Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Great Balancing Act: A Fresh Take on Time

How we think about 'time' makes all the difference!

When you hear the word “balance”, what comes to mind?

At home, we balance checkbooks. At the mechanic’s, we get our tires balanced. And in the workplace, the buzz term "work-life balance" is boasted like a proud badge on the lapel of eager HR managers.

Perhaps the most common illustration that comes to mind, though, is that of the tightrope walker; with matchless focus, agility and poise, he swiftly glides from one end of the rope to the other. If only we were that skilled at balancing our lives. Despite our best intentions, for many of us, daily equilibrium is something that seems beyond reach.

The kind of balance that most of us are seeking has to do with time – what we do with it, who we spend it with, how much of it’s consumed by work. But balance is not just about what we do with our time, it also has a lot to do with how we think about time. Given that our thoughts determine our actions, how we think about time may be even more important to our well-being than what we do with it.

Psychologist Phil Zimbardo has researched the psychological component of time, which he calls Time Perspective (TP). Though we physically live in the present, we think in terms of the past, present and future. According to Zimbardo, TP is "the manner in which individuals, and cultures, partition the flow of human experience into distinct temporal categories of past, present and future". In other words, time perspective is based on whether time is spent thinking about the past, present or future.

Zimbardo and colleagues have found 5 distinct Time Perspectives that people have:

1) Past Negative (past is perceived as mostly unpleasant and aversive)

2) Past Positive (past is perceived as mostly pleasant)

3) Present Hedonistic (present is perceived as full of pleasure and free from worry of future consequences of behavior)

4) Present Fatalistic (present is perceived to be determined by fate and that neither present nor future events can be influenced)

5) Future (characterized by having goals and by taking action to achieve such goals)

Living predominantly in any single time perspective can have some negative consequences. For example, someone with a dominant Future Time Perspective may work hard their entire life, living frugally and saving as much as they can for retirement so they can finally -- take that Alaskan cruise, go fishing, or learn how to paint. However, they may later regret their decision if the economy tanks and they lose their entire savings. Given the current economic climate, some of us are feeling the pain of this exact situation. On the other hand, someone with a prevailing Present Hedonistic Time Perspective may frivolously spend every dollar they have on self-indulgent pursuits and save nothing for the future. A predominant Past Negative Time Perspective may provoke depression as that person continually dwells on the past and has difficulty moving forward in their life. Thus, balancing how we think about time is imperative to thriving!

The magic formula is what Zimbardo and colleagues appropriately call the ‘Balanced Time Perspective’. “In an optimally balanced time perspective, the past, present and future components blend and flexibly engage, depending on a situation’s demands and our needs and values” (Zimbardo, 2002, p. 62). The key to this balance is to be able to flexibly switch between past, present and future perspectives and to work toward a degree of positive reflection on the past, a moderately enjoyable present and a hopeful future. Zimbardo believes that an individual will reap psychological benefits if they are able to ‘work hard when there is a mission to be accomplished, but play hard when the work is done’. An overemphasis on future goals can compromise spontaneity and impede present-moment enjoyment. When the present is all we have, this kind of focus can truly undermine our well-being.

Often I coach clients to help them develop a balanced time perspective. It’s extremely important that they learn to cultivate an appreciation for what they have experienced in the past, a sense of gratitude and engagement in the present, and sense of hope and well-established goals for the future. In my experience, Thrivers know how to flexibly switch between time perspectives, even if they give more favor to one over the others. Further, it’s the Thriving Mindset that enables them to succeed at achieving a balanced time perspective!

So, where do you spend most of your time (mentally) – in the past, present or future?


Zimbardo, P. G. (2002). Just think about it: Time to take our time”. Psychology Today, 35, 62.

© Angie LeVan, 2010.

Angie LeVan is a resilience coach, speaker and writer, dedicated to helping you thrive: through challenge (i.e. divorce, loss of job), toward change (i.e. career & lifestyle goals), and via the good life (i.e. increasing joy in your life)! Learn more at

More from A.J. Adams MAPP
More from Psychology Today
More from A.J. Adams MAPP
More from Psychology Today