Life in Balance: Timely Makeover

Shifting your time orientation could be the key to embracing and enjoying a busy life.

By Carlin Flora, published on November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Unless you're a truly frazzled frequent flyer, you know which time zone you are in. What you may not be aware of is where your thoughts and fantasies primarily reside: past, present, or future. Though few people live exclusively in any of these abstract territories, our default mental time zone strongly influences the way we make decisions and spend our days.

Just like the East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast, each mental time zone has its pros and cons—the very present-focused love college but can't graduate; extreme futurists score the corner office but find life empty and meaningless because they've failed to enjoy their success and their loved ones on a moment-to-moment basis, and the past-obsessed treasure early experiences but fail to grow and change.

Your time orientation is linked to culture and personality, making it somewhat stable. Still, it can be tweaked with awareness and a little practice. What's more, there is such a thing as an ideal time zone balance for optimal happiness. Think of achieving it as the emotional equivalent of an extended vacation during which you're less angry and stressed out, and more content and focused than usual.

To get a grip on your natural time orientation, test how you relate to typical characteristics of the three time zones and a few of their subcategories, advises psychologist Philip Zimbardo, co-author with John Boyd of The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. A "past-negative" orientation leads people to dwell on bad things that have happened to them. They have their feet stuck in the mud of their childhood or youth. A "past-positive" orientation leads to a lot of warm, nostalgic musings about eras gone by. Don't let "positive" mislead: Being trapped in beautiful memories still means you're trapped.

The "present-hedonist" orientation focuses people on the pleasures and opportunities unfolding right around them. Sounds like a Buddhist dream, but stay too long there and you're susceptible to excessive partying and not enough cleaning up and bill paying. A "present-fatalistic" mindset makes one not so much enjoy the moment as passively accept it. People in this time zone don't believe that anything they do can significantly affect their well-being; as a result they just float passively along.

So what is the magic lens through which to view time? People who are high in past-positive orientation, moderately high in future, moderately high in present-hedonistic, low in past-negative, and low in present-fatalistic time perspective are happier, healthier, and more successful than people with other time perspectives.

Conversely, people who are high on past-negative and present-fatalistic orientations are most likely of all to be depressed and to have suicidal thoughts.

Those with a winning blend of perspectives have hope for the future, feel securely rooted in the past, and are energetic and joyful about being alive in the present.

A widespread obsession with getting things done may have Americans collectively off-kilter in our time perspective. "Our whole society is pushing us to be more future-oriented," Zimbardo observes. Americans, 69 percent of whom consider themselves "busy" or "very busy," tend to see time as the enemy. As a result, "we get upset and angry at things that make us lose time, such as traffic or slow Internet service." In turn, our stress levels rise, and the time we do have for activities we enjoy is tainted by our sense of hurriedness.

The proliferation of time-management books makes Zimbardo cringe, and not just because it's emblematic of a cultural push for future-thinking. He suspects that the only people who buy them are highly future-oriented people—who should be out increasing their present-hedonistic tendencies instead.

Rampant future-orientation is no better among couples. It leads them to become boring automatons, Zimbardo says, and may even be a root cause of infidelity. "One or the other partner starts to look for someone who has new and interesting things to offer,"someone unlike their dutiful, to-do-list-waving partner. Of course, couples who are parents can't erase their obligations and responsibilities with a wand. But Zimbardo insists that small changes make a big difference in working toward an ideal time-orientation balance. If you're consumed with future tasks, take five minutes to laugh with a friend on the phone, or twenty to get a cup of coffee and read the paper. One of time's paradoxical qualities is that packing more into your schedule can make you perceive that it's expanding, not closing in on you. Sign up for a weekly volunteer project and you'll not only feel great about yourself, you'll also have new insights and experiences to share with your loved ones.

And considering how other people in your life are affected by their preferred time zone can help you become more understanding and less irritated. Your present-hedonistic brother is not late to dinner because he doesn't respect you—he's late because something grabbed his attention on the way over. He chose to enjoy the experience, something you might want to try the next time you're racing against the clock.

Switch Your Time Perspective

If you rarely travel to a particular time zone, here are tips for balancing your mind-set, adapted from The Time Paradox.

If you need to become more Past-Positive-Oriented:

  • Make a scrapbook of mementos, including photos, letters, and report cards. Write down your reflections of each stage of your life.
  • Remind your parents, grandparents, special relatives, and close friends of your gratitude for what they've done for you, in a letter or e-mail.
  • Attend a cultural event relevant to your upbringing or ancestry.

If you need to become more Present-Hedonistic-Oriented:

  • Plan for periods of spontaneity—set aside a weekend day and decide what to do only when the time arrives.
  • Say yes to most invitations.
  • Don't wear a watch.

If you need to become more Future-Oriented:

  • Make a few reasonable goals for today, tomorrow, and next month. Write them down and review the list regularly.
  • Practice saying no to temptation: Put out a bowl of chocolates now but don't eat them until tomorrow.
  • Read some good science fiction set in the next century or beyond.