The psychology of Time in our lives: 5 types of time perspective and 4 principles of time management


Time is an important issue for most of us, especially in the West. We save it, spend it, waste it, we never have enough of it.

The concept of ‘time famine‘ has become a familiar slogan in both academic literature and the popular media. 34% of people feel rushed all the time, with 61% never having any excess time and 40% saying that time is a bigger problem for them than money.

Time has a vicious habit of slipping through our fingers, leaving us with the feeling that instead of being in charge of our own time, it is driving us. We are not just busy at work, we are busy everywhere – at home, on the golf course, even on holidays.

If you were a scientist trying to figure out how to solve the problem of time scarcity, what would you suggest? On the surface, the answer seems quite simple. Surely, if we just worked a little bit less and had a little bit more free time, that would release us from this notorious ‘busyness’ imprisonment.

Yet social scientists studying time-use patterns have discovered a paradox: the last four or five decades have already witnessed this desired increase in free time. Although there are some conflicting opinions on this point, it appears that we have, on average, since 1965 gained between five and seven free hours a week! Have you noticed? If you haven’t, you are not alone.

Although research clearly shows that the time devoted to work has declined, it also shows that people actually believe that it has increased. We have more time, yet we feel that we have less. Interestingly, the vast majority of us have a tendency to greatly overestimate the amount of time we spend working and underestimate how much free time we have. On average, people estimate that they have fewer than 20 hours of free time a week, which is about half of what they actually have.

There is another interesting paradox with time.

Nowadays, our leisure time is characterised by two contradictory tendencies – increase in passive leisure and intensification of time devoted to active leisure.

What is the main consumer of our free time? Television! All the increases in our free time have been devoted to television viewing, even though it doesn’t give us much pleasure and is associated with boredom, a low level of concentration, a low level of potency, lack of clarity of thought and lack of flow.

While people squander about a third of all free time (more than 14 hours a week) in front of their TV screens, they spend significantly less time on the activities they themselves consider as most pleasurable, like socialising and outside activities. Moreover, when people do engage in active leisure, they just cram a larger number of activities into a shorter period (this phenomenon is called ‘time-deepening’).

We are no longer satisfied with one hobby – as a society of maximisers we are reluctant to choose only one activity. Instead of playing golf for a hobby, we play golf and tennis, go sailing and mountain climbing, bungee jumping and parachuting. We choose activities that can be done quickly, speed them up and combine them, so that they take less time individually.

We may achieve more but we pay for it with the feelings of fragmentation and time strain. I like the following quote from Russell: ‘To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached that level’.

It appears that the problem in relation to time crunch lies not in the amount of time available, not in having to manage it successfully in order to squeeze out an extra hour of a day, but in learning how to balance time in such a way that it contributes to our well-being.

But how do we do it? What is a good use of time? How can time be managed so that it contributes to well-being? How can the experience of time pressure be avoided so that time is no longer perceived as an enemy? How can we regain a feeling of control over our time? How can we find a balance between work and leisure and satisfaction in both?

In this article, we will consider two aspects of research on psychology of time – time perspective and time use, and some techniques related to achieving mastery over time. These issues can greatly contribute to answering the positive psychology central question of ‘What is a good life?’.

Time Perspective

Your time perspective is the kind of glasses you habitually put on when you look at the world around and at yourself in it. These glasses have three main types of lenses: past, present and future. Are you a here-and-now person? Do you sometimes think that you are stuck in the past? Choosing between work and play, do you usually go for work because your future depends on it?

Time Perspective (TP) relates to whether we focus on our past, present or future when we make decisions and take actions.

It is a powerful influence on many aspects of our behaviour, including educational achievement, health, sleep, romantic partner choices and more. Although TP may be affected by situational forces, such as inflation, going on holidays or being under stress, it can become a relatively stable personality characteristic. So usually people tend to have one dominant temporal perspective.

There are five main subtypes of time perspective:

  1. future,
  2. past-negative,
  3. past-positive,
  4. present-hedonistic and
  5. present-fatalistic.

The person who is predominantly Future-oriented is concerned with working for future goals and rewards, often at the expense of present enjoyment, delaying gratification, and avoiding time-wasting temptations. People with future TP are more likely to floss their teeth, eat healthy foods, and get medical check-ups on time. They also tend to be more successful than others. The third little pig who built his house from bricks, adequately estimating the dangers from the wolf, was surely a future-oriented pig.

The Present-Hedonistic person lives in the moment, is a pleasure seeker, enjoys high-intensity activities, seeks thrills and new sensations and loves adventures. Children are primarily present-hedonistically oriented. Unfortunately, such behaviour can have negative consequences.

Present-hedonists are at risk of giving in to temptations, leading to virtually all addictions (e.g. alcohol and drug abuse), risky driving, accidents and injuries, and academic and career failure.

The Present-Fatalistic TP, on the other hand, is associated with helplessness, hopelessness and a belief that outside forces control one’s life, e.g. spiritual or governmental forces.

The past TP is associated with focus on family, tradition, continuity of self over time, and a focus on history. This can be either positive or negative. The Past-Positive person has a warm, pleasurable, often sentimental and nostalgic view of one’s past, and values maintaining relationships with family and friends. He/she loves stories about the good old times. The Past-Negative person feels haunted by the past, focusing on personal experiences that were aversive or unpleasant.

Not only people, but also even nations and cultures can have their own time perspective biases. Protestant and individualistic nations tend to be more future-oriented than Catholic and more collectivistic ones. The former are usually better off financially than the latter. People living in southern areas are more present-oriented than those in the north (possibly because they like to spend time enjoying the sunshine).

Time Perspective and the Holy Grail of Well-Being

If you had to guess, which one of these time perspective types is more conducive for well-being? The present-fatalistic and past-negative orientations are out of consideration for obvious reasons. A large number of researchers claim that a focus on the future is fundamental to well-being and positive functioning.

Yet the drawbacks of excessive future orientation include workaholism, neglect of friends and family, not taking time for occasional self-indulgence, not having time for hobbies. Many other scholars think that a time orientation with a focus on the present is a prerequisite for well-being.

Amongst them are Schopenhauer, Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi, with their emphasis on the value of here-and-now experiences. However, this orientation has downsides as well, including the neglect of long-term consequences and ‘the morning after’ feelings.

Recent research has found that, contrary to expectations, future TP does not show any associations with well-being whatsoever, while the present hedonistic orientation has very modest associations with life satisfaction, although a better relationship with positive affect (which is hardly surprising considering that the present hedonistic orientation is aimed at maximising current feelings of joy and excitement).

The time perspective that turns out to be most conducive for well-being is the past-positive orientation. Past-positive oriented individuals have the highest self-esteem and are satisfied with their past and present life. However, even this very positive perspective has its own drawbacks, which include being excessively conservative or cautious, avoiding change and openness to new experiences and cultures, sustaining the status quo, even when it is not in one’s best interest, and trying to apply old solutions to new problems.

Balanced Time Perspective

Each of the TP types may have some personal value, but if it becomes excessive and excludes or minimises the others, then it may become dysfunctional. As shown above, there are costs and sacrifices associated with emphasising any individual TP, whether the focus is on achievement-oriented, ‘workaholic’ future TP, on hedonistic present, or on nostalgic past (which is an infrequent TP in modern society).

Here is where the ideal of a balanced time perspective comes into play. It is proposed as a more positive alternative to being a slave to any particular temporal bias. ‘In an optimally balanced time perspective, the past, present and future components blend and flexibly engage, depending on a situation’s demands and our needs and values’.

What does it mean to have a balanced TP? People with a balanced time perspective are capable of adopting a temporal perspective appropriate to the situation they find themselves in. So when they spend time with their families and friends they are fully with them, connecting and enjoying each other. When they take a day off work, they can rest rather than feel restless.

However, when working and studying they approach a situation from the perspective of the future and work more productively. A capacity to focus, flexibility and ‘switch-ability’ are essential components of a balanced TP. Although a balanced TP is hard to achieve, it seems to offer a key to work-life balance and a sense of well-being. People with a balanced TP are likely to be happier than the rest of us, both in terms of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.

Using Time Wisely

Have you ever been on a time management course? How many time management tricks did you learn? How many of them have you used since? Contrary to popular beliefs, research shows that time management training has very little effect on our time use and performance. We tend to revert to our usual ways of organising time within weeks of attending such training. This is quite amazing, taking into account the financial and other resources invested by companies into these courses. Their failure to produce the desired results may be attributed to focusing on the wrong thing – behaviour rather than psychology of time.

Principles of Time Management

Let’s consider what actually does have an effect on how well weuse time, how satisfied we feel with it and how much we are in control of it.

  • Time use, like more or less anything else in life, starts with motivation. How well we use it will depend on how motivated we are to engage in certain activities. This is why liking what you do and perceiving it as worthwhile is the first principle of time management. This principle also draws on the sense of congruence between one’s life goals and one’s life activities and corresponds to intrinsic and incorporated motivation.
    It’s important to make sure that you are engaged in activities you either like doing or, as far as the activities you don’t like quite as much are concerned, you really know why you are doing them. If you cannot subscribe fully to the values underlying your behaviour, it might be more beneficial for your own well-being to reconsider your choice of activities.
  • The principle of balance reflects a balance between bound and freely chosen activities, between different areas of one’s life. A balanced use of time does not mean equal allocation of time to work and leisure, it does not even necessarily mean investing more time into leisure. A sense of balance is subjective and varies greatly between people. For one person, spending an hour a week on their favourite hobby is sufficient, while for another an hour a day is not enough.
    There are two other components of this balance principle, which are worth paying attention to. The first one is having some time for yourself on a daily basis. Time that can be used to stop and reflect. There is a very strong message coming from research – people who are satisfied with their time make some time for themselves regularly (it can be anything, from doing yoga or going to the gym to meditating or just pottering around the house in peace).
    The next point concerns the boundary system adopted by an individual. We tend to think it’s vitally important to strictly demarcate the boundaries between work and home, work and leisure, etc., yet it does not matter what boundary system an individual chooses (it can be a strict demarcation or no boundaries at all). What does matter is whether it suits their nature.
  • The responsibility and achievement principle means adopting a proactive rather than a reactive attitude in relation to time, and preventing oneself from feeling over-stressed (which can be achieved through prioritising and making choices). It refers also to having a sense of achievement
    When people talk about time, they talk about achievement -completion, meeting deadlines and feeling progress. It can be difficult to have a sense of achievement on a daily basis, especially when you are working on a long-term project. To compensate, it is important to complete something every day – it may be something very simple, like tidying up a desk or helping your child to finish homework.
  • Time anxiety and lack of control is an upside-down principle of time management, reflecting something that needs to be conquered. It is about feelings that time is running out and of not being able to exercise any control over it, which are voiced by the majority of people who are dissatisfied with their time. These can be counteracted by developing an internal locus of control (e.g. through visualisation and other techniques).

This list of principles is not necessarily exhaustive, but it is what I can whole-heartedly recommend on the basis of my own research into time management.

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