What’s your time perspective?

I’ve been reading Philip Zimbardo’s latest book, The Time Paradox. Zimbardo is best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment back in the 1970s, but he’s been doing a lot else since then.

In the new book, Zimbardo and co-author/researcher John Boyd use what they call “time perspective”—a person’s attitude toward past, present and future—as a lens on behavior, decision-making, health and (nothing less than) happiness.

The ideal time perspective, according to Zimbardo and Boyd, includes a strong, positive connection to your past (enjoying good memories and reframing unhappy ones); a practical but not obsessive view of the future (planning and action toward your goals, without sacrificing well-being or important relationships); and a healthy enjoyment of the present (without letting unbridled self-indulgence run the show).

The book is an engaging read, even though parts of it sound a bit like Self-Help 101. I took Zimbardo’s survey (it’s in the book and also online) to find out my own time perspective, and on most measures, I’m close to average. Which means I could improve on making peace with the past, delaying gratification, and indulging in more wholehearted goofing off. (The last two are not mutually exclusive—the authors also recommend flexibility and a willingness to shift perspectives as needed.)

As I scanned the suggestions for making these shifts, I kept thinking, These are things I’m already doing. Call a friend from high school (past). Track your progress toward a goal (future). Play with a little kid, tell a joke, toss a Frisbee (present).

Then it dawned on me that many of those suggestions are things I think of myself as doing—even if I don’t do them all that consistently.

An object lesson in time perspective

So there I was yesterday, racing toward the streetcar stop on my way to a class, when a nice silver-haired couple asked me where to catch a particular bus. I didn’t know, and I told them so, then gave them my best guess, which is that the stop they wanted was about a mile down the street. With a friendly smile, off I ran.

As I took my seat on the streetcar, I thought, I’ve got a map of the city transit system. I could have taken a few minutes, unfolded the map and shown them the exact route of the mystery bus. Turns out the stop they wanted wasn’t a mile away but close by. Oops.

My Bad Samaritan moment

Zimbardo and Boyd mention an oft-cited study of Princeton seminary students who were asked to prepare a short talk. As each student headed across campus to give the talk, some were told they were running late; others were told they had a little extra time. On the way, each student passed a man (actually in league with the experimenters), slumped in an alley, coughing and apparently in need of help. Ninety percent of the students who were in a hurry failed to stop and help — and that included the seminarians, ironically, who’d prepared a talk on the Good Samaritan.

The irony of my own situation:  The class I was rushing to yesterday was a Feldenkrais class,  in which you learn to ease physical pain and stiffness through movement sequences done mindfully and very…very… slowly.

Not to make too much of the incident—the day was sunny, the couple looked fit, there were lots of people around who may well have given them the directions they needed. I’m pretty sure they eventually found their bus.

But still. How many opportunities for connection do I miss when I’m rushing?

Practice giving the gift of time to others, advise Zimbardo and Boyd.

Never mind Frisbee. This is the kind of present-focus I could use more of.


  1. Kamna Narain says:

    Ah, what an important reminder. Taking the time to be present and to be helpful. Zimbardo and Boyd are on to something, and so are you Jenet. Thanks for your honesty with the story – it’s inspiring!

  2. Leah says:

    Great post, Janet! Lots of food for thought!

  3. Janet Bailey says:

    @Kamna, @Leah – happy this struck a chord!

  4. Denise says:

    So interesting! Especially as I begin to tackle my suspicion that my ‘break’ from full-time work has turned into ‘wasting time’. Thanks for sharing. (And taking the online test was fun.)

  5. Theresa Ho says:

    Thanks! This makes me think of an old Washington Post article, where they asked violin virtuoso Joshua Bell to busk in a busy subway during rush hour. I often wondered whether I would have stopped to appreciate…

    (not sure if html works here – here’s the full link to the article in case people are interested.)


  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @Denise – I liked the online test too. Traveling in France? Slow cooking? Surely not wasting time!

    @Theresa – I hadn’t seen that article about Joshua Bell in the subway. Powerful. Loved the guy in the croissant shop, listening from the doorway. Thanks for the link.

  7. Joan Price says:

    I love this post, Janet. Personally, I’ve felt busy and “behind” for decades, maybe all of my adult life (and I’m 65 now). I rush, rush, rush, make impossibly huge to-do lists, and fail to complete them.

    Then something happens — in my case the illness and then death of my husband — and we realize none of that busy-ness matters as much as the personal connections in our lives.

    When I realized two years ago that we were on borrowed time because of Robert’s cancer, I stopped taking on any writing assignments with a deadline. I worked, even hard, but I knew my priorities and made sure nothing interfered with spending time with Robert and making our lives work through such an emotional time. Then after he died, I gave myself permission to take a year to grieve, heal, remember, journal, and discover where I can find joy through this grieving journey.

    I don’t know how people get through this if they keep rushing.

    Ironically, I’m learning the lesson now that Robert — a peaceful, quiet, meditative artist (http://www.robertriceart.com/) — tried to teach me: move in stillness, quiet the chatter, listen to the silence.

    Wow, I didn’t realize your blog would promt me to write all this. Your blog has come into my life at the right time, and I thank you.

    Joan Price

  8. Janet Bailey says:

    @Joan – Thank you so much for sharing these memories of Robert, and for passing along what you are still learning from him about stillness and listening. And for your lived-in reminder about what matters the very most. Wishing you comfort and remembrance and healing as you continue through this grieving journey.

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