Past, Present, and Future: Use Time Perspectives to Live Better

time perspective
5 min read

What does time mean to you? Depending on who you’ll ask, you get one of the following answers:

  • Time is money
  • Time is love
  • Time is play
  • Time is work
  • Time is a thing of the past

Your answer tells a lot about how you spend your time. That makes me think about something.

Why do we often carefully think before we spend our money but don’t do the same when we spend our time? 

Do we value money more than time? If you look at all the inspirational quotes on social media, you would think everyone is conscious of their time. You often hear things like, “time is your most important asset,” and, “you can earn back money but you can’t earn back time.”

I agree with those things. But what I don’t get is that every year, people spend more time on their devices. The average daily time spent consuming content was nearly seven hours a day in 2020! It was of course the year of the pandemic, and numbers were higher than usual.

But still, we waste a lot of our time. And I’m not immune to that either. While we can never avoid wasting any time, and do things that give us energy and joy 100% of the time, we can make better use of the time we have. 

I recently read The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, who are both renowned psychologists. In that book, they talk about using time perspectives to change the way you live.

This is a topic most of us never think about. We just use our time without having a system. We often just follow our intuition. That’s how we end up overthinking, stuck in the past, and miserable about our days. 

The 3 time perspectives of the human mind

When we think about time, we usually think of the following states and how they impact our actions:

  1. Past: When you’re focused on the past, you’re often paralyzed by what has happened to you. You either wish your life was like the “good old days” or you wish certain things didn’t happen. People who often ask “Why?” are overly focused on the past.
  2. Present: When you’re primarily focused on the present, you either want instant gratification or enjoyment of what’s in front of you. No thought of the past or the future. “I only live today” is your motto. 
  3. Future: A future-oriented person is someone who eats healthy food, gets good grades in school, doesn’t smoke, drink, and is always working towards a future outcome. 

Most people realize that living in one perspective isn’t realistic. A 100% present-focused life sounds ideal, but if you think about what that would look like, it makes no sense.

If you only live for today, you might spend all your money, eat as much food as you can, drink even more, you name it. And if you only live for the future, you would do nothing that gives you satisfaction today.

The 1/9/90 principle of time perspectives

Awareness of time perspectives helps you to live better because you will make better use of your time. It will help you to enjoy your days, learn from the past, and shape a better future.

But it requires us to find a balance. We can’t be stuck in one time perspective. In The Time Paradox, Zimbardo and Boyd explain it well: 

“Depending on the demands of a particular situation, one time perspective must take precedence, while the others may temporarily recede.”

That inspired me to think about what it looks like in my daily life. I came up with the following balance:

1% past-focused: I take about 15 minutes a day to journal. But I don’t just think about the past when I journal. I try to occasionally reflect on the past to learn. 

9% future-focused: This is the time I dedicate to planning and thinking about the future. I always want to be aware of the fact that life can be long. For example, I spend time creating fitness routines and buying healthy food because I know that’s better for future-me.

90% present-focused: This is when I execute my plans and the time I spend enjoying my days. While I might plan only 9% of the time, the actual work happens here: Working out, writing, reading, doing chores, eating, traveling, and so forth. I don’t want to be lost in thought when I do these things.

This distribution is just something I keep in mind and don’t keep track of. I use it as a guideline to live my life. If I notice that I’m thinking about the past multiple times a day, I remind myself that it’s fruitless.

When I’m over-planning and getting ahead of myself, I correct myself as well. I don’t want to spend too much time on planning because we don’t control everything. Plans are only plans—nothing is guaranteed except for the very moment you have.

Be flexible and be present

What I find most valuable about The Time Paradox is the importance of being flexible. A single-minded focus on the present or future doesn’t lead to a balanced and well-lived life. As Zimbardo and Boyd write, it’s all about the variety:

”Work hard when it’s time to work. Play hard when it’s time to play. Enjoy listening to Grandma’s old stories while she is still alive. Meaningfully connect with your friends. View children through the eyes of wonder with which they see the world. Laugh at jokes and life’s absurdities. Indulge your desires and passions. Save for a rainy day, and save enough to spend when it is sunny.”

The way we act depends on the situation. When we mix up time perspectives, we get frustrated with life. For example, the other day I was having dinner with my family, but I was also thinking about doing my taxes.

I was thinking about the future while the situation called for being present. The right course of action was to take 10 minutes to schedule time for doing my taxes or at least make a start earlier in the day. But since I didn’t do that, I kept thinking about it during dinner. 

During these moments, we need to catch ourselves in the act just like we’re catching our pets trying to eat a piece of plastic. Correcting our perspective helps us to live every moment to the fullest. This is a bit cliche, but if you’re aware of what time perspective you currently have, and which perspective you SHOULD have, you can easily figure out whether there’s a match or not.

Ultimately, we all want to make the best use of our time. So no matter what you do, don’t wait for life to bring you joy, clarity, or purpose. Embrace your past, think about the future, but remember that now is the time to live. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not here yet. So make today count.

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