How our individual perspectives of time affect our life

personal time perspective

Renowned psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo explains how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. What has been discovered in 30 years of research, is that there are six main time zones of time perception that people live in: two focus on the past, two on the present, and two on the future.

time perspective orientation

Past Oriented People

The people who focus on the past, either remember all the good old times, successes, happy birthdays, nostalgia, these are the people who keep the family, record the family books, who have the family rituals. And there are other people who focus only on regret only on failure only on all the things that went wrong so we call those focus past positive and past negative.

Present Oriented People

There are two ways to be present orient the most obvious is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and you avoid pain, you seek novelty, you seek sensation. There are other people who are present-oriented because they say it doesn’t pay to plan my life is faded, faded by my religion, faded by my poverty, faded by the conditions that I’m living under.

Future Oriented People

Most of us are here because we are future-oriented, that we have learned to work rather than plighted, to resist temptation, but there’s another way to be future-oriented depending on your religion, life begins after the death of the mortal body. To be future-oriented you have to trust that when you make a decision about the future it’s going to be carried out. 

If you have great inflation you don’t put money in a bank because you can’t trust the future. If you have instability in your family adults can’t keep their promises to you.

Geographical location and our perception of time

The closer you are to the equator the more present-oriented you are, the more you’re in an environment where the climate doesn’t change, it gives you a set of imagining sameness rather than change. 

Protestants everywhere have a higher gross national product than Catholic countries in part because of the Protestant notion that you work hard to succeed to demonstrate that you’re God’s chosen people. 

future oriented person

 It turns out it is accurate according to research to say people in the north tend to be on a scale much more future-oriented and the people in the south tend to be more past-oriented or present hedonistic. 

So again here’s how when you have a number of people who share a certain time perspective then it does come to characterize the nation the same way if you have a Catholic nation where people tend to be present or past-oriented rather than a Protestant nation where in general people tend to be more future-oriented it affects you in very profound ways.

Geography of Time – Book Review

So there’s a wonderful book called the geography of time and it’s written by Robert Levine who’s a social psychologist, and he actually literally went around the world doing wonderful experiments. He looks at what he calls the pace of life, see, time perspective is how people divide their own experience into partitions according to the time zone.

Sense of Duration of Time

Another kind of time orientation is your sense of duration, how much time is expired while you’re sitting in a dentist’s office before they start drilling, how much time has expired when you’ve been waiting in line, how much time is expired when you’re having fun or at set.

So time duration is totally a function of whether you’re bored, whether you’re excited or not, and what he does is he shows that in different cultures people have a different pace of life and you do this very simply you sit in a cafe and you mark off 100 meters and as people pass, you start a stopwatch you see how fast people walk, you go to a post office and on a piece of paper you say I’d like you to know three pounds of this postage or ten euros, you see how long it takes.

So he has a bunch of of these measures and it turns out you can identify cultures as different pace of life and now cities, and he shows in America you can rank 60 cities according high pace of life and low pace of life and at the ones which have the highest rates of life, men have the most coronary problems, that is this part this becomes part of your whole way of life, we all begin life as present hedonist, all of us I mean at the breast at the bottle, we want pleasure, you want to avoid pain.

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And one of the things that families do and especially school my sense is the purpose of schooling is to take present-oriented little beasts and make them more future-oriented. Some cultures make them more past oriented, in America a child drops out of school every nine seconds, this is worse for kids from a minority background and it’s worse for boys than girls, there’s actually a disaster recipe developing among boys in America, literally dropping out of high school college.

And it’s not simply poor performance, one of the problems is a recent study shows that by the time of boys 21 had spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games alone, probably more watching pornography alone, and you put that together it means a they haven’t learned social skills emotional, social intelligence, but also it means that they live in a world that they create, they’re playing Warcraft acquaintances or the games which is exciting, in fact just I just heard the other day that these game companies are now going to develop 3d games.

So that the world will be all around you their brains are being digitally rewired, which means they will never fit in a traditional classroom which is analog, somebody talks at you, without even nice pictures, meaning it’s boring, I mean you control nothing you sit there passively and if you want to change the curriculum I understand the traditionalist here say we got to go back to reading writing arithmetic is asking these kids will never fit into that, they have to be in a situation where they are controlling something.

And school is set up you control nothing you’re passive, this school is all about learning delay of gratification literally endlessly. All addictions are present hedonism, food, sex, drugs, gambling, etc. all of our propaganda, all of our educational message, all our public relations messages are designed for future-oriented kids who are not the problem they tell you here are the negative consequences of doing what you’re doing.

Future oriented kids know that, they don’t do it, present oriented kids know the future consequences, if you’re a teenage girl you know that if you have unprotected sex you’re likely to get pregnant or a sexually transmitted disease, you know it, but that knowledge never feeds back to change your behavior, so that’s the interesting thing about time perspective.

I think we are underestimating the power of Technology in rewiring young people’s brains, kids don’t wear wristwatches, they say it’s a single function device, you don’t waste time on a single function device,  if I and they live in a digital thing what matters is the second, you know, I didn’t mention one of the things that get people upset in America is how long it takes to boot up your computer and how long it takes to download something, less than a minute, that makes people angry.

Dr Hew Len Inner Child Meditation


So becomes an emotional thing you get angry waiting in line, waiting for services waiting is a waste of time even if it’s waiting for your computer to boot up, so I think there’s a fundamental change going on in our culture that I think we adults are not realizing that kids are totally different than we were and it’s because of their revolution in time.

There was a recent study with USA Today asking Americans how busy they are, the vast majority American, more than 50 percent said I’m busier now than it was last year, busy last year than the previous year and I sacrifice friends family, and sleep for my success, this is across the board not separating by future or anything, and then we say suppose you had eight, suppose you had an X eight day a week what would you do, oh that we great, they would spend that most of that time working hard at work, not with a friend, not with family and not even sleeping.

They did this study twenty years ago and I was upset again from this Italian background only 60% of Americans said they have regular sit-down family dinners when we redid the study last year, only one in five American families have sit-down dinners together. In American we talk about Family Values, you can’t have a family value if you never have family meals together.

I think many of life’s puzzles can be solved by simply understanding our own time perspective and that of others. Lots of conflicts we have with people are really a conflict in different time perspectives. 

Thanks for reading, I love you, I’m sorry, please forgive, thank you. (Ho’oponopono Phrases)


This RSA Animate was taken from a lecture given as part of the RSA’s free public events programme. The RSA is an Enlightenment-founded charity, and is dedicated to driving social change and spreading world-changing ideas.


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