Here's what we're supposed to have done or be doing:
According to Jewish law, there's a five-step program for sin eradication during the Days of Awe, the weeklong period beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, when God's judgments of each man's righteousness (or lack thereof) over the past year gets indelibly inked in the Book of Life. The first is mere recognition of the sin, followed by remorse for having committed it. Next comes the physical cessation of the sin, the act of restitution toward the sinned against, and, finally, confession before the Almighty, which includes vowing never to do it again.
Versus what people actually do:
Plenty of High Holy Day Jews cut corners on the sacred practice by resorting to what Rabbi Yehuda Sarna at NYU's Bronfman Center calls the "spray-fire" method of atonement. Instead of humbly approaching those you know you've wronged over the past year, you dial up everyone in your Rolodex or e-mail everyone in your address book, and seek a pardon for any offenses you might have given—a hollow gesture if ever there was one. Operating on the Don Corleone-ish principle that a request can't be refused during a blessed event, these Jews literally phone in their apologies and expect forgiveness for all sorts of trespasses, be it a missed birthday, an unpaid loan, or nasty gossip.
Not me. I don't call anyone -- let alone everyone -- to ask for forgiveness. Maybe I should, but whatever. What's done is done, and all I can try to do is fix whatever problems my behavior wrought.
So, instead, beginning around Rosh Hashanah, I tend to contemplate the year gone by. (Probably more because it's fall, and less because of the holiday -- but the reason seems less important than the action.) I think about the things I could have handled better, and eventually, I get to a point where I promise myself, and whatever deity may or may not exist, that I will try harder. This is my version of atoning for my sins.
And, then, more often than not, I go to synagogue and fast. My personal 24-hour atone-a-thon begins in roughly two hours.