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The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life

4.5 6
by Philip G. Zimbardo, John Boyd

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Your every significant choice -- every important decision you make -- is determined by a force operating deep inside your mind: your perspective on time -- your internal, personal time zone. This is the most influential force in your life, yet you are virtually unaware of it. Once you become aware of your personal time zone, you can begin to see and manage


Your every significant choice -- every important decision you make -- is determined by a force operating deep inside your mind: your perspective on time -- your internal, personal time zone. This is the most influential force in your life, yet you are virtually unaware of it. Once you become aware of your personal time zone, you can begin to see and manage your life in exciting new ways.

In The Time Paradox, Drs. Zimbardo and Boyd draw on thirty years of pioneering research to reveal, for the first time, how your individual time perspective shapes your life and is shaped by the world around you. Further, they demonstrate that your and every other individual's time zones interact to create national cultures, economics, and personal destinies.

You will discover what time zone you live in through Drs. Zimbardo and Boyd's revolutionary tests. Ask yourself:

• Does the smell of fresh-baked cookies bring you back to your childhood?

• Do you believe that nothing will ever change in your world?

• Do you believe that the present encompasses all and the future and past are mere abstractions?

• Do you wear a watch, balance your checkbook, and make to-do lists -- every day?

• Do you believe that life on earth is merely preparation for life after death?

• Do you ruminate over failed relationships?

• Are you the life of every party -- always late, always laughing, and always broke?

These statements are representative of the seven most common ways people relate to time, each of which, in its extreme, creates benefits and pitfalls. The Time Paradox is a practical plan for optimizing your blend of timeperspectives so you get the utmost out of every minute in your personal and professional life as well as a fascinating commentary about the power and paradoxes of time in the modern world.

No matter your time perspective, you experience these paradoxes. Only by understanding this new psychological science of time zones will you be able to overcome the mental biases that keep you too attached to the past, too focused on immediate gratification, or unhealthily obsessed with future goals. Time passes no matter what you do -- it's up to you to spend it wisely and enjoy it well. Here's how.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

"Time is our most valuable possession": we are obsessed with schedules and multitasking to save time, say the authors of this insightful study of the importance of time in our lives. Yet people spend time less wisely than money. Zimbardo (The Lucifer Effect), professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford, and Boyd, research director for Yahoo!, draw on their two decades of research to explain why people devalue time. They blend scientific results into a straightforward narrative exploring various past-, present- and future-oriented ways of perceiving time and argue against becoming imprisoned or obsessed by any one of these. Zimbardo and Boyd have cogent insight into all of time's elements and show how they can be used for success, better health and greater fulfillment. For instance, understanding the role of time in investment can lead to wiser financial decisions, and a relationship will not work if one partner is focused on today's pleasure while the other wants to plan for the future. This is a compelling and practical primer (filled with quizzes and tests) on making every moment count. (Aug. 5)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

What can explain the behavior of suicide bombers, successful investors, and depressives? According to psychologists Zimbardo (emeritus, Stanford Univ.; The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil) and Boyd (director of research, Yahoo!), it's their attitude regarding time-past, present, and future. Here, Zimbardo, a past president of the American Psychological Association renowned for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiments, and research partner Boyd describe six major time perspectives. Through a questionnaire called the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, readers can determine whether they are primarily driven by concerns with the past, the present, or the future as well as whether they view each time period positively or negatively and how that perspective might be influencing their behavior. The authors further explore what has been learned to date about how to achieve a set of perspectives that seems most likely to help people become happy and successful. So little self-help material based on real science is published that, when something like this comes along, we owe it to our patrons to make sure it is readily available. For all public and most academic libraries.
—Mary Ann Hughes

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In the eighteenth century, a secretive sect of men created a gruesome memorial to the importance of time in the dim, dusty basement of Santa Maria della Concezione, a nondescript church at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Like the great St. Peter's, which towers nearby, the cramped walls of Santa Maria della Concezione are covered with individual tessera from which transcendent mosaics emerge. Unlike those in St. Peter's, the decorative tessera adorning the narrow confines of Santa Maria della Concezione are made not of colored glass but of discolored human bone. Hundreds of stacked skulls form Roman arches. Thousands of individual vertebrae create intricate mandalas. Smaller bones, perhaps from hands and feet, form chandeliers replete with lighbulbs. The complete skeleton of a small boy dangles from the ceiling holding the scales of justice in its bony hands. And fully dressed monks with withered skin still intact wait in reflective poses for eternity. The sheer spectacle is at once terrifying and enthralling.

Capuchin monks, better known for giving the name of their distinctive hats to coffee topped with foam, or cappuccino, reinterred four thousand of their deceased brethren in this basement because their earlier "final resting place" had become the site of new construction. Despite its solemn content, the almost surreal Crypt of the Capuchin Monks with its posed corpses has the feel of a Hollywood movie set or an exceptionally well-done Halloween display. For most visitors, the crypt is a sight to be seen, not a site for serious contemplation, and tourists shuffle through it each year paying less homage tothe dead before them than they do to works of art in the nearby Vatican museum.

To someone who is not eager to rush off to the next wonder on his itinerary, a deeper message reveals itself. For instance, when one of your authors, John Boyd, had an unexpected free afternoon to visit the Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, he noticed an inscription written on the floor at the foot of a pile of bones:

What you are, they once were.

What they are, you will be.

As he read that flowing script of twelve simple words, the past and future burst upon the present. In an instant, the skeletons ceased to be historical curiosities and became fellow travelers on life's fateful journey — our peers. Four hundred years of sunrises and sunsets, fifteen thousand days of feasts, famines, wars, and peace no longer separate us, becoming as inconsequential as the color of the monks' dried skin and ivoried bones, the medieval Latin they spoke, or the style of their robes. The inscription strips us of our well-honed psychological ability to ignore — even to deny — the inevitable: Our time on earth is limited. In the mere blink of the cosmic eye, we will join the billions of our ancestors who have lived, died, and become indistinguishable from the piles of bones in front of us.

The crypt is a solemn reminder to the living of our ultimate destiny. While Rome's other attractions display the life's work of some of the world's greatest artists, this crypt stores remnants of the lives themselves. If the bones could talk, they would tell stories of thousands of aspiring Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Raphaels lying there. Yet the crypt's silent message is not an admonition that we prepare for death but an impassioned plea that we live meaningfully and fully the lives we are living right now.

That is the subject of this book — time and your life: how you can strengthen, deepen, and even reinvent your relationship to it by using the exciting new discoveries we have made in our thirty-plus years of research on time. We want to share with you a new science and psychology of time that we developed based on personal, scholarly, and experimental investigations. Your personal attitudes toward time and those that you share with people around you have a powerful effect on all of human nature, yet their importance is underappreciated by most people, academics and laypeople alike. This is the first paradox of time: Your attitudes toward time have a profound impact on your life and your world, yet you seldom recognize it.

In the course of our work, we have identified six major attitudes toward time, or time perspectives. We will first help you to identify your personal time perspectives and then we will offer exercises designed to expand your time orientation and to help you make the most of your precious time. If our project succeeds, you will learn how to transform negative experiences into positive ones and how to capitalize on the positives in the present and the future without succumbing to blind devotion to either. Therein lies a second key paradox of time: Moderate attitudes toward the past, the present, and the future are indicative of health, while extreme attitudes are indicative of biases that lead predictably to unhealthy patterns of living. Our goal is to help you reclaim yesterday, enjoy today, and master tomorrow. To do so, we'll give you new ways of seeing and working with your past, present, and future.

Over three decades, we have given our questionnaires to more than ten thousand people. Colleagues of ours in more than fifteen countries around the world have used it with several more thousands. It's been rewarding to see individuals take this inventory and realize that they parcel their flow of personal experiences into mental categories or time zones. After we present the broad strokes of our discoveries in Part One, we'll get into how to use these perspectives for better health, more profitable investments, a more successful career and business, and more enjoyment of your personal relationships.

We hope that our discoveries will allow you to find better, different ways of living, freeing you from burdensome, outdated, or tired thoughts and actions to which your old perspective tied you. It's like the classic joke:

A guy from the city is walking down a country road past a farm when he sees a farmer feeding pigs in a highly unusual manner. The farmer is standing under an apple tree, holding up an enormous pig so that the pig can eat as many apples as it wants. The farmer moves the pig from one apple to another until the pig is satisfied, then the farmer starts again with another pig. The city man watches the farmer feed his pigs in this way for some time. Finally, he can't resist asking the farmer, "Excuse me. I can't help notice how hard it is for you to lift and carry and feed these pigs one by one at the apple tree. Wouldn't it save time if you just shook the tree and let the pigs eat what falls on the ground?" The farmer looks at the city guy with a puzzled expression and asks, "But what's time to a pig?"

What pigs are you carrying around that you need to let go of?

Before we get into our new psychology of time, we need to talk about the shared culture of time in which we live, and challenge some popular myths about time. Hopefully, you'll learn to see when you're looking the wrong way at time and when you can drop an old heavy pig of an attitude that simply doesn't serve you anymore.


No man ever steps into the same river twice,

for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

— Heraclitus

If one of the Capuchin monks awoke from his perpetual slumber and joined us in the twenty-first century, he would not recognize much of the world around him. The world has changed, but our monk may be in a better position than we are to understand the profound impact that time has had on our world. Just as fish may be unaware of the existence of the water in which they swim, most of us are unaware of the ceaselessly flowing time in which we live. Time's power often hits us only after a momentous event, the death of a loved one, a near-death experience, or a massive tragedy such as 9/11. We usually use time almost automatically, to schedule our hours and our days and to mark important life events like births, birthdays, and deaths. Time is the water that moves our stream of consciousness, but despite its centrality in our lives, we seldom reflect upon the ways in which time draws boundaries and gives direction and depth to our lives. For many of us, the time in which we are immersed is murky rather than gin-clean, and it prevents us from seeing up- and downstream. We may not even be aware of time until the stream runs dry, as it did for the monks of Santa Maria della Concezione.


Remember that time is money.

— Benjamin Franklin

Time is our most valuable possession. In classical economics, the rarer a resource and the more uses to which it may be put, the greater its value. Gold, for example, has no intrinsic value. It is no more than yellow metal. However, veins of gold on earth are rare, and gold has many uses. People first used gold to make jewelry; more recent, it has become a conductor in electronic components. The relation between scarcity and value is well known, so gold's exorbitant price comes as no surprise.

Most things that can be possessed — diamonds, gold, hundred-dollar bills — can be replenished. New diamond and gold deposits are discovered, and new bills are printed. Such is not the case with time. 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. Once time has passed, it is gone forever. So, although Ben Franklin was right about many things, he was wrong when he said that time is money. Our scarcest resource, time, is actually much more valuable than money.

We recognize the value of time implicitly in our daily transactions. Typically, the cost of time connotes its value. For example, we are often willing to pay a high price to use other people's time. The higher the price the more valuable the time: a five-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer is assumed to be better than a two-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer; handmade (translation: slowly made) goods are prized over machine-made goods; and meticulously prepared and eaten food is more valuable than fast food. In the same way, we may be willing to pay more highly for the privilege of conserving our own time. Overnight delivery and dry cleaning, direct flights, and convenience stores all exact premiums because of the inherent value that we place on our time.

In spite of the many valuations we assign time, and in spite of the fact that time is our most valuable commodity, it is striking to note how little thought we give to how we spend it. If a slightly annoying acquaintance asked you to invest money in her new business, you would probably consider the costs and benefits of the proposed transaction. If you judged her project a bad investment, you would have no problem saying no, even at the risk of offending her. After all, who rationally throws money out the window? But suppose the same acquaintance asked you to dinner. Chances are you would not engage in a similar cost-benefit analysis. No matter how little you wanted to go, you would probably take an hour out of your packed schedule to meet for dinner — all the while perhaps feeling resentment because of the time you sacrificed on something you did not want to do.

Why do we often spend our money more wisely than our time? Perhaps it's because we cannot save time; it passes whether we choose to spend it or not. Or perhaps it's because spending time can be intangible. In contrast, financial transactions involve deliberate action with material objects. For instance, you pay for your new alarm clock with a twenty-dollar bill and, in return, gain a material possession. But spending time seems less costly, and it is less closely associated with fungible assets. You can't bottle time and exchange it for an object or event.

On the other hand, perhaps we spend time so easily because we never learned to think about time. For most of history, people didn't have much choice in how to spend their time. They used it to survive, first individually and then collectively. They didn't have much time to "chill" when they needed to hunt and gather, spark fires, seek water, and build shelters. Only during the last few thousand years have people gained the luxury of discretionary time, and only during the last few hundred years have substantial segments of us enjoyed it — or endured it.

In reevaluating how we think about time — since time is more valuable than money — we're led to ask: Are we really putting the right valuations on time? Are people with the biggest bank accounts truly the wealthiest people in our world? How wealthy is someone who spends all of his time making money but doesn't take the time to enjoy life? How do we measure the wealth of people like fly-fishing guru Brent Fox, who chose the lower-paid profession of teaching because it gave him the freedom to build an "invisible mansion of time"? How can we measure the wealth of billionaire developers who spend all their time building mansions of brick and mortar but never enjoy those rooms? A financial planner helps to determine your investment strategy based upon your personal investment goals — if only there were such a person to call upon for investing time. To help figure that out, you'll have to become your own time investment planner and ask yourself these questions: What do you want out of life? How can you make your time matter? What is the right use of your time? Ultimately, you must be the arbiter of your personal investment choices, but our research suggests that people are more satisfied with investment in experiences, such as vacations, and in developing meaningful social relationships than with investment in material goods. Our research also suggests that everyone can benefit by looking more closely at time — what it is and what it means to us, and how we can see and use it in new ways that make our lives better.

These questions about time are in fact questions about the meaning of life, and to answer them for yourself, you may need a Bible, Torah, Koran, or quiet mountain stream. Even though we authors cannot offer you universal answers as you journey through this book, we will give you some new advice, strategies, and simple tactics, based upon decades of psychological research, that will allow you to deal more effectively and consciously with time.

Opportunity Cost and Your Time

Another economic principle relevant to our discussion of a new science of time is the concept of opportunity costs, which, in economics, refers to the expense involved in forgoing an opportunity. For example, if you decided to invest a thousand dollars in Google stock, you would lose the opportunity to invest in Yahoo!, or in IBM, or in horse racing, or in just leaving the money in your piggy bank. Whatever you choose to do costs you the opportunity to do something else. The notion of opportunity costs recognizes that your investment resources are scarce and that there are expenses associated with choosing one investment over another. The opportunity costs that you incur with your time and money are omnipresent but always unknown and unknowable. No matter how you choose to invest your time, you face the costs of forgoing another activity — perhaps limitless opportunities — for the one you choose. With money, you have the conservative option of keeping it in the bank, but not so with time. Whether you like it or not, you spend time every moment of your life. It continually seeps out of your pocket. We are "the clocks on which time tells itself" (Richard II, Shakespeare).

Once you recognize that your investments of time have opportunity costs, you can become more conscious of how you make your choices about time, and learn to make happier ones. Remember that people are more likely to regret actions not taken than actions taken, regardless of outcome. In Shakespeare's words again,

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste.

For example, a woman who wants to become a Hollywood star is more likely to regret not moving to Los Angeles and trying to get a part in a movie than to regret moving to Los Angeles and failing to become a star. So, as you learn in this book to be more proactive in your investments of your time, you will lose fewer opportunities and minimize regrets.

Time matters because we are finite, because time is the medium in which we live our lives, and because there are costs (lost opportunities) associated with not investing time wisely.


Time also matters because it is relative. You're no doubt familiar with this saying and aware of the physics behind it. Einstein's theory of relativity offers both the promise of unlimited energy and the specter of complete annihilation, and it led to a fundamental shift in the way that we view our world and ourselves. But time is relative for more personal reasons than those so elegantly expressed in Einstein's equation. Time is not only subject to the objective laws of physics identified by Einstein and the frame-of-reference effects identified by Newton, but also to more subjective psychological processes. Your emotional state, personal time perspective, and the pace of life of the community in which you live all influence the way in which you experience time.

Scientific investigation of our physical world began in earnest during the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the scientific investigation of our psychological world began under two centuries ago. One clear finding psychology has made is that time is relative psychologically just as it is physically. Einstein himself is reported to have said:

When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity.

A fundamental difference between physical laws and psychological principles is that physical laws are unchanging, but psychological principles are elastic: They bend and change according to the situation and frame of reference. You have some control over how these psychological principles bend and when they apply. The psychological term for this process is "construal," which refers to the way that each of us understands and explains the world. Once we understand psychological principles and the world, we can choose to construe the world in the way that is most productive, given our needs and resources.

As the psychologist Robert Ornstein pointed out in his classic book On the Experience of Time, the perception of time is a cognitive process and is therefore subject to cognitive illusions. In general, the more cognitive processing you do within a given period, the more time you judge to have passed. For example, researchers at Rice University found that people judge sounds that increase or decrease in pitch to be longer than sounds of the same duration and constant pitch. The direction of change does not matter. The amount of change drives the effect. Simple changes in tone and volume can cause temporal illusions that lead people to believe that more time has passed than really has.

As you travel through life, you encounter many optical and temporal illusions, most of them much more complex than these examples. While there may be no "right" way to view the illusions, subjective reasons often make one perspective preferable to another. Viewing the world through one time perspective may result in success, while another may lead to failure. Viewing the world from a future perspective may lead you to be "on time," while viewing the world from a present perspective may lead you to be "late." Again, objectively, there is no difference in validity between the two perspectives, but in the subjective, complex social world in which we live, perspective often makes a difference. Society deems one perspective "right" and dismisses the other. That is, until someone as brilliant as Einstein comes along and reveals a completely new perspective.

We have no control over the laws of physics, but we do have some control over the frames of reference in which we view time. Recognizing how and when these frames of reference are advantageous may allow you to get more out of life and help you to recognize those occasions when time perspectives hinder and impede you. Sometimes perspectives are imposed upon you by society — by your religious upbringing, education, social class, or cultural background — but at other times you do have opportunities to choose them for yourself. Our goals in this book are to help you recognize your particular time perspective and the ways in which it influences your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Finally, we want to help you to develop mental flexibility and agility in choosing the time perspective that is most advantageous for each life puzzle you encounter.


Let's join a psychology experiment that was in progress in 1977. Social psychologists John Darley and Dan Batson are investigating how individual Princeton seminary students behave in preparation for giving a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The speech is to be presented in a building across campus and is to be evaluated by the seminarians' supervisors. As each student completes his preparation, he is told that: A) He is late for his presentation, that he was expected a few minutes ago, and that he must hurry to the studio; or B) He has plenty of time before his presentation, but he might as well head on over now. The only difference between the two conditions is the subtle manipulation of time pressure. The researchers are curious about how this manipulation of time will or will not affect behavior of these young men preparing for a lifetime of service.

As each student walks alone from the preparation classroom to the presentation studio, he encounters a person slumped and coughing in an alleyway, obviously in need of help. Unknown to the student, this person is an accomplice of the experimenters. With no other people nearby, the seminarians are faced with a choice between helping a stranger in distress — as a Good Samaritan should do — or passing him by to fulfill the obligation to give a speech about the importance of being a Good Samaritan. Would the students in the "late" condition be as likely to help the stranger in distress as the students in the "on time" condition? Doing the right thing for a seminarian ought to take precedence over saying the right thing, right? Not so!

The majority of students who believe that they had plenty of time before their speech — those in the "on time" condition — do stop to help. This behavior is consistent with their choice of vocation. People who have devoted their lives to helping others would be expected to help a stranger in distress. Remarkably, however, 90 percent of the students in the "late" condition fail to stop and help. They pass by the distressed person because they are headed in a future-oriented direction, and their mind-set is focused on not being late for the appointment. They go ahead to give the speech, despite the fact that all seminarians report in a post-study interview that they saw the person in distress.

How do we explain this dramatic difference in likeliness to help? Because the only difference between the two groups was their relation to time, we are forced to conclude that the manipulation of time caused the difference in behavior. A simple, subtle manipulation of time caused good, well-intentioned people to put their immediate concerns ahead of the welfare of someone obviously in need of assistance. Many of the seminarians behaved in ways that they themselves would probably find contemptible.

Darley and Batson's seminal research demonstrates that time perspective changes people's behavior. Nonetheless, the real world is obviously more complicated than a psychology experiment, so another social psychologist, Robert Levine, examined the ways in which time perspective works outside of the psychology lab. Levine calls the attitude toward time that he studies "pace of life," which emerges from the social behavior of each member of a community. Levine's research teams visit cities and measure walking speeds, clock accuracy, and the tempo of basic business transactions, such as buying stamps at the post office. Using these metrics, Levine has calculated the pace of life in dozens of cities around the world. Western European countries lead the world in rapid pace of life, with Switzerland at the top of the list. Japan is also high on the index. Second-world countries are found predominantly at the bottom of the list. Of the thirty-one countries measured, Mexico has the slowest pace of life.

Levine has also measured the pace of life in thirty-six American cities by recording walking speed, bank teller speed, talking speed, and the frequency that watches are worn. Boston, New York, and other northeastern cities lead the list as the fastest cities in American, while Southern and Western cities are the slowest. Los Angeles is slowest of all.

Levine's work shows clearly how pace of life, or the "hurry" factor, varies from city to city and from country to country. In addition, Levine investigated "helping behavior" in the same thirty-six American cities. He assessed the likelihood that a city resident would:

• Return a pen that someone "accidentally" dropped without noticing

• Help someone with a large leg brace pick up magazines that he had, again, "accidentally" dropped

• Help a blind person cross the street

• Give change for a quarter

• Mail a "lost" letter

• Donate to the United Way

Consistent with the findings from the Good Samaritan research, Levine found that in general, the cities with the fastest pace of life were the least helpful. Rochester, New York, which had a relatively slow pace of life for a northeastern city, was rated the most helpful city in America. New York, New York, ranked third in terms of pace of life, was rated the least helpful city in America. There were notable exceptions, however. California cities typically had slow paces of life but were consistently rated as less helpful than faster cities. This suggests that a slower pace of life may be a necessary but insufficient condition for altruism. Californians may have the time to help others but may be more interested in helping themselves to the good life.

Darley and Batson's work shows how an individual's relationship to time can influence important behaviors such as helping a stranger in distress. Levine's work documents how social relationships with time vary across nations and cities, and he essentially replicates the Darley and Batson findings in the real world.


We authors have been working on the psychology of time for about thirty years. We have focused on how aspects of our environment, such as the pace of life within a community, are internalized, become accepted and widespread, and ultimately influence an individual's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We believe that your individual attitude toward time is largely learned, and that you generally relate to time in an unconscious, subjective manner — and that, as you become more conscious of your attitude on time, you can change your perspective for the better. Each of us, in fact, has a time perspective that is largely unconscious and subjective. We all divide the continual flow of our experiences into time frames that help to give order, coherence, and meaning to events. These time frames may reflect cyclical and repetitive patterns, such as the changing seasons, your monthly cycle, your children's birthdays, or they can reflect unique and singular linear events, like the death of a parent, the day of an accident, the start of a war. You use time perspectives in encoding, storing, and recalling your experiences; in sensing, feeling, and being; in shaping expectations, goals, contingencies; and in imagining scenarios.

In our work, we have consistently found that time perspective plays a fundamental role in the way people live. 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. The "late" seminarians and other individuals who live in fast-paced communities are likely future-oriented and so are less willing to devote their time to altruistic pursuits.

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.

Consequently, future-oriented people are the most likely to be successful and the least likely to help others in need. Ironically, the people who are best able to help are the least likely to do so. In contrast, present-oriented people are less likely to be successful but are more likely to help others. Again ironically, individual who are most likely to help others may be those least likely to help themselves. 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.

How You Spend Today Ultimately Determines Both Your Past and Your Future

Who controls the past controls the future.

Who controls the present controls the past.

— George Orwell (party slogan from the Ministry of Truth, 1984)

The famous saying above from Orwell's novel 1984 is typically understood in the context of societal and governmental control. The segment of society that controls the present can rewrite the past and thereby control the future. The main character in 1984, Winston, is employed in the Ministry of Truth, where he actively rewrites history as propaganda destined to appear in textbooks.

In spite of the negative context from which the above quote came, controlling the past, present, and future is equally important to everybody, including you, and your ability to cast your time consciously in a positive light is a good indicator of psychological and emotional health. We don't mean for you to be Pollyanna-ish in your optimism, but when you have control over your present, you can control your past and your future. In fact, you can reinterpret and rewrite your personal past, which can give you a greater sense of control over the future. In fact, all of psychotherapy can be seen as an attempt to work through the present to gain control over the past and thereby the future. Different psychological schools stress the importance of different temporal dimensions, although all of them work from the present. For example, psychoanalysis stresses the importance of the past; existential psychotherapy stresses the importance of the present; and humanistic psychotherapy stresses the importance of the future.

The present is more than the means through which you can rewrite the past. The present is also the medium through which you initially write into memory thoughts, feelings, and actions. Each decision and action in the present quickly becomes part of your past. Control of the present therefore allows you to determine what constitutes part of your past so that you can minimize the need to rewrite retrospectively. In the course of a typical day, you make hundreds of decisions, such as what to wear, what to eat, what to do with your free time, with whom to associate, and whom to avoid. On any given day, these decisions appear trivial, even inconsequential. Taken as a whole, they define who you were, who you are, and who you will become.


This book respects your time. Ernest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for arguing that a universal fear of death is at the heart of the human condition. From Becker's perspective, the reality of death is psychologically unbearable, so we refuse to accept it. We universally deny death. Most important, we deny our own death. The Capuchin Crypt touches us precisely because it short-circuits a well-refined ability. Becker wrote:

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.

Death is the end of a lifetime. Denial of death is a denial that time will end. If you deny that time ends, you are likely to treat time much differently than you would if you felt time to be scarce and of limited duration. If you imagine your life as infinite, you are unlikely to value time as more precious than gold and more likely to treat it as ordinary grains of sand on a beach. Ironically, denying death relieves anxiety and psychological stress, but it may also lead you to devalue life, so you may live less fully.

This book is about living life fully, about squeezing life from every year, month, hour, minute, and second that you are allotted. We two authors have spent our lives observing how people spend time, and we want to help you get the most out of yours.


As we are about to embark on this exciting journey into new time zones, your travel guides, Phil Zimbardo and John Boyd, would like to give you some background on why and how we got interested in studying time and how our discoveries have come to influence much of what we do in our lives.

For Phil, five experiences contributed to shaping a deep interest in time in general: being ill for a long time as a child; growing up in poverty; living in an Italian family; being blessed by dedicated elementary school teachers; and the Stanford prison experiment that he supervised. Later in the book, he'll go more into his illness, but here are his other recollections.

Growing up in the South Bronx, New York ghetto in the 1930s, we kids did not have things — toys, games, or books. But we did have people: our families as well as other kids with whom we would play in the streets every moment we were not in school or at home. We invented games and modified traditional games to keep them interesting. We could play stickball or softball for hours on end and never get tired. I developed a full appreciation of living totally in the present moment, but I gradually became aware of the dangers of impulsivity and being a daredevil. Some of my friends got hurt badly, and some died.

My Sicilian family encouraged a regard for our rich historical tradition, as well as a love of good food, wine, and music. I loved being allowed to stay up late to listen to family get-togethers when my father played the mandolin and Grandpa the guitar, backed by an uncle and cousin on guitar or another instrument. They would play and sing the familiar old songs until their fingers got numb or bloody from the strings. The songs would trigger memories of good times and loved family members now departed but still with us in vividly detailed memories.

Even though we were close, my family was relatively uneducated and did not value formal education, like many Italians from southern Italy in those days. They went to school only because it was required by law to do so, and then they went to work as soon as they could. But with limited marketable skills and no degrees, they all had menial dead-end jobs that kept them poor.

Thankfully, the dedicated teachers of my elementary school taught me to look beyond this powerful family and community example of living each day for whatever pleasure we could extract from it. They made it clear that hard work now was the only way to make it in the future, to be successful in the world. I actually loved school because it was clean, orderly, and predictable. You got out of it what you put into it. You just had to do what the teachers expected you to do, and you got gold stars, pencil rewards, and an honored place sitting in the first-row seat. Those dedicated teachers made me turn away from immediate gratification for the bigger rewards that came with delayed gratification, making me put schoolwork and homework before play and fooling around. In a sense, they were more like missionaries than ordinary teachers because they gave us lessons in living and surviving.

I carry those past lessons deep within me to this day.

In 1971 I conducted a now-infamous experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, on the Stanford University campus in order to investigate the power that social situations have to influence the behavior of ordinary people — in particular, how good people can be led to treat others badly. I divided the students into "prisoners" and "guards" and made one of the basements in a classroom building the location of this "prison." As superintendent of this Stanford prison, I learned another valuable lesson about time.

Even though the student-prisoners knew they would be part of this experiment for only a limited time, they didn't behave that way. They behaved as if they were trapped. Although the prisoners could have escaped their dismal daily grind by sharing with other prisoners their past identities and future hopes for when the experiment would be over, they rarely did so. Instead, the tape recordings we psychologists made of their conversations in their (bugged) cells revealed that the majority of their discussions were about the negative immediate aspects of their current situation: bad food, bad guards, bad work assignments, being put into solitary, and so on. Because they did not share who they were, or their future aspirations, before they were randomly assigned to the prisoner role, they knew little about one another except their humiliating, degrading identities as prisoners. I was struck that their experience was so much the opposite of my childhood experience, when I was hemmed in by circumstance and poverty but projected a future that was more positive. I also extracted whatever enjoyment I could from whatever current situation I found myself in order to survive. These mock prisoners had quickly imprisoned themselves in despair by focusing on very recent negative experiences of only days in a mock prison.

How can our long-held identities be changed so quickly? What is it that makes different people react to situations differently? Searching for answers, I began my research into time perspectives. My early research on time perspective got a big boost when John Boyd joined my research team at Stanford University back in 1994. Together, we developed a reliable, valid measure of time perspective. After three decades of research, John's and my ideas have influenced researchers around the world, and I am more convinced than ever that time perspective is one of the most powerful influences on human thought, feeling, and action — and the least recognized or appreciated.

Let's hear John's personal side of this time tale:

A unique combination of nature and nurture led me through — and to — time. Naturally shy and introverted as a child, I spent my early years in the forests of South Lake Tahoe, California, with imaginary cowboys and Indians as my friends. As I entered kindergarten, my dad took a job at the UCLA University Elementary School, and my family moved to Los Angeles, California. This urban environment contrasted dramatically with the remoteness and isolation of Tahoe that I was used to, and it took me a while to adjust to the hustle and bustle of the big city — and all the real people.

One day when my mother arrived at my kindergarten class to pick me up for an appointment, class was at recess, but when she searched the playground, she couldn't find me. Somewhat alarmed, she retreated to the classroom and asked my teacher where I was. "Did you check in the tree in the middle of the playground?" my teacher replied. "He spends most recesses there, watching the other kids play." There she found me, perched high atop that lone tree in the middle of the blacktop. I spend less time in trees today, but continue to be fascinated by people's behavior, questioning why they do what they do and why they view life as they do.

As with Phil, public education played a large role in the development of my time perspective. I felt its influence in the classroom and at home. Both of my parents had successful careers as public educators. In addition, my mother has her doctorate in education, my father his master's degree. They started their careers as public school teachers and will end them as principals and superintendents. As a result of their influence and my own academic interests, I developed a future orientation that nearly matches Phil's.

Then I turned eighteen, and my parents divorced after nearly twenty years of marriage. I was shocked and confused. I had expected to spend the next twenty years of my life working to obtain the life that my father was giving up. The fact that he suddenly seemed to want something different didn't make sense. During a very memorable conversation, I asked my dad what had changed in his life from the time when he was my age to his current age of forty. He answered as honestly as he could, but people don't always know why they change. Sometimes they just do. The best answer that he and I could come up with was that he had been resisting change for some time but could no longer do so and stay true to himself. That very day I resolved not to save all of my change until I turned forty. I resolved to have what I termed a little midlife crisis each day of my life in the hope of avoiding a larger one once I reached forty.

I turned forty recently, and my strategy appears to have worked, to some extent. I have not avoided the changes that naturally accompany aging, but I have been better able to embrace the changes that occurred between eighteen and forty. I learned not to fight time but to surrender myself to it. I married later in life and have worked to welcome change in my marriage and myself. Although I've avoided the desire for sudden dramatic change, I continue to work on listening to my own advice in other areas. While I love fly-fishing, woodworking, traveling, and spending time with family and friends, sometimes my future time perspective still gets in the way.

Professionally, I have pursued my passions, which include psychology, time, technology, and the interaction of the three. My initial psychological research at Stanford, in fact, attempted to explain why people do things that are often considered crazy — for instance, suicide bombing. I speculated that the answers are not cut-and-dried nor simplistic, that they must unfold according to a highly personal view of time and a person's place within it. I found that much of the field of psychology had intentionally blinded itself to the effect of beliefs about the distant future, because such beliefs are strongly associated with religiosity, which approaches the level of a taboo subject within mainstream psychology. Ultimately, my work validated Phil's early work and extended it further into the future, as you will see in Chapter Six. Together, we have been collaborating on research for the last fourteen years. Between us, we have lived a combined fifty-two years since we began research in earnest. During that time, we have interviewed and worked with tens of thousands of students and thousands of human experimental participants to develop the insights we'll now share with you.

This book is an investment guide for your future. Time matters, no matter who you are, where you live, how old you are, or what you do. Whether you drink alone or are a leader of nations, time matters. Whether you are a single mom, an executive, a teacher, student, or prisoner, time matters. Whether you are a laid-back hedonist or a vigorously aspiring Type A workaholic, time matters. Your time is precious. You pass through this life only once, so it is vital that you make the most of the journey.

The ideal we want you to develop is a balanced time perspective in place of a narrowly focused single time zone. A balanced time perspective will allow you to flexibly shift from past to present to future in response to the demands of the situation facing you so that you can make optimal decisions. However, while we advise, you must consent. You will have to make a commitment to learn and to change in order to get the best return on your investment. You are the only one who can make your time matter. If not you, who? If not now, when?

Copyright © 2008 by John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo

Meet the Author

Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at Stanford University and past president of the American Psychological Association, designed and narrated the award-winning PBS series Discovering Psychology. He has written more than fifty books, including the New York Times bestseller The Lucifer Effect, and lives in San Francisco.

John Boyd, Ph.D., received his doctorate in psychology from Stanford University, where he worked closely with Philip developing the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. His professional experience includes director of scientific affairs at Alertness Solutions, director of research at Yahoo!, and, currently, research manager at Google. He lives in Dublin, California, with his wife, Nancy.

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Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the development of man's view of time from prehistory to present and its similarity to present changes one develops in his view as we mature. It also brings up the concept of arrested development of an individuals time view and its affect on personality and ability to function in society. Also the role of one's culture in development of a time view
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KatelynD More than 1 year ago
Authors Zimbardo and Boyd translate their psychological theories of time into how-to tips for attaining happiness. Identifying six main time-perspectives, they demonstrate the effect that the use or overuse of these perspectives has on all areas of life, from retirement to romantic relationships to suicide bombing. The book compares other psychological theories of behavior with their own, arguing that attitudes towards time as the true answer to these psychological inquiries. Combining personal anecdotes, data from psychological perspectives and self-evaluative exercises, the authors help the readers make time work for them in a quick-paced, interactive manual. The Time Paradox is an informative read for both psychology aficionados and the curious self-improver alike. A memory trigger for the Pasts, an engaging read for the Presents, and a useful tool for the Futures. Some of the book's most striking evidence comes from a discussion of business and the future oriented go-getters. Zimbardo and Boyd ask the question, "Why bother earning money you can never enjoy the fruits of your labor?" The authors don't dispute the usefulness of money; they rather assert that time is our most valuable resource, not wealth.
YourBrotherBob More than 1 year ago
Zimbardo and Boyd write about Time Perspective and how our quality of life and happiness is so greatly effected by that perspective. It started very simply and built to more complexity. Many books are really done in about forty pages, but this book seemed to get more interesting as the book progressed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago