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by Dr. Donna Roberts

“How did it get so late so soon?” —Dr. Seuss

The Story

A colleague recently wrote an article about time, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. Specifically, it was about using increments of time as small as five minutes to write. It made me think about time and how we use it.

In my university undergraduate days, many fellow students dreamed of attending Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, as featured on Saturday Night Live. He would teach you in five minutes what most university graduates remembered after five years. Got an extra minute? Law School.

More recently, sailing the Adriatic Sea with a writing group, we mercilessly teased a colleague about his furtive scribbling notes while the rest of us soaked up the Italian sun and wine. On our return, a multi-page feature appeared in the regional newspaper detailing our trip. Using five minutes here and there, the writer had cobbled together an interesting travel article while we’d jokingly accused him of working on his shopping list.

The efficient are all around us, in humans and even animals. Our neighbor’s Chihuahua, affectionately nicknamed Mad Dog, makes the Tasmanian Devil seem like a Galapagos turtle. He gets more done in five minutes than our six cats accomplish all week. A new squeaky toy usually lasts him as long as a fallen meatball. Exeunt squeaker; mission complete.

For Mad Dog and his human counterparts, media has been ever striving toward serving the time conscious reader. Articles, blog posts, and listicles have been reduced to the size of anecdotes for easy consumption.

Five minutes seems to be the key. Most of us can find that much time, even on the busiest days. There are five minute journals and five minute facials. We can develop five minute abs or make dessert in five minutes. Not to mention all the things that are “so five minutes ago.”

Coco Chanel said “There is a time for work and a time for love. That leaves no other time.”

Well, maybe just five minutes …

Five minutes seems to be the key. Most of us can find that much time, even on the busiest days. There are five minute journals and five minute facials. We can develop five minute abs or make dessert in five minutes. Not to mention all the things that are “so five minutes ago.”

Psych Pstuff Summary

Time. We deal with it every day, all day. The hours dictate our waking and our sleeping. Temporal passage is the substance of our lives, the measure of our existence. It’s been given the weighty distinction of “the fourth dimension.”

But what is time exactly? Is it absolute or relative? Is it “real” or merely an agreed-upon convention? Throughout time, those questions have perplexed philosophers and physicists alike. Despite centuries of musings on the topic, no simple answer has emerged. As recently as 2010, the prestigious magazine Scientific American ran an article entitled Is Time an Illusion?

From a psychological perspective, we are primarily interested in the perception of time—i.e., the subjective way we experience the progression of events. And while we have made this concrete through the clear distinction of precise measured intervals (seconds, minutes, days, years) there is little argument that the experience of those intervals varies considerably among individuals and depending upon circumstances. Even Einstein acknowledged: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours.”

Despite the controversy and ambiguity that still surrounds the concept of time, we nonetheless struggle desperately to control it. Time management—or more specifically, “the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency or productivity”—has become a multi-million dollar industry, with a multitude of self-help books, workshops and canned programs on the market, all in the service of slaying this elusive dragon.

Renowned psychologist Phil Zimbardo (of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) and co-author John Boyd added to this plethora of perspectives on how to effectively understand and manage this curious phenomena with their book, The Time Paradox.

These authors introduce the concept of an individual’s Time Perspective—attitudes towards time that are learned through personal experience and passed through the culture. They further identify and describe the most common time perspectives in the Western world:

Past-positive
Observes rituals and traditions
Nostalgic storytellers
High rate of happiness and positivity
High self-esteem
Moderately energetic
Friendly
Creative
Low rates of depression, aggression and anxiety

Past-negative
Not influenced by future consequences
May mis-remember the past in negative ways
High anxiety, depression and aggression
Low rates of self-esteem, impulse control, happiness and energy

Present-fatalistic
Believes that nothing will work out so why bother
Luck is more important than hard work
High anxiety, depression and aggression
Low rates of concern for the future, self-esteem, conscientiousness, energy, emotional stability and happiness

Present-hedonistic
Impulsive
Tries to live life fully one day at a time
Novelty and sensation seeking
High energy, aggression and creativity
Low ego control, conscientiousness, impulse control, emotional stability
Preference for consistency

Future
Goal-oriented
Prepares for tomorrow
High correlation with conscientiousness
Preference for consistency, ego control, impulse control, reliability, trustworthiness
Low levels of sensation seeking, aggression and depression

Finally, they even propose “the optimal time perspective profile”:

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

According to Zimbardo and Boyd, this optimal mix serves us in the following ways:

“A sense of a positive past gives you roots. The center of self-affirmation, the past connects you to yourself over time and across place. A positive past grounds you, provides a sense of the continuity of life, and allows you to be connected to family, tradition, and your cultural inheritance. With a future perspective, you can envision a future filled with hope, optimism, and power. The future gives you wings that enable you to soar to new destinations and to be confident in your ability to deal with the unexpected challenges that you might encounter on the way. It equips you to escape the status quo, the fear inherent in straying from the safe, known ways, the well-traveled roads to your destination. A hedonistic present gives you energy and joy about being alive. That energy drives you to explore people, places, and self. Present hedonism is life-affirming, in moderation.”

But what is time exactly? Is it absolute or relative? Is it “real” or merely an agreed-upon convention? Throughout time, those questions have perplexed philosophers and physicists alike.

You can take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) to get an idea of your scores in the different time perspectives.

You can also take the Transcendental-future Time Perspective Inventory (TTPI).

Whether you consider time a physical reality, a non-relativistic concept of classical mechanics, a merging of a space-time continuum or merely, as the great sages of 80s pop, Genesis, crooned, “the things that go to make up a life,” it is, in a sense, the great equalizer. By our conventional measure, we all—or at least the fortunate among us—get the same 24 hours of this day to do with as we will. What will you do with your 5 minutes?

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” —Mother Teresa

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Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.