it to throw blame on someone else. You may come across as a nag and undercut your goals if you say, “if only you could get to the office on time, we might get more done.” Instead, propose an action plan: “Let’s set the schedule so we can be sure to finish before the deadline.”
  • Don’t use it to avoid tough facts. It’s normal to wish that things were better, and to think, “if only I were smarter/thinner/younger/richer.” But you can actually make things better once you accept that you are what you are, or embrace the reality that the situation is what it is. When you hear the “if only” lament bubbling up, ask yourself: “What can I do today to start moving in a new direction?”
  • Refocus on the future: Saying “if only” can be a sign that you’re getting stuck in the past. If that sounds like you, then learn to resist the temptation to wallow in the same old set of problems.   First, think of a more useful phrase, like: “what do I do next?” Any time you feel “if only” on the tip of your tongue, replace the two words with your alternative phrase. And when you shift your attention to the future, work on your list of helpful action items.

When you are in an “if only” mood, it may be a sign that it’s time to rebalance the way you think about days gone by. For the next few days, try noticing how much attention you focus on the past, rather than looking to future or enjoying what is happening right now.

Subscribe to Bev’s podcast “Jazzed About Work” at Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.