Time Perspective: Living Past, Present, and Future

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I am officially entering my mid-20s in a few weeks (I know… cue the quarter life crisis) and glass-time-watch-businesssomething I have struggled with over the last few years is an almost paralyzing fear of not having enough time in life to do everything I want to accomplish and then immediately countering it with “You’re only 24… you got lots of time!” When I talk to my friends it seems like we spend a lot of time reminiscing about university, freaking out about future plans – grad school (what program? What school?), relationships (is this it? Is this actually going somewhere?), finances (I don’t have any real investments! I’m totally going to be broke at 75 years old), and not always a lot of time focusing on the present. I think that there is a healthy balance to be struck between thinking about the past, present, and future, but how do we find it?

Ghosts of Times Past

I’m sure we all have friends or family members that seem to always be talking about the past. It could be the glory days of high school, the simplicity of earlier times, etc. I don’t think it’s always a bad thing to reminisce about the good ol’ days and reflecting on the past can help you grow as a person and bring about a new level of self awareness. I think staying in the past can be negative if it keeps you from trying or experiencing things again. For example, if your first ever school dance went terribly and you never went to any environment that involved a dance floor again, you could be missing out on a lot of fun with friends. If you never dated again after your first break up from your grade 6 boyfriend/girlfriend, you would miss out on a whole lotta love.

Ghosts of Times Present

“Yesterday is a history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present” Staying present in the moment can keep you from missing the little things that adds vibrancy to your life. If you’re always thinking about what just happened or could happen, you might be paralyzed and not taking a chance. Research has shown that people are the happiest when they are mindful and focusing on the present – even if they are doing the most mundane or negative tasks.

Ghosts of Times Yet to Come

Focusing on the future is something I get lost in a lot of the time. The number of times I have freaked out about not having enough savings for retirement is a little crazy. When I started University I had a 30-year life plan and somewhat surprisingly, I am on track with the first 5-10 years of that 30-year life plan. I was so future focused as a toddler my catch phrase was “that’ll be the plan!”. The problem with always focusing on the future is you can forget to live in the present and it takes away some of the fun from being spontaneous.

The Balance

Everything in life is about finding the balance. Time psychologists, Zimbardo (of the 1971 Stanford prison study) and Boyd, have been studying this balance and refer to it as a time perspective. They theorize that you will be most successful if you are:

  • High past positive: this can lead to a sense of personal continuity or feeling stable over time. If most past experiences are positive, these people can be nostalgic of good times, even if the present is negative.
  • Moderately future oriented: decisions tend to be based on less concrete aspects of the present. You are able to do things now for the promise of more pay off later or delayed gratification.
  • Moderately present-hedonistic: self-indulgent, you enjoy things that bring immediate pleasure. You appreciate and consume the good things in life. You enjoy focusing on the process and are intrinsically motivated, instead of doing things for an external reward.
  • Low past negative: this can lead to suspicion of new and different ways of doing things or situations. They tend to not be as adventurous with experiences, relationships, travel, etc.
  • Low present-fatalistic: Low perspective that fate controls everything and nothing you do presently matters. People with a high level of this perspective strongly believe that luck has a lot to do with the outcome.

You can take a quiz to find out where you fall on the Time Perspective Inventory. I think it’s easy to allow quizzes or inventories like to do define you instead of considering what they’re telling you and examining how that is serving you. My sister and I recently did my Myers-Briggs (ISTJ) and every so often when we’re chatting she’ll roll her eyes and say something like “You’re such a J” or “that’s your S coming out”. If you complete the quiz, take some time to reflect and see if you can catch yourself shifting into one of these perspectives. How is that perspective serving you?

Watch Philip Zimbardo’s TED Talk.

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