Managing Time – Successfully Living in the Present.

About Dr. Jon Warner

by Dr. Jon Warner, 
Most of the advice offered to become better organized or to manage our time more efficiently / effectively seems to simplistically come down to four basic steps.

1)Change our focus (essentially to adopt more disciplined approach),

2) Plan or prepare more than we do now

3) Rank our important tasks and prioritize them and finally

4.)Deal with Interruptions firmly.

This is all sensible advice but it suggests not only a rather linear set of future changes to adopt but also underplays the role of the individual’s overall attitude and how they tend to regard time as a concept.

Perhaps a more useful model to encompass how we conceptually view time has been put forward by a Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo based on his international research over the last decade or so. In his 2008 book The “Paradox of Time”, author and psychologist (with co-author John Boyd) suggested that we all have an orientation towards the past, present and future (and a mix of all three of course). While this can be in healthy balance in a few people, it is often less than an ideal mix for many, or one perspective is dominant over the others. Zimbardo developed an assessment and set of six scales (two for each time period) to measure differences between people called the “Zimbardo Time Perspective” with a FREE test to undertake at The Time Paradox website.

The time perspective biases, or time frames, that emerge most consistently from the factor analysis of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory are: Future-Orientation (including transcendental), Past-Orientation, Present-Hedonistic Orientation, and Present-Fatalistic Orientation.

Zimbardo identified 3 main problems according to his research and from the many thousands of people who have now subsequently taken the test. These are:

  1. People who are trapped in past negative time perspective (being thereby trapped in seeing the past as relatively unhappy and having a direct impact on how they feel in the present)
  2. People who are trapped in too much present fatalism (or feeling powerless to influence their future)
  3. People who are trapped in too much future orientation (sacrificing present enjoyment for a future state that may never come about).

What can we say about people’s varying perspectives about time as a concept?

According to Zimbardo, People who have different time perspectives or patterns on the chart behave differently and we can make general statements about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Please note however, all of these are expressed in somewhat stereotypical fashion and will be modified by other attitudes and perspectives in an individual’s life:

I. Past-oriented people (especially when negative):

  1. are generally more concerned with their past and seem to be able to distance themselves from the realities of the present or the future.
  2. are usually tend to be traditional, religious or faith-oriented, and conservative.
  3. typically have a stable sense of self.
  4. tend to be family-and group-oriented in most cases and are therefore often distrustful of strangers; thus they may have a tendency to be prejudiced.
  5. are usually focused on their obligations and commitments whether personal or collective (i.e.. family, cultural, or group/tribal obligations).
  6. have rituals and myths playing an important roles in their lives.
  7. may have guilt as a more dominant feeling than others.
  8. usually try to maintain the status quo and thus may not be progressive.
  9. usually do not take risks and may not be very adventurous.
  10. usually tend to be dependent and cooperative within their chosen group rather than competitive.

II. Present-oriented people (especially when fatalistic):

  1. tend to focus on the present and their current sensations, feelings, and concerns while ignoring commitments made in the past or for the future; thus they are more concerned with “what is” than “what was” or “what may be”.
  2. are more concrete rather than abstract in their thinking (i.e. a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush).
  3. tend to give up temptations or delay gratification with difficulty and thus they are easily distracted from the performance of necessary current tasks (and can be procrastinators).
  4. tend to concentrate on activities that bring pleasure and avoid pain.
  5. may repeat the same mistakes they have made in the past.
  6. usually more sensation and novelty seekers, more aggressive, more short-term depressed, less conscientious, and less emotionally stable. They have less concern for future consequences, less ego and impulse control, and less preference for consistency.
  7. When poor, uneducated or under-educated tend to be present-oriented since they usually tend to focus on emergent needs of the present.
  8. are more concerned with immediate gratification, and less concerned about the future.
  9. because they are immediate pleasure seekers, usually don’t pay good attention to their health.
  10. are usually considered to be fun people to be around.

III. Future-oriented people:

  1. are more focused on their future than the present or the past; their thoughts are concerned with the future consequences of their present actions; they logically analyse various outcomes that may result from their action.
  2. are goal-oriented and can delay gratification and endure an unpleasant situation in order to achieve long-term goals. They pay attention to responsibility, liability, efficiency, distant pay-off, and tend to optimize future outcomes. Thus they can work hard and avoid temptations, distractions, waste of time to accomplish a goal. They usually tend to rehearse various future plans (and may wasted much time is so doing).
  3. Since they are concerned about the future, they tend to not spend all of their money and resources (but may not save enough in the present).
  4. could be either cooperative or competitive depending on which action results in the best outcome.
  5. tend to be more health-conscious in order to prevent future negative health outcomes.
  6. may be unable to fully enjoy fun activities due to the fear of wasting time.
  7. may have difficulty in intimate relationships since they often thrive on control, predictability, and consistency, factors that may interfere with the freedom and spontaneity of relationships.
  8. Although they usually have low anxiety levels, concern for the future may increase anxiety. They usually tend to be workaholic, and have more mid-life crises.
  9. tend to be more conscientious, less aggressive, less depressed, more reward-dependent, less sensation seeking, more studious, more creative but also more continually anxious than others.
  10. tend to have more self-esteem, energy, openness, and ego-control.

IV. Balance in time perspectives:

The authors suggest that in general, the combination of the following time perspective is ideal:

  1. Lower past negativism
  2. Higher past positivism
  3. Lower present fatalism
  4. Higher present hedonism
  5. Higher futurism
  6. Medium transcendental futurism

Can a more balanced time perspective be brought about?

For Zimbardo, the map he offers is not the territory (however the results emerge) so individuals can use it as a guide and then set about making changes (however long this may take) to their attitude and behaviour (especially when negative past experiences or unhealthy levels of fatalism are in their profile). For example, although a person may have had a negative past which cannot be changed, they can engage in re framing their past by changing their attitude toward what happened (with or without help to do so). And people who want to become more future oriented can write down their goals, chart their progress, make to-do lists, and work toward long-term rewards. Clearly, changing one’s time perspective requires much effort because each of us has to potentially change deeply ingrained beliefs and habits. However, research shows that such a change is readily within our reach with a reasonable degree of focus and commitment and people can greatly increase the levels of happiness in their lives. As the authors say

“Our ability to reconstruct the past, to interpret the present,

and to construct the future gives us the power to be happy”.

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