The Time Paradox - by Philip Zimbardo

Remember that people are more likely to regret actions not taken than actions taken, regardless of outcome.

In general, the more cognitive processing you do within a given period, the more time you judge to have passed.

People tend to develop and overuse a particular time perspective--for example, focusing on the future, the present, or the past. Future-oriented people tend to be more successful professionally and academically, to eat well, to exercise regularly, and to schedule preventive doctor's exams. In contrast, people who are predominantly present-oriented tend to be willing to help others but appear less willing or able to help themselves. In general, present-oriented people are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, to gamble, and to use drugs and alcohol than future-oriented people are. They are also less likely to exercise, to eat well, and to engage in preventive health practices such as flossing their teeth and getting regular doctor exams. The situation is more complicated when we consider people whose primary time perspective is the past. For some, the past is filled with positive memories of family rituals, successes, and pleasures. For others, the past is filled with negative memories, a museum of torments, failures, and regrets. These divergent attitudes toward the past play dramatic roles in daily decisions because they become binding frames of reference that are carried in the minds of those with positive or negative past views.

The lives of the Pirah and Tag are organized and governed by "event" time--the time when events occur in the environment--for example, when the sun is high in the sky, when a species of birds sings, or when the tide comes in. The process and progress of events give order and structure to their lives. Meals, dances, and musical performances start when the time feels right, not when the hands of a clock say the events should start. This detachment of event time from clock time can be extremely unnerving for those of us who are accustomed to organizing our lives around clock time.

In the simplest terms, future shock results from too much change in too little time. Individuals experience future shock as stress, anxiety, and disorientation, all of which affect personal relationships and social institutions.


Your attitudes toward events in the past matter more than the events themselves. You cannot change what happened in the past, but you can change your attitudes toward what happened.

At the end of each day, simply write a list of the things for which you were grateful that day. The list can be as long or as short as you like. You may want to keep a pen and pad on your nightstand to remind you to complete the task.

Involvement with family traditions and regular family contact contribute both to developing a positive-past time frame and to shaping a more viable vision of the future.


Present-oriented people are likely to be less concerned with work and more cynical about current efforts paying off in the future. They are also more distrustful of society, institutions, and families, all of which prevent movement up the social-class ladder. Living in the present time zone means a greater likelihood of being in the lower class in any society.

People can be oriented toward the present in three ways: as present hedonists, present fatalists, and present holists.

The Who Am I? Test

Start by asking the original question, Who Am I?, in as many ways as you can. List the ways on the exercise sheet provided. Be sure to focus on who you are today, not who you were yesterday or who you will be tomorrow. Also remember that this is not a speed test. Take your time and let thoughts and feelings surface at their own rate. When you have exhausted your reservoir of answers, move on to the question of When Are You? Obvious answers include the date, the time, and the day of the week, but be inventive. When are you in the course of your career, your relationship, and your life? When you've exhausted your reservoir of answers, move on to the question of Where Are You? Again, there are obvious answers, but force yourself to stretch beyond them. Notice the new and the old around you. Notice the sights, the sounds, and the smells. What surprises you? What is familiar? What do you like and what do you dislike about your surroundings? Once you've run out of answers or gotten bored with the question of Where Are You?, move on to the final and most challenging question: How Do You Feel? Push through the hackneyed answers that surely spring to mind and open yourself to the possibility that you really do feel. If you do, what is it that you feel? Are you stressed, sad, happy, horny, hungry, confident, insecure, full, proud, or all of the above? Give yourself time for your answers to reveal themselves. Often people have difficulty feeling anything at all, and when they do feel something, they often can't immediately label what they are feeling. As with everything else, it takes time to feel. This simple exercise obviously cannot replace the regular practice of mediation, yoga, or self-hypnosis, but you can repeat it anywhere and anytime that you like. You don't even need a piece of paper. Simply asking yourself Who Am I?, When Am I?, Where Am I?, and How Do I Feel? is enough.


Unlike their present-hedonistic peers who live in their bodies, the futures live in their minds, envisioning other selves, scenarios, rewards, and successes.


The Who Will I Be? Test

This time we would like you to answer the question Who Will I Be? Think of the person you want to become and what the evidence of your accomplishment might be once you have reached your goals. Spend time answering the question thoughtfully as many times as you can. Once you have finished the Who Will I Be? test, go through your answers and identify five or so concrete goals that you hope to reach in the future. Once you've identified five concrete goals, arrange them in order from the one that you hope to reach soonest to the one that you hope to accomplish last. After you've indicated how long you think it will take to reach them, we want you to mentally rehearse reaching them.


The mantra of those who anticipate a long-term future is "More is better," and they generally look to spend time with a lot of different people and new acquaintances. The mantra of those who anticipate a short future is "Quality, not quantity," and they choose to spend quality time with fewer people.

Future-oriented people believe that when you choose a behavior, you choose its future consequences, but Zajonc, Bargh, and many others in social psychology have demonstrated that sometimes you do not choose a behavior. Sometimes a behavior chooses you based upon the environment in which you find yourself. We live our lives swimming in an ocean of time, tossed and turned by the currents around us, swimming toward goals and away from danger, heads down. Every now and then, we pop up our heads out of our present-oriented, unconsciously perceived world and look at where we have been and where we are going. Occasionally illuminated by brief periods of consciousness, we reflect on the past and plan for the future. Then the head goes back down, and we swim like mad toward the next life raft or land mass.


Future orientation is related strongly with wanting mates to be predictable. Futures are also most likely to consider what benefits they can gain from relationships. But--and it is a big "but"--they do not desire intense, exciting, romantic relationships. Presents enjoy passionate, physical, spontaneous relationships, which tend also to be filled with conflict. Their ideal partner is exciting and spontaneous. Pasts describe their romantic relationships as satisfying with reliable as the ideal partner trait. Past-negatives might spend time considering what other possible romantic partners they might have missed. Like the futures, pasts are less likely to value spontaneity and physicality in their romantic relationships. So our advice is: Before you hook up with someone new, and certainly before you make a commitment, try to determine the compatibility between your time perspectives.

The foundation of emotional and physical love is giving and sharing time. Nothing is more romantic than to say, "I don't really have the time to do what you want to do, but for you I will make the time."


  • You need to integrate happiness into your daily life. Some of this time may be spontaneous: You see a beautiful flower and you smell it. But you can also plan your happiness: You can set aside an hour each day to talk with your partner, walk your dog, or listen to music.

  • Actively work to keep positive memories in the front of your mind. Pictures, notes, and cards placed throughout your home bring the past with you into the present. You can reexperience happy times--and thus reinforce your happiness--whenever you have time to reflect upon them. Fill yourself with memories of happy times to inoculate yourself against the intrusion of negative thoughts and put you on a path to creating more happy memories in the future.

  • One simple mindfulness technique is to touch the doorjamb every time you walk through a door. As you touch it, concentrate on that present moment, its sights, sounds, and smells, and on the door of experience that has just opened for you. This habit can help keep you grounded in the present and open to experiencing happiness more fully. If you are like us, you will walk by more doorjambs, head down, than you will touch.

  • According to the Dalai Lama, even the least enlightened among us can immediately apply two simple techniques to living. The first is to identify the things in your life that make you happy, and do more of them. Like mindfulness, this technique seems simple enough, but it is difficult to do. Pursuing happiness takes time, patience, and honesty. What you once liked can change, and it can take courage to admit that to yourself and others. Be prepared for dead ends and disappointment, but be sure to enjoy the swim. The second technique is the reverse side of the first. Identify the things in your life that make you unhappy, and do fewer of them. Again, this is not easy, and you can't do it all in one sitting. You'll want to work to identify sources of your unhappiness and then work to eliminate them. Avoid the dangers, swim toward the tropical islands, and don't forget to smell some flowers along the way.

  • Learn to Embrace Change; Deviate for a Day. Your task is to violate an important aspect of your self-image. Which part you violate is up to you. For instance, students who usually spend two hours putting on makeup before leaving the house in the morning must come to class straight out of bed. Others shave their heads. Many forgo clothing. Some dress in rags. Some beg. Some carry Bibles. Others carry flasks. Some use profanity. Others don't speak. For each person, the experience is different, and for all, it takes courage. But once you've done it and lived through it, it is liberating. You realize that change--even extreme change--is possible and is not fatal. Moreover, when you intentionally do things to make people laugh at you, you are in control of their laughter and do not interpret it as ridicule or failure. So be a deviant for a day, and be happy.

  • Ask yourself what you want to do today. How do you want to spend this weekend? Don't ask what tasks you have to do today or what obligations you must meet before you can take time to enjoy yourself. Continually ask the big questions: What do I really want out of my life? What am I doing to get what I want? What is the best way to get from here to there?


Given the research we have done--and acknowledging our inherent bias as residents in the Western world--we believe that the optimal time perspective profile is: High in past-positive time perspective Moderately high in future time perspective Moderately high in present-hedonistic time perspective Low in past-negative time perspective Low in present-fatalistic time perspective

Moderating Future Intensity

You make conscious choices about what you must do and decide what is really so important that it cannot be put on the back burner. Your aim is to slim down your commitments and obligations. Eliminate as much as you can until you are in a comfort zone. The pruning may influence your sense of self, which you no doubt established in grade school, as a high performer, but you can use your skills and talents well when you do not stretch them too thinly across myriad activities. Start to do more by doing less.

As a future, you should practice giving and graciously receiving the gift of time. Time is your most precious possession, so give it to others, especially those you care about, when they can most appreciate it. And give some of that precious time to yourself as downtime, play time, fun time, exercise time, indulgence time, being-a-kid-again time. Try to reserve at least one weekend day as a workless day. Don't forget to disconnect once in a while. On an ordinary day, try to minimize the intrusion of work into your home life. Start simply: Do not drive in the fast lane. Take the time to say, "Hello, goodbye, ciao, good morning, lovely day, and enjoy the holiday." Listen to what people say in reply. Look at yourself in the mirror and vow to balance what is best in your future orientation with what is good in a revived positive-past and vibrant present-hedonistic perspective. When you do work, find the flow within the activity, the pleasure of intrinsic motivation that transforms what you have to do into what you want to do.