The Psychology of Time

Minute Read

In his 2005 commencement speech, David Foster Wallace told the story of two young fish, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says.. “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “what the hell is water?”

Just as fish may be unaware of the existence of the water in which they swim, most of us are unaware of how time impacts the way we live. In this talk, I’m going to briefly discuss some of the main ideas from a groundbreaking book called the Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo.

We will cover what a time perspective is, what it means to be a past, present or future-oriented person, and then I’ll cover in brief, four, very interesting paradoxes about time, and lastly where you can go to learn more.

What is a time perspective?

Ben Franklin once said that time is money, yet many of us fail to protect our time in the same way we protect our bank accounts. Now that’s because, for most of human evolution, we didn’t have the luxury of discretionary time because we were too busy just trying to stay alive. So naturally in some ways it makes sense that we haven’t been taught how to utilize time properly. Well, don’t worry, because I’m here to save the day!

So then what is time? Is it the passing of the clock, or maybe as a spiritual teacher might say that it “just is”. Fundamentally though, time is a subjective psychological process. We all perceive and process time independently from one another. Culturally we can all agree what time it is right now, but individually I’m sure all of us have sat through toastmaster meetings where we were so bored that it felt like time was moving so slowly, yet the person next to you might have been so engaged with the speaker they felt like it went too quickly.

You see, how you experience time is influenced by a personal time perspective and the pace of life of the community in which you live. This is why for example as Manuela would be all too familiar with, Brazil has a much different definition of what it means to be on time compared to here. A similar thing when you look at the pace of life differences between New York and LA.

Our time perspective is a core part of our identity, our thoughts and feelings are all formed with a certain perspective of the past, present, or future. It’s totally unconscious, yet plays a huge role in how we live.

The Time Perspectives

There appear to be 3 main time perspectives which are Past, Present, Future. Think of it as a frame around a painting. You can have many different types of frames but they all influence how you perceive the picture. 

Future-oriented people tend to be more successful professionally and academically, they eat well and exercise regularly. On the flip-side, they tend to have levels of neuroticism and existential nihilism.

Next we have present-oriented people who are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, gamble and use drugs more-so than future-oriented people.  Think, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in an uncertain bush.

Then last but not least is the past perspective. For some, the past is filled with positive memories or family rituals, successes and pleasures. For others, the past is filled with negative memories, a museum of torments, failures and regrets. These divergent attitudes play dramatic roles in every-day decisions and habits.

Now it’s interesting to note that we’re all somewhere on a spectrum with time perspectives, and to complicate matters there are even deeper variations of these three time perspectives, but they all influence the way we see the world.

Four Paradoxes

Finally, I would like to emphasize four main paradoxes of time.

1. Time is one of the most powerful influences on our thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet we are usually totally unaware of its effect on our lives.

2. We can buy food, objects, land, but not time. Once we lose time, we lose it forever.

3. Each specific attitude toward time is associated with numerous benefits, yet in excess each is associated with even greater costs.

4. Individual attitudes toward time are learned through personal experience, yet collectively these attitudes influence entire nations

So, at the end of the day, whether you drink alone or are a Donald Trump, time passes the same for everybody. If you’d like to start your quest in uncovering more about your time perspective, go to because I firmly believe once you understand how time influences your inner-reality, you’ll be more equipped to live a happier and more productive life.