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The Time Paradox

Written by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, reviewed by Galia Barhava-Monteith

Most things that can be possessed can be replenished – but not time!

Time is fleeting

Nothing that any of us does in this life will allow us to accrue a moment’s more time, and nothing will allow us to regain time misspent.  This is the key premise on which this book is based, a premise that deeply resonated with me.

If we were approached by a friend or a colleague to invest in their business, I guarantee the first thing we draw up would be a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the investment would be a good one.  And the thing is, even if you lost your money, you would know you could replace it by sheer hard work or better investments.

Thinking of time, how many of you, and be honest here, have accepted an invitation to a dinner knowing full well the evening would be a bore and that the time you spent could never be replaced? 

It is not surprising, then, that I found this idea of the new psychology of time to be deeply intriguing and particularly so because of who wrote it: Professor Phil Zimbardo, one of the greatest living psychologists, and John Boyd PhD, a colleague of Zimbardo’s who worked closely with him developing his time perspective inventory.  Together they have produced a book which is extremely well researched, easily read and, most importantly of all, ground breaking in its implications for our psychological well-being.

Do you ever find yourself endlessly fretting about things that have happened in your past – not able to let go and move on? Or alternatively, are you the kind of person who has endless to-do lists and is always thinking about the next project or the next job so that sometimes you end up pouring coffee over your cereal? If the answer is a little shy ‘yes’ to either of these questions then this book is a MUST for you.

The Six Time Perspectives

The authors propose six time orientations. These orientations have a huge influence on how we experience and react to the world, and yet we have little or no awareness of them.  Again, I have always been intrigued by how some people who have experienced adversity manage to reframe their experiences and reflect on the positive, and yet others seem to be forever ‘stuck’ in re-living these negative events.  Reading ‘The Time Paradox’ has opened my eyes to the impact of this psychological time orientation, and hopefully, after reading this review, you’ll agree with me!

To whet your appetite, I will briefly outline each of the six time perspectives, and if ANY of it strikes a chord, I wholeheartedly recommend you to read this book.

Past Positive

This time perspective describes people who love to reminisce and remember the good old days. They make scrapbooks of holidays, might listen to classic old hits, love antiques and basically love to think about the good things that have been. Simply put, they view the past through rose-tinted glasses.

Past positives, as the authors refer to them, are people who you like having around to reminisce about the good old days with.  They are also likely to take the time to be grateful for their lives and the people who have helped make their lives the wonderful experience it has been. There are many benefits to being high on past positive, all of which are substantiated by research; there are no downsides, except that if you are ONLY high on past positive, you might be stuck in the past and that can mean you are less likely to explore and develop.

Past Negative

Like the name suggests, people with a strong past negative time orientation can’t let go. They are always bringing up old hurts and remembering all the wrongs that have been done to them. Using a favourite Kiwi phrase, ’they have a big chip on their shoulder’. Unfortunately, according to the authors, research suggests that women are more prone to this category and they tend to associate with other like-minded past negative women which in turn exacerbates this tendency.

There is nothing positive about having a past negative time perspective according to research. What is especially striking is that the research demonstrates how unreliable our own memory of events is, and how our memory can be manipulated to hold to past negative events that never happened but were planted in our minds!  As you’d expect, there is a lot of discussion on the use of re-constructed ‘forgotten’ memories of sexual abuse in therapy and criminal trials.

In fact, as in the above example and throughout the book, the authors demonstrate their points using research and discussion of concepts from other spheres of our lives ranging from suicide bombers to the demise of Enron. This sort of wide-ranging illustration is one of the things I liked most about this book.

Present Hedonists

Present hedonists are the life and soul of the party and basically all seven year-olds fall into this category. They live for the now, they enjoy all that life has to offer in the moment and they will use all kinds of substances to further their enjoyment. The hippies of the 1960s were the classic present hedonists. Professor Zimbardo uses this example to illustrate why the hippie communes did not last: no-one bothered to make sure there would be enough money to feed the troops tomorrow because everyone was busy living in the now.

A healthy dose of present hedonism is a good thing to have according to the research; the danger is too much present hedonism or having only a present hedonist time perspective.  Present hedonists don’t have regular medical checks and don’t floss their teeth because they find it impossible to imagine themselves in the future.

Zimbardo himself was a son of Italian immigrants from Sicily who was brought up in the slums of the Bronx.  In his cultural heritage, past positive and present hedonism were the only time perspectives.  No one ever talked about what would or might happen tomorrow and how one could influence future outcomes. 

Tellingly, and astonishingly, the term for ‘future’ does not even exist in his native dialect!

Present Fatalists

The behaviour of people with this time orientation might appear quite similar to those with a present hedonistic orientation – but the reason for the behaviour is very different.  Present fatalists believe that nothing they do will make any difference now or ever.

Present fatalists might take drugs, but unlike present hedonists they won’t be seeking pleasure but will be doing it because there is nothing better to do.  With present fatalists, resignation and cynicism overwhelm hopefulness and optimism.

The news on the psychological outcomes for present fatalists is not good, they tend to have less self esteem, be more anxious, perform worse as students and, of course, be less happy.

Futures

If you are a Professionelle member reading this review the chances are that you are high on future orientation. Future orientation is what drives us to spend at least three years in relative poverty while we study at university. We do this in the knowledge that the investment of time and money is likely to return higher yields later in life than we would get if we didn’t go to university.

Futures get regular medical and dental check-ups. They are more likely to have health and retirement plans. They are more likely to prefer good nutrition to tasty but unhealthy food, and they are less likely to smoke, drink heavily and engage in binge eating.

They are also less depressed than the general population, perhaps because they do not spend time ruminating on negative past experiences. The focus is on tomorrow, not yesterday.

Is There an Ideal Time Orientation?

The answer is a clear yes, and you can take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory online and find out how yours compares:

Go on, give it a go!

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