Most individuals are dominated by a particular time preference. Their focus on the past, present, or future is generally determined by cultural influence, upbringing, and personal experience. Each particular orientation has its benefits, but any one in excess can damage the quality of relationships, work performance, safety, and happiness.
1. Past Oriented
Benefit — People who focus on the past can learn from the past and enjoy the nostalgia. If their view of the past is positive — e.g., one of triumph or successful coping — they are likely to have positive expectations of the future.
Problem — They may hang on to grudges, making it difficult to get beyond negative experiences. They may have a limited view of themselves and others based on past events. Dwelling excessively in the past makes it hard to deal with the present or to plan for the future.
2. Present Oriented
Benefit — People who focus on the present are able to enjoy the moment, connect well with people, and experience pleasure. They are carefree, spontaneous, and completely in the present.
Problem — Studies show that people who are dominated excessively by a present orientation are found to be the least likely of the three types to be successful or to find deep happiness. Their inability to delay gratification can lead to reckless behavior, resulting in harm to themselves and others. Impulsive behavior, including addiction, promiscuity and unethical behavior, ironically often leads to a future lacking in pleasure as well as security.
3. Future Oriented
Benefit — People who focus on the future are able to conceptualize long-term consequences, and thus avoid reckless behavior. They take care of their health, finances and are responsible to their family. Planning for the future often leads to a more secure, comfortable, and desirable future.
Problem — Too much planning for the future can lead to workaholism and worry. People who focus excessively on the future miss out on spontaneity, personal connections, and present enjoyment of beauty and pleasure.
Dwelling exclusively in any one time-orientation thwarts overall happiness and effectiveness. Note that your first concern is your present security. If you are being attacked by a grizzly bear, you won’t be thinking about your IRA.
Ideally, we can balance all three time orientations — past, present and future — with different proportions of each depending on the situation. Work may call for greater future orientation, while spending time with loved ones calls for more present orientation, while the lessons from the past may be more relevant when dealing with uncertainty.
It is when we lose sight of other time orientations that we get in trouble. When we make present-day decisions, we need to keep the future in mind (think about drinking and driving, over-eating and other impulsive behavior.) Likewise, when we are at work or doing any kind of planning for the future, it is important to be in the present moment, so we can connect with the people we deal with, enjoy the small moments of beauty, and not let life pass us by. Life feels more embodied, whole and satisfactory if we can stay aware of all time-orientations rather than getting completely carried away by one.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD