About Time

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By Mark Lundegren

Are you in a committed and satisfying relationship – with time?

You know time, that ever-present companion we each have in our lives. Time, that precious and sometimes capricious intimate we all share our days with, who can frustrate us at the worst possible moments and yet leave us wanting more.

Because of this universal fact of time for us all, and the necessity of life with and within time, it is of course is one of our most important topics. Issues related to time are discussed in conversation and literature as much as any other, although quite often without a satisfying result or clear improvement for the future.

In our collective time, there are a great many books published about time. There are even widely-recognized time gurus. A notable insight at this point is that much of this time talk is about time management, about helping us live more efficiently and to get more out of the time we have.

It is here, however, in this primary modern focus on time management, that a fundamental problem lies in the mastery of our personal relationship with time. When discussions of time are confined solely to its efficient use, we often take the time we have as it is, and our outlook on or relationship to time as a given. But our relationship with time is not static and given. It is alterable and improvable, with the potential for important impacts on our quality of life. Different people and different cultures, in fact, experience or relate to time in very different and life-altering ways

When I talk about our relationship with time, a definition is in order. What I mean simply is our underlying and often unconscious approach to or outlook on time itself, and the goals, expectations, and frames of reference we bring to our time each day. As I suggested, we often take our outlook on time as given and universal, but this proves far from the case when individual and cultural time perspectives are examined scientifically (or even more intimately on our own).

Because of this frequent and critical error in understanding that our relationship to time can and often does change in different settings, many formal and informal discussions of time fail to uncover and help us consider our essential approach to time – the way we live within time, and the way that time lives within us – with enormous quality of life implications. We are apt to miss seeing and managing for ourselves a much more important and basic truth of our life within time. This underlying truth is that time can vary considerably in quality, even as it is utterly constant in quantity, as we personally vary our approach to time and the ways and ranges in which we relate to time (that is, as we vary we approach and relate to our lives).

In recent years, important new research has revealed that the quality of our relationship with time is far more central to our well-being and the quality of our lives than the efficient management of time, and that our personal relationship to our own time is both more far-reaching and more specific than most people realize. I am not suggesting inefficiency, but that there is more when thinking about time management (and even that efficiency considerations involve a specific outlook on time – one of at least seven available to us).

A new school of psychologists and researcher, in fact, now increasingly advance the idea that we should see time as the medium in which we live, one that is fluid and alterable by subjective perception and cognition, and one that is at least as important to our health as the more obvious medium of space.

In this growing new body of research, our personal and cultural relationships with time have been recast as having powerful and clearly discernable effects on our outlooks and choices, on the course of our lives and communities and overall quality of life, and on the quality of our long-term relationship with time itself (as time perspectives shape and are actively shaped by our choices and patterns of life). In this new research, our learned or habituated approaches to time are seen as having the potential to create self-reinforcing and unconsciously repeating patterns of life for us all, personal and cultural patterns that may be less flexible, less healthy, and less optimal than we are capable.

In this new and more insightful thinking about time, which I will call Time Perspective Theory (TPT), our most critical time-related imperative is not efficient time management, but instead effective time-relationship management (really effective self-management, in this case involving our approach to time). In TPT, primary emphasis is placed on improving our awareness of our relationship with or orientation toward time, and our individual and collective choices about how we approach and orient ourselves in time, rather than simply more densely or expertly packing our time with goal-directed activity.

Introducing The Time Paradox

I’d like to spend a few minutes – just a small amount of your time – introducing you to an important new book that summarizes much of this developing time-related research and thinking, a book that may well change the way you wake up in the morning and think about the world all day. Put more specifically, it is a book that is likely to change your relationship with and awareness of time, and how you manage the relationship with time you already and inevitably have, perhaps making this relationship and your life an improved, more committed, and far healthier one.

The book I want to introduce is The Time Paradox by Stanford University’s Philip Zimbardo and his colleague John Boyd. As I said, this book summarizes significant new time-related research and why this TPT research now recommends greatly-altered and life-enhancing thinking about time. As important, The Time Paradox presents a specific new way of approaching or changing our relationship with time, helping us to better see and consider how we each situate ourselves in time, and how our lives and experience of time are subtly and not so subtly influenced by our underlying perspective on time.

As suggested, Zimbardo and Boyd’s excellent summary of TPT goes well beyond more familiar ideas about time management and time efficiency. It explores the deeper and more subtle relationship with time that we all have – our time perspective. And it shows how successful and conscious time re-orientation can be achieved and lead to new health and quality of life. Foreshadowing their discussion of and conclusions about TPT and its application in our lives and communities, Zimbardo and Boyd write early in their book, “Moderate attitudes toward the past, the present, and the future are indicative of health, while extreme attitudes are indicative of biases that lead predictability to unhealthy patterns of living.”

I hope TPT and an improved personal relationship with time sound intriguing. Perhaps you are beginning to wonder about the nature of your own relationship with time, how something so seemingly amorphous can be defined or described, and if your time relationship is a committed, optimal, and healthy one? If so, let’s explore a few key ideas from The Time Paradox to see if they make you think about and relate to your time in new, healthier, and more satisfying ways.

Your Relationship With Time

I’d like to re-phrase my earlier question about time, to make it more concrete and specific, and more revealing about your personal relationship with time. Instead of asking you about your relationship to time in general, my rephrased question is this: What is your relationship with time at this moment, during the specific moment of time that is occurring now?

Let me encourage you to stop reading and examine time as it is occurs in the present. Observe your attitude in or orientation toward this moment. Examine what you thinking about or expecting from this specific segment of time. Consider if this perspective is typical or unusual for you.

Perhaps your attitude or perspective will be overly influenced by the fact that you are or were reading or listening to this text. To test this, take a short walk. Look at the thoughts and feelings that immediately come to mind as you move away from the experience of reading or listening. It may be worthwhile to consider if your reaction to or content in the moment is primarily memories, reactions to your immediate surroundings, or thoughts or feelings about the future?

Based on your initial answers, would you say that the moment you examined was a means to something, or an end in itself? Was the moment for something, did it have a point, or was it for itself, its own point? What choices and actions did the material of or your perspective on this moment bias you toward? Did you feel a need to act, or to compare the moment with another, or were you content to observe and be in the moment? And what alternative thoughts and feelings might this specific relationship with a moment of time have kept you from, or even not allowed you to see?

However you respond to or think about these questions, you can perhaps see that our relationship to time is quite specific, and quite personal, in any moment. We many not pay special attention to this momentary nature of time very often, but this does not mean that each of our moments are not each full of specific content and specific outlooks on time (and thus of unconscious ones).

If it seemed hard to answer or even frame for yourself the questions I have asked, the good news is that TPT offers a way to quickly and easily assess your momentary and overall experience of time. Importantly, if my questions were initially difficult, awkward, and counterintuitive, this is perhaps strongly suggestive that powerful new learning and personal awareness wait for you in TPT.

With this exercise of examining our experience of a moment of our own time, let me again underscore a critical finding of TPT, which you will now perhaps begin to better appreciate: we are apt to intuitively and unconsciously treat our overall outlook on or relationship to time as a generalized or neutral phenomenon, but this is always a mistake. In any moment, we each bring a specific perspective or pattern of perspective to our time, just as time brings specific events or patterns of events to our lives. Our relationship to time is always specific and never a non-entity.

As the probing a particular moment begins to reveal, our relationship to time is (and can be demonstrated by researchers to be) specific, variable and patterned, and ultimately, largely controllable by conscious choice and self-awareness. While our personal relationship to time may be shaped by forces outside us that we often cannot immediately perceive – genes, physiology, society, community, family, and situational influences – we can explore and learn from our time relationship today and then optimize our relationship to time for tomorrow.

If you are unsure about your ability to better see and then shape you time perspective, consider that we all were born in the present, as babies without memory or the capacity for planning, and this initial relationship to time has changed dramatically for us all. Many of us, in fact, spend much of our time in thoughts and feelings regarding the past and future, and often struggle to be truly in the present as adults. Others of us, however, may have retained much of this earlier ability to live in momentary time, and may struggle to access past and future time for our benefit.

Before continuing our discussion, I would encourage you to map your own dominant pattern of time orientation or general time relationship. You can do this in just a few minutes via a short online survey, called the Zimbardo Time Perspective inventory (ZTPI), available at http://www.thetimeparadox.com/surveys/.

The ZTPI survey will give you important feedback on your personal time relationship, before we turn to a discussion of our potential for altered time orientations. It will also introduce you to the specific time orientations we discuss. When you take the ZTPI, be sure to cut and save your results at the end of the survey, so you can refer to them later.

My own results for the ZTPI are as follows:

(1=low – 5=high scale) Actual Suggested
Past-negative 2.80 1.95
Past-positive 3.33 4.60
Present-hedonistic 2.73 3.90
Present-fatalistic 1.89 1.50
Future 4.23 4.00

As you can see, according to the research and findings underlying the ZTPI, I personally need to work to reduce “past-negative” relating to time, while reorienting my time relationship more toward “past-positive” and “present-hedonism” orientations. I already have a desirable high future time orientation, which, like other strong or unmanaged time perspectives, brings with it distinct advantages and disadvantages, which we will discuss next.

Seven Time Relationships

Zimbardo and Boyd spend the first part of their book introducing the idea that our time orientation can and does vary. This variation can occur in different situations and over the course of our lives, and is strongly influenced by culture and experience. Variation and patterning in our time orientation, in turn, can have profound influences on our short-term outlook and choices, and long-term patterns and quality of life. They underscore their discussion of this idea with now reasonably famous research from the 1970s by the social psychologists John Darley and Dan Batson.

Darley and Batson designed and conducted a simple but quite ingenious experiment to test time orientation and its effects on behavior. One group of subjects was set-up to be time-pressured, by telling them they were late for an important appointment, and this group generally did not stop (90% of the group) to help a person obviously incapacitated in an alleyway that they encountered alone on their way to the appointment. Another group was set-up to be time-flexible, by telling them they had plenty of time but should proceed to the appointment. A majority of this group did stop to help the incapacitated person in the alley (who was part of the experiment and acted credibly and consistently in all cases).

While these findings may not seem especially surprising, I have to add that all of the subjects in the study were Princeton University seminary students (religious scholars) en route to deliver a formal presentation on the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s true! Even among people committed to a life of human service and on their way to deliver a talk on the importance of helping others, time orientation proved a strong predictor of eventual behavior. This early research began to establish both the potential for specific forms of variability in and extreme importance of our time relationship.

Later TPT research has included many variations on this theme and has also gone well beyond simple unconscious situational effects on time perspective and resulting behavior. The research has shown that our time relationship is largely acquired and often actively reinforced through culture, environment, and prior patterns of choice, and that our time perspective can be consciously altered to be made more flexible and optimal – improving health, effectiveness, and quality life. 

Zimbardo and Boyd write, “We believe that your individual attitude to time is largely learned, and that you generally relate to time in an unconscious, subjective manner – and that, as you become more conscious to your attitude toward time, you can change your perspective for the better.”

The main body of The Time Paradox is an extended discussion of seven possible general orientations toward time, ones that we can either unconsciously or knowingly adopt, and which Zimbardo and Boyd believe prove a “good indicator of psychological and emotional health.”  As you may have learned already by taking the ZTPI and reviewing the accompanying online materials, their seven time perspectives are:

1. Past-negative – time focused on negative or painful memories

2. Post-positive – time focused on positive or pleasant memories

3. Present-fatalistic – time focused on and passively accepting the present

4. Present-hedonist – time focused on and actively seeking pleasure in the present

5. Present-holistic – time intentionally or self-consciously focused on the present

6. Future – time focused on planning or acting for the future, or imagining the future

7. Transcendental – time focused on life after death or on the world apart from the self

As mentioned before, each of these seven time perspectives is viewed as primarily learned and situational. In their book, Zimbardo and Boyd spend considerable time describing how these time orientations are actively encouraged and discouraged by family, schooling, peers, social class, and life experiences.

After describing the origins and key attributes of the seven time orientations, Zimbardo and Boyd focus on three of the orientations, to highlight the general and most important ways our time orientation can influence, or be made to influence, the quality of our outlook, choices, and actions:

Past-positive – this time orientation has been shown to make us: less aggressive, less anxious, more conscientious, more creative, less depressed, more emotionally stable, have higher energy, friendlier, happier, more reward oriented, have more self-esteem, and less shy

Present-hedonism – is a time orientation that has been shown to make us: more aggressive, more depressive, have more energy, exercise more, gamble more, be less conscientious, less emotionally stable, have less concern for consequences, have less ego and impulse control, more novelty-seeking, have less preference for consistency, more sensual, less studious, more creative, happier, more likely to lie and steal, and less shy

Future – this time orientation has been demonstrated to make us: less aggressive, less depressed, have more energy, less prone to drug and alcohol use, more contentious, more open, more concerned for consequences, have more ego and impulse control, more novelty-seeking, have more preference for consistency, more reward dependent, have more self-esteem, less sensual, less anxious, have higher grades in school, study more, more creative, and less likely to lie

Functional Vs. Dysfunctional Time Relationships

As you can see from this brief summary of the past-positive, present-hedonism, and future time perspectives, each of these time orientations has distinct advantages and disadvantages (as do the other four time perspectives outlined above). For example, a past-positive perspective allows us to tap positive memories for lessons and emotional strength, but alone can make us resistive to new ideas and even can disconnect us from the facts and unfiltered experience of the present around us.

In a similar way, a singular present-hedonism orientation can help us to enjoy and be creative in the moment, but if unmitigated, can lead us to forget past lessons and to disinvest in our future prospects (in the extreme leading to destructive hedonistic cycles, where momentary pleasures are emphasized amidst a life dominated by self-created pain and suffering, through inadequate attention to future consequences – think drug use and other addictions).

Likewise, a dominating future orientation helps us plan for and achieve goals in the future, and more objectively assess the consequences of present actions, but can make us insensitive to the past and unable to optimally enjoy the moment-to-moment nature and pleasures of our lives (in extreme cases, leading to accomplished and prosperous but empty lives full of dysfunctional relationships – think of the life of a strident workaholic you know).

But even with these specific, predictable, and thus controllable disadvantages, all three of these time perspectives are considered highly functional by Zimbardo and Boyd, and by other TPT researchers. Why? Because each time perspective offers at least some of the essential dimensions of a healthy and successful life, and specifically because the three perspectives can be combined or blended together to mitigate the downsides of each perspective alone – creating a flexible, robust, and far more optimal personal time relationship that balances the past, present, and future.

On the other hand, two of the seven time perspectives – past-negative and present-fatalistic – are seen by Zimbardo and Boyd as uniquely dysfunctional, containing high costs and few benefits to further our health and quality of life. They thus strongly encourage efforts to consciously downplay these time perspectives as they occur in our lives and recommend that we work to re-orient ourselves if we spend considerable personal or community time in these perspectives. By contrast, the final two of the seven time perspectives – present-holistic and transcendental – can have been shown to have many positive benefits, though their cultivation is not a principal topic of Zimbardo and Boyd’s book.

The idea that we can have and should either increase or downplay certain time perspectives in our lives offers at least three important insights for us all. First, it helps us to move from the difficulty of giving shape and finding a functional way of thinking about our momentary life experience, helping us to see our experience and time relationship in new and actionable ways, and affording us new self-awareness and potential for choice.

Secondly, the discovery that can move between at least seven general time perspectives allows us to test to see if individuals and communities are subject to patterning and habituation in specific time relationships, and then to test the relative merits of different time patterns (it turns out that individual and cultural patterning is the rule, not the exception). Third, these patterns of time orientation, or what we might call time-typing, allow us to determine that the seven time perspectives are principally learned and acculturated, and then that our time programming can be overridden (for better or worse).

A considerable body of research now demonstrates this third point. For example, children of professional parents have been shown to be more actively taught to forgo momentary pleasures for future goals and are more future-oriented than working class children. Working class children are instead more apt to be encouraged to live in the present (and thereby unintentionally and sub-optimally to disinvest in their future) and to grow up with a more dominant present-hedonist or present-fatalist time perspective.

The results of these class differences prove striking and result in two very different and self-reinforcing life trajectories that generally work to maintain class position and reinforce unhealthy social stratification.

Optimizing Our Time Relationship

Overall, the TPT research presented by Zimbardo and Boyd points to the need for most or all of us to actively attend to and re-balance our time perspective, at least across the past-positive, present-hedonistic, and future orientations – taking what is best from each perspective and avoiding the unique and sometimes quite significant downsides each perspective equally affords in isolation.

Zimbardo and Boyd specifically suggest specific goals for optimizing our time allocation in five of the time orientations, encouraging conscious management of our time relationship, a focus on situational flexibility, and care with the potential for excesses with any one time orientation. The result of this effort, I suspect, simultaneously serves to move us toward the present-holistic and transcendental perspectives as well.

As you can see online when taking the ZTPI survey, Zimbardo and Boyd’s specific time relationship recommendations are:

Past-negative – low

Present-fatalistic – low

Post-positive – high

Present-hedonist – moderately high

Future – moderately high

Whether the pressing topic in our lives is money, career, love, happiness, or politics, Zimbardo and Boyd present compelling research and ideas to suggest that their proposal for this more optimal, flexible, and integrated time relationship is far more likely to serve us in our lives, and to serve others and even whole societies.

To achieve this more ideal time-state, Zimbardo and Boyd offer a number of strategies for better seeing our personal and cultural time orientation, and for finding new footing in those functional time orientations that are less pervasive or developed for us personally. These strategies include:

Moderating Future Intensity – lessen commitments, remove unimportant goals from our to-do lists, give more time and attention to others

Moderating Present Intensity – seek moderation, consider consequences, embrace boredom/explore seemingly empty time, plan for tomorrow

Strengthening Past Positive – observe traditions, reach out to old friends, put out pictures of past happy times

Re-orienting Ourselves Beginning Today

To begin to better understand and optimize our time orientation, once we understand the basic findings and models of TPT, we really need only begin.

We can begin to be more attentive to the things that occupy our thoughts and feelings, and to watch for patterns of choice and action that pay special and perhaps excessive homage to the past, present, or future. We can look for moments when we are caught in the past-negative perspective or in feelings of impotence or indifference in our lives (the present-fatalist perspective). As our unique personal and perhaps specific cultural patterns become clearer to us, we then can begin the process of creating a new and healthier relationship with time.

As our need for specific changes and the opportunity for re-balancing in our time relationship become apparent and compelling, an exercise from The Time Paradox can prove quite helpful in exploring and cultivating our weakest functional time perspective(s). To do the exercise, you simply need a piece of paper or an open word file. When you are ready, in quick succession fill the page with 10-20 entries, each beginning with the same words: I was (to increase past-positive focus), I am (for new present-hedonistic focus), or I will be (for added future focus).

Normally quite future-oriented, I have found the “I was” and “I am” exercises remarkable, one opening up forgotten past positive memories that immediately re-energized my present, and the other greatly expanding my attention to and awareness of the sharp and piquant world that is around us in every moment.

Let me end, as Zimbardo and Boyd do, by encouraging you to take control of your time and life in new ways. They write that “today is the day of reckoning for each of us,” that you should “use your time as you would like others to use theirs,” and that we each can and must “re-claim yesterday, enjoy today, and master tomorrow.”

As their research and the research they present suggests, this seems not just sensible advice, but a path to new world and self-awareness, to new health and quality of life for you and others in your life, and to a new and better relationship with ever-present and ever-precious time.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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