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Time Perspectives

Time Perspectives: Our Orientation to Time

Time Perspectives: Our Orientation to TimeWhat is time? Physicists who study it don’t really have a good answer. Or, rather, they have too many different answers, which they cannot reconcile. But Philip Zimbardo was interested in the traces that time leaves on our psychology. And he called those traces ‘Time Perspectives’.

Time perspectives are how we perceive our relationship to time. They dictate many of our day-to-day and long-term life choices. To a large extent, we inherit our time perspectives from our cultures. But our individual early-life experiences have a large part to play as well.

However, the upshot is important. Your time perspective has a big role in determining how you use the time you have available. Time management books and courses can overlay strategies and tools. But, fundamentally, it’s the psychology of time that dictates your behaviours.

And that comes down to your time perspectives.

What are Time Perspectives?

Time perspectives are the approaches we take to time. The best way to explain is by illustrating the time perspectives that Zimbardo describes.

You can find his account of his research in his book, The Time Paradox. In it, he and co-author, John Boyd, describe seven Time Perspectives:

  1. Two Past Perspectives:
    1. Past Negative
    2. Past Positive
  2. Three Present Perspectives:
    1. Present Hedonistic
    2. Present Fatalistic
    3. Holistic Present
  3. Two Future Perspectives
    1. Future-oriented
    2. Transcendental Future

Past Time Perspectives

People with a strong past time orientation tend to make choices based on their perceptions of the past. These can be positive or negative in tone.

Past Negative

People with a strong Past Negative time perspective tend to look back on all the things that have gone wrong in their past. They carry those failures, pains, and disappointments with them, leading to either dwell on those negative emotions, or to try to escape them through destructive behaviours. They have a low capacity to control their emotions and impulses. This makes them prone to anxiety, unhappiness, and a lack of energy.

Past Positive

The Past Positive orientation allows people to draw upon the strength of their past. They have a deep sense of who they are and where they come from. This acts as an emotional anchor for them. It makes them happier and more energetic, with high self-esteem and conscientiousness.

Present Time Perspectives

Some people live in the present, with relatively little regard wither for the past or the future… A little like children!

Present Hedonistic

Like children, people with a strong Present Hedonistic time perspective are driven by a desire for immediate pleasure. They seek out fun, excitement, and gratification. This makes their lives highly pleasurable… Right up to the point where they run out of resources to feed this urge for gratification. Then, they will need to indulge destructive behaviours as a means to fuel their need for rapid rewards.

Present Fatalistic

Some people are also fixated by the present. But, rather than seeking rewards, they find themselves overwhelmed by their own sense that they lack control. Maybe they see that control lying in authority figures, government or non-governmental institutions, or a divine power. Whatever it is, they feel their choices to be limited. They become cynical and unmotivated, drifting from event to event. This is because they don’t believe they can influence any events: for good or ill, they are subject to those external forces.

Holistic Present

This time perspective is one that is absolutely rooted in the moment. At one extreme, it is like the meditative state of some religious and secular practices. At the other, it is the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes. In between, it is the mindfulness that is all the rage in the Western world at the moment.

Future Time Perspectives

What about people who hardly think of their past and barely enjoy the moment? Everything they do seems to be an investment for the future.


This is the Future-oriented time perspective. There isn’t enough time in the now to enjoy things – nor to dwell on present problems or past events. Highly Future-oriented people work hard and therefore achieve a lot. They tend to be the most outwardly successful people in society. Their perspective seems to come mostly from a strong and positive experience of education in their early lives.

Transcendental Future

There are a small number of people whose future focus is not on the near or medium-term of either the next few years or even the next stages of their lives. Rather, it is on the long and distant future: the future that belongs to the next and even subsequent generations. This may arise from a rational awareness of the long-term implications of present choices or a spiritual sense of some form of destiny. Boyd and Zimbardo devote a chapter of their book to the origins and implications of this. Examples range from a positive ecological activism to highly destructive religion-inspired terrorism.

What is the Ideal Time Perspective?

The most successful people are clearly those with a future-oriented time perspective, They work hard and invest for the future. The happiest, in their own ways, have the present hedonistic and holistic time perspectives. And the people with strongest psychological stability are the people with a strong past positive time orientation.

But there is no ‘best’.

Balance is the best. This means people who can:

  • Draw upon the confidence of a strong sense of place deriving from healthy recollections of their past and a sense of belonging
  • Focus on the pleasures of the now, without ceding their self-control to them
  • Invest some of their time, energy, and resources to secure the future they want for themselves and their loved ones

What is Your experience of Time Perspectives?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.


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