How you live in time —
yesterday, today and tomorrow
— helps shape your career
I felt refreshed at the end of a phone call with a client I’ll call “Mark.” It wasn’t just because Mark, like many of my clients, is smart and likeable. What made the conversation energizing was listening to a person whose orientation to the continuum of time is so nicely balanced.
Mark is comfortable with his past and has fond memories of growing up within a big family. Of course, he has experienced career bumps over the years, and has faced discrimination and other types of unfairness. But he has come to regard his tougher moments as opportunities for learning.
For the future, Mark has a dream job in mind, and he seems remarkably confident that he’ll reach that goal when the time is right. It will take a while for him to get there because so many people are ahead of him in his organization’s hierarchy. But, he said, he’s in no hurry to move up the ladder because his “work/life balance is so perfect today.” Even though Mark cares passionately about the mission of his nonprofit employer, he sticks close to a 40-hour workweek because, for the moment, his top priority is being with his young family.
Not everyone has Mark’s healthy attitude about the past, present and future. As a coach, I often encounter clients whose focus on the timeline of life is impeding their career:
- “Elaine” cannot distance herself from earlier career situations where, in her view, she was dealt with unfairly. Elaine often complains about past mistreatment, and her bitterness limits her ability to pursue current opportunities. And when she gets bogged down in endlessly recycling yesterday’s disappointments, Elaine bores her colleagues and has trouble engaging in the projects on her desk today.
- “Jack” lives today fully, but doesn’t prepare for tomorrow. While Elaine’s coworkers tend to avoid her, Jack is popular wherever he goes. He is playful, funny and interested in whatever you’re doing right now. But Jack’s career is stalled because of the way he avoids assignments involving a lot of planning or tedious, front-end work.
- Ambitious “Harry” is focused on the future but neglects the present. He is determined to rise to the top of his field and he’s a master of networking and self-promotion. But Harry spends so much time chasing opportunity that he often is sloppy about tasks on his plate right now. And despite his broad circle, Jack has few close friends because social activities without a professional focus strike him as a waste of time.
Executive coaches understand that, although you may not be conscious of it, the way you think about time can impact your behavior and attitudes, and profoundly influence the course of your career. Coaches often ask questions intended to help clients develop a clear, hopeful vision of their future, as well as a realistic sense of their priorities for today.
People with a positive and balanced perception of time tend to be effective performers in the workplace. And simply noticing ways that you focus on the continuum of time can help you to better set your perspective. The relationship between performance and time orientation is one focus of The Time Paradox, a fascinating 2008 book by psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd. According to these authors, research suggests that for a happy life and a successful career, the best time orientation is one that features:
- A high past-positive and low past-negative time perspective. You can’t change your past but you can adjust your attitude about it. An upbeat view of the past can help you feel rooted and stable, but a negative preoccupation with old events can make you suspicious, risk-adverse and driven by guilt or a fear of all that is new or different.
- A moderately high future time perspective. Being oriented toward the future means you are more likely to engage in appropriate planning and scheduling and better able to anticipate to challenges. This perspective is associated with strong reasoning, patience and self-control, and with a focus on goals. It allows you to envision days ahead filled with hope, optimism and power. The down side of an over-the-top preoccupation with the future is you may be unable to enjoy today’s activities and experiences.
- A moderately high present hedonistic perspective. The authors say, “A hedonistic present gives you energy and joy about being alive…Present hedonism is life-affirming, in moderation.”
If you’re interested in seeing how your time perspective compares with the authors’ view of the optimum profile, you can go to their website and take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. If you don’t feel like answering their 56 questions, simply try noticing, for a few days, how much attention you focus on the past, the future and what’s happening right now.