As a child, time felt like an endless silk ribbon. I woke each day mostly unaware of what I was going to do beyond the simple calculus of school or no school. Events seemed to emerge from the ether, and when the next event was slow to form, I and my friends would make up something to do.
The noose of time started to constrict as I progressed from elementary to middle school culminating with the relatively regimented schedule of high school. Free time became precious, something to protect from obligations. The future also rose in prominence as activities were now undertaken with college in mind.
Then within four months I went from a strictly controlled summer job where bathroom breaks were predetermined to the yawning days of college where my time was punctuated by only a few required class hours. I had to learn to anticipate and schedule with minimal outside cues and checks. It felt like learning to drive, alternatively stepping on the gas and then the brake in herky-jerky spurts. Only many years later, working as a studio artist, would I again feel the silky flow time of my youth.
Our perceptions of time are largely learned and a product of our experience and culture. According to Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, authors of The Time Paradox, each of us develops a time perspective that divides our experience into time frames giving order and meaning to events. Our time perspective consists of a combination of past, present, and future orientations which Zimbardo and Boyd call a time profile. Not only do we each vary in our time profiles, but the authors' studies indicate that time profiles are strong predictors of behavior and the resulting cascade of life circumstances.
Based on thirty years of research, Zimbardo and Boyd have found that people who are future-oriented tend to focus on goals and use more if-then reasoning. They are willing to delay gratification, think in terms of consequences, and they are more likely to be successful at school and work. They tend not to be physical risks-takers, preferring to invest in their health such as scheduling preventative doctor's exams and flossing. (There goes the idea of free choice when it comes to flossing.) Present-oriented individuals tend to focus on the concrete and physical here and now versus the abstract future or past. They are often more personable and helpful in the moment, but can have difficulty making good choices for themselves in the long run. They are more likely to gamble, use drugs, to engage in risky physical and sexual behavior and, you guessed it, not floss. The authors further distinguish between present-hedonists who live to enjoy the moment and present-fatalists who feel they have little control over their life.
The authors report that although there are relatively few people who are primarily past-oriented in the United States, the portion of our time perspective that is either past-negative or past-positive significantly impacts how much happiness we experience in the present and expect in the future.
What has time perspective got to do with living the good life? The Time Paradox proposes that an ideal time profile to optimize well-being is a blend of past-positive, present-hedonist, and future orientations. With this combination we are able to feel well grounded in our familial and cultural roots, while experiencing the energy and joy of being alive in the moment, as well as feeling empowered to shape a future based on our hopes and ambitions. If this sounds obvious, it is, until you take the time profile survey and compare your results to this ideal. In my case, I thought it accurately described the areas that weren't a problem for me (little miss planner) and those that are challenging, like getting in touch with my inner party girl and all those happy childhood memories. (See below for the authors suggestions on how to modify your time perspective.)
In A Geography of Time by Richard Levine, the author looks at the tempo and pace of life in countries around the world and how these impact people's behaviors and sense of well-being. His conclusions echo those of other researchers who find that there is an optimum pace of life range which is neither too slow leading to boredom, nor too fast leading to stress. Everyone varies in his or her preferred pace within that range, and feeling aligned with both the pace of work and the culture brings about the greatest satisfaction. Likewise, developing the ability to adjust our pace with different activities such that we can work quickly and effectively when needed and then downshift to a slower pace to relax and spend time with friends and family is most effective for both making a living and enjoying life.
This sense of balance of time perspectives and pace is challenging to develop in the U.S. today. Statistically Americans are working more than ever before and significantly more than their European counterparts. All of our time saving devices have resulted not in more leisure time as originally projected, but in higher expectation of output for both work and play. Efforts to bring awareness to the detrimental effects of a speedy life have inspired the slow life movement. These include slow food, slow parenting, slow traveling, slow cities, and slow sex (still waiting for slow flossing). The emphasis is on bringing the right speed to activities such that they are experienced fully, as well as directing our energies away from consuming to engaging with what we are doing on a deeper, more conscious and fulfilling level.
Central to getting more control over our time is addressing the relationship between our work, money, and time. In other words, how much time do we spend working to make money to support our life activities? The book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin addresses this on an individual basis, while John de Graaf has created a movement to address this issue called Take Back Your Time. His proposals include a restructuring of work time to ensure what he calls "time to care" as parents, healthy adults, and citizens.
In my senior year of high school I was in the play "Our Town" which depicts everyday life in a small New England town. For weeks I sat on stage in an imaginary cemetery and stared out into the dark theater in the role of one of the dead townsfolk. From the beyond we commented on the living and our essential message was how they often overlooked what was truly important in life, the simple pleasures, and the connections between people. This experience had a profound impact on my time perspective. It gave me a sense of the transcendent future, that is the time after I am dead, and a corresponding sense of importance for what is happening in the moment. I frequently return to that stage when considering how I'm going to spend my limited and precious time.
In addition to the references above, Julie Morgenstern offers a lot of good exercises for developing time awareness, goals and skills in Time Management from the Inside Out. She makes the distinction between time issues that are result of the environment, personal psychology, or skills which is very useful, not only as applied to time, but to lots of issues. The book's strength is awareness and skill building with variations for different personalities and temperaments.
The Time Paradox maintains that adults can change their time profile by changing their behavior. To be successful, you would likely need a strong commitment and some support. Here is an abbreviated list from the book:
Becoming More Future-Oriented
Becoming More Present-Oriented
Becoming More Past-Positive
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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