How do you regard time?
Most of us inhabit a mental space which prioritises our past, indulges in the present or anticipates the future.
A degree of bleeding between these inner worlds is important to live a healthy, functioning life.
We need to dip back into still waters and retrieve or relive memories that help guide our action in the present.
At other times we’re fully engaged in the only moment which is truly available, becoming mindful of the present and enjoying its contents, whether subjectively good or bad.
And so too, we must gaze off into the hills to decide which one we want to climb, eyes firmly fixed on the future.
“But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.” ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Perceptions of time
- Reflector – someone who spends most of their in the past, reliving previous events and experiences.
- Indulger – someone who spends the majority of the time indulging in the present moment.
- Gazer – someone lives most of their days in the future, via mental time travel.
Mental time travel deconstructed
While there are clearly downfalls of each approach to time, our cognitive functions have evolved over the millennia to provide us with a huge degree of insight.
Therefore, each perspective can be extremely useful in specific situations.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each and how to best harness our perception of time to become well-adjusted, effective little humans.
If you’re more of a reflector, you can use this view of the past to inform your current situation.
As humans, we’re nothing if not pattern producers, living out the same cycles of purgatory ad infinitum.
When reviewing the past, such lines in the sand are easily observable.
By reflecting on our past, we can improve our decision making in the present.
Like the Hollywood cliche of a protagonist realising she’s always fallen for bad boys, we can choose another match for better results.
As Albert Einstein (might have) said,
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
By recounting our past, we become aware of what we must change in the present to improve our lives.
Perhaps this is why journaling has been shown to improve health and wellbeing…
Documenting previous events provides a more accurate, impartial and unbiased history, serving as a template of what needs to be changed.
Despite the benefits of reflection, spending too much time in the past may be ill-informed.
While it can benefit current decision-making, accounting for the actions that led to specific results, it’s too easy to become mired in an endless feedback loop, second-guessing alternate courses of action and endlessly re-enacting situations.
We’ve all been in arguments, where later we’re still thinking about what we should have said.
While past behaviour can act as a signpost, the cons of this mindset can outweigh the pros.
By remaining in the past, it becomes easy to play the victim, blaming our current predicaments on prior events.
If you’ve been treated badly or endured a troubled childhood, pinning your current circumstances on the past can make it hard to initiate the positive action needed to change the present.
In this way, looking back must be let go, cut loose, if we’re to take control.
In such situations, it’s vital to recognise two things…
Firstly, by trawling the past, we disempower ourselves, losing control. When blaming our upbringing for where we are today, the power needed for behaviour change is gifted to shadows from the past.
It’s easy to let this happen because it’s the comfortable option. Changing ourselves is hard, while blaming the world is easy.
Secondly, the past only exists within our heads. It’s a fantasy created by a rickety memory, blank spots and cracks conveniently covered by a self-serving story.
We invest huge capital in invented fictions, squandering our energy on fantasies which never provide a good return on investment.
The present moment is the only moment we truly have.
Every second that ticks by is recognised for an instant before it too slips, unrecoverable, into the void of the past.
By investing more in the present, we know we’re on firmer ground.
While there are many dangers of living life in the present, there’s another, far healthier way of indulging in the present, and that’s through mindful awareness.
The present moment, after all, is where life ultimately unfolds.
Presence provides a direct link to reality, a hardwired route to unfiltered experience.
If you ascribe to Buddhist philosophy, you’ll know that directing attention in this way is the first step on the path to enlightenment, or at least psychic liberation.
Living in the moment counteracts the lure of our thoughts, providing profound realisations in mind and consciousness.
Such insight brings peace. We become more responsive to the moment, adaptable to the situation and enjoyable to be around.
People who are overly invested in the present tend to do what feels good.
For humans, with their evolutionary impulse to save energy for survival, this normally results in the path of least resistance.
That’s to say indulgement.
Even if you realise that all the yesterdays are no more and all the tomorrows are unknown, it can encourage present behaviour which values pleasure over progress.
After all, if you’re not even sure you’ll be around next year, why not maximise your enjoyment of life now?
On the surface, it seems like a reasonable argument, but with disastrous consequences.
The reality is that our longevity is unknown, and those juicy burgers that feel so pleasurable in the present may return to cause us a great deal of future pain when we look in the mirror.
Such tiny daily actions are often extremely slow to take effect. Eating an unhealthy lunch today likely won’t kill us, but compound a poor diet of many months and years and the result is unavoidable.
Having a micro concept of the present doesn’t allow us to account for the consequences of our actions, enabling a nihilistic mindset.
Such is the tendency to frequently defer pain to our future selves.
This is also a vital space to inhabit in order to plan our lives. After all, big goals require significant investment, and it’s only by gazing at the map that we can plot our path backwards and determine our actions today.
While it’s not always necessary to have absolute goals, a direction of preference is advised.
- If we want to pen a novel one day, we must write more each day to hone the craft.
- If we want to avoid the health problems that commonly afflict us in old age, we must invest in our health today.
- If we want to be more financially secure in retirement, we might make changes to our spending habits in the present.
Such forecasting needn’t be complicated.
We evolved into prediction machines, after all, protecting ourselves from the myriad of survival threats.
A perfect picture of the future isn’t necessary, rather one that guides our current behaviour in positive ways.
It’s vital to play the long game here.
Research suggests that those who tend to be more future-orientated are more successful in terms of wealth, health and relationships because they’re willing to invest in these areas.
You see, in any positive change, there’s a significant time lag.
What we work on today might not bear fruit for years to come.
In a world that’s been sold six-minute abs and get rich quick schemes, it’s the people who persist that prosper.
So, when making decisions, it pays to weight future results over present gain.
Being future-focussed also prepares for a rapidly changing world.
In a cultural landscape that’s shifting beneath our feet, the ability to identify threats and emerging trends is indispensable.
After all, our cushy job today might not be around tomorrow, and so rather than a career for life, the emphasis has shifted to learning, skill acquisition and adaptability.
As machines get smarter, jobs are disrupted and the gig economy takes hold, the people who’ve prepared well today are far better placed.
The reasons to prioritise the future time to guide our present are compelling.
But so too there are pitfalls from being too future focussed.
We’ve all seen the manic businessman who rushes from one meeting to the next, working 80-hour weeks and never seeing his family, in the hope of achieving some far-flung future goal.
Or the parent, who’s so concerned with the future that they force their children into every after school club to ensure that hallowed Ivy League admission.
Being too future-focused can easily rob us of our enjoyment in the present, unable to relax into present experience.
It can make us uptight, wishing our lives away in preparation for elusive future goals.
The problem with these aims is that once they’ve been achieved, others emerge to take their place.
Hedonic adaptation means we’re constantly creating grander visions of the future and picking taller mountains to climb, never satisfied with our progress or position.
How to use time well
So, if there are three mental time-spaces we inhabit, where should we frequent the most?
I’ve ordered my opinions below:
- Ideally, we should capitalise on the present moment as much as possible. After all, that’s where we truly live. Over-investing mental energy creating fictional pasts or imaginary futures robs us from the connection we have in the present.
- We should also be extremely future biased. By setting intentions and outlining the type of person we’d like to be in 10, 20 or 30 years, we redefine our relationship with the present. With the kind of time horizon that says, in 30 years, I want to be a skilled craftsman or coder, we can revert our attention back to the daily activities that service this bigger aim. We don’t however, want to constantly ruminate on the future, as studies have shown that repeated imagination of a future goal can reduce our likelihood of taking action in the present. Rather, when we’ve set this intention, we should focus on the system needed to get us there. By taking care of the process in the present, the future will automatically take care of itself.
- We should make use of the past where it makes sense. There are certainly benefits of reviewing common patterns which resulted in who we are today. However, this exercise must be performed non-judgmentally and used as a tool for current decision-making. Removing the emotional charge of our personal history is difficult however, so vigilance must be exercised not to devolve our power to past events.
Why we become trapped
Instead of being versatile enough to switch perspectives when needed, our minds tend to trap us in predominantly one area, unable to shift our attention away from that particular perspective.
It might largely be a case of conditioning. What we’re exposed to, we ultimately become.
- If cultural and environmental inputs encourage us to prioritise the present comfort, we’ll likely indulge in instant gratification, blind to future consequences.
- If our parents raised us to be extremely ambitious, we might always be too focussed on our destination to enjoy the journey.
- Perhaps a previous trauma has trapped us in our past, reliving the same nightmare that thrust us, unwillingly, into our present situation.
Like having an iron mask welded to our head, we’re unable to change our perspective to realise that there are different ways of viewing the world.
So what are the effects of being overly invested in one concept of time?
And what can we do to change, becoming more agile in our thinking and recognition?
The importance of versatility
This versatility of changing time focus is essential for a healthy mind and constructive outer reality.
Strategically employing each time view appropriately enables better choices and outcomes.
Flexibility in our approach and knowing when to adopt different world lenses is essential.
This largely comes down to knowing our own mind, possessing the self-awareness to recognise when we’re entrenched in a certain perspective.
Imagine being on holiday, a break from the usual treadmill and the chance become an indulger, sampling fine food and flowery cocktails. After a while, our subconscious shifts gears into Gazer mode, whispering that we’ve had enough and that it’s time to return to healthy living, a more future-focussed mindset.
If we’ve had a break-up, we often wallow in the past as a reflector, living out every if and but. Then suddenly we wake up and transition to the present focus of an indulger, planning ways to meet new people and start afresh.
How to improve self-awareness
The way to improve this process of recognition is through self-awareness.
And the tool for that? Meditation.
Continuously stepping back into consciousness to observe thoughts and feelings as they arise provides profound insight into where our mental resources are flowing.
When practised regularly, the delay between recursive thoughts and recognition is reduced, allowing us to shift our attention back to where it’s most needed.
Although it takes time to become skilled at this process, a simple daily practice of refocusing our attention on the breath is a great start.
Timetabling the past and future
As we’ve discussed, living in the present and focussing on the next viable action is where the real results are at, encouraging the mini-steps needed to move closer to our goals.
However, we must also be vigilant of the path previously trodden and potential obstacles ahead.
This is where timetabling comes in.
You see, left to our own devices, our thoughts often transport us into the distant past or a mesmerising future.
To prevent this and stay focused, we need to set specific time aside each day or week, where we allow ourselves such free reign, before returning to the peace of the present.
Journaling can be a great way to make sense of our past, assimilating common threads and identifying emergent patterns as we dredge the depths of our subconscious.
Likewise, visualisation can provide an excellent method for creating a future which doesn’t yet exist, providing clarity on what we must do next to make it a reality.
Time is a fickle force; like sand, it slips between the cracks in our attention until there’s only an empty hourglass.
Although time itself is beyond our control, we can determine where to spend our attention.
Are we to use our most precious resource trying to change a fixed past, or will we look towards the future to determine the most beneficial actions we can take in the present?
Only we can decide.