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Past, Present, Future: Don’t Get Stuck in a Single Time Dimension

How flexibility in time orientation leads to a better life.

Key points

  • Only the experienced present exists, but we have access to the past through memory and we have expectations for the future.
  • The switching among time dimensions is essential for individual adaptation to changing situational demands.
  • The balanced time perspective is an individual’s ability to flexibly focus on different time orientations.
  • Temporal metacognition is the ability to consciously self-regulate the focus on the past, present, or future.

A man is stuck in his memories. His wife left him ten years ago, yet he repeatedly ruminates on his loss. A teenager does not want to study for the upcoming final exam. Instead, she hangs out with her friends or plays her favorite video game at home. She is stuck in the present moment at the expense of the future. A competitive lawyer works day and night, even on weekends, as she prepares for her clients’ court proceedings. She hardly ever relaxes or meets friends. She is stuck in a future of unending court cases. What these people have in common is that the focus of their lives is on a single time dimension, the past, present, or future.

They are stuck in one temporal orientation and lack the flexibility to change to another when it would be better. The man who was abandoned by his wife cannot savor the present and will, therefore, have difficulties finding a new companion and leading a happy life in the future. The teenager who overly enjoys present entertainment might fail her exam and not be able to get an interesting job in the future because she lacks the appropriate skills. The lawyer misses out on the enjoyable sides of everyday life, like relaxing with friends or just going for a walk in nature. She might even soon suffer from burnout.

Although only the experienced present exists in any given moment, access to the past is made possible through memory, and one also has future expectations and plans. The capacity to mentally travel back and forth in time is an important human adaptation developed in the course of evolution (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). The switching among time dimensions is often automatic, but it is essential for individual adaptation to changing situational demands. Two ideas in time psychology have recently begun to describe this form of temporal flexibility. One is the balanced time perspective. This derives from Philip Zimbardo’s time perspective questionnaire, which assesses an individual’s ability to focus on different time orientations. A balanced time perspective is one where an individual has moderate-to-high levels in the past-positive, present-hedonistic, and future dimensions (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008).

Time balance means a person can think about the ‘good old times’ and then switch to leisurely activity and know when to work hard to ensure future success. Maciej Stolarski and Joanna Witowska from Warsaw University formulated the idea of temporal metacognition, which is defined as the ability to consciously self-regulate the focus on the past, present, or future (Stolarski & Witowska, 2017). They identified three dimensions of temporal metacognition, namely: (1) the capacity to control a maladaptive time perspective in a given situation and to switch to another (what all three above-mentioned characters lack), (2) the ability to reinterpret past events using present experiences (what the man left by his wife could not do), and (3) the ability to connect the three time dimensions to make conscious, purposeful decisions.

We can intuitively feel that a balanced time perspective leads to numerous beneficial outcomes. I have shown that people with a more balanced time perspective experience less time pressure and less boredom in daily life, two main negative experiences we commonly face in our modern societies (Wittmann et al., 2015). I presented the results from my waiting-room study in an earlier Psychology Today blog: Individuals who were impulsively stuck in the present moment (just like our teenager) felt worse while experiencing a 7.5-minute waiting period and overestimated its duration – a typical symptom of boredom.

People with higher temporal metacognitive capacities are more friendly, conscientious, less neurotic, and more open to new experiences (Stolarski et al. 2018). The empirical results relate to one’s ability to regulate emotions, which in turn leads to a happier life. People who can effectively switch among the three time dimensions are generally more satisfied in life. They do not depend so much on external stimulation and are better able to adapt to new situations. They are temporally more flexible.


Stolarski, M., & Witowska, J. (2017). Balancing own time perspective from aerial view: Metacognitive processes in temporal framing. In: A. Kostić, & D. Chadee (Eds.). Time perspective. Theory and practice (pp. 117–141). UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Stolarski, M., Fieulaine, N., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2018). Putting time in a wider perspective: The past, the present, and the future of time perspective theory. In: V. Zeigler-Hill & Todd Shackelford (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Personality and Individual Differences (pp. 592-628). Thousand Oakes, CA: SAGE.

Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Science, 30, 299–313.

Wittmann, M., Rudolph, T., Linares Gutierrez, D., & Winkler, I. (2015). Time perspective and emotion regulation as predictors of age-related subjective passage of time. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(12), 16027–16042.

Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J. (2008). The time paradox: The new psychology of time that will change your life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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