Thinking About Thinking – Where Does the Time Go?

Following a recent time management course, I had cause to think about the topic of our next blog post on this subject. See my thoughts in the post below.
Thinking About Thinking - Where does the time go?

Following a recent time management course, I had cause to think about the topic of our next blog post on this subject.

I wanted to provide something different to what is usually covered in our online sessions, in part admittedly for a little extra personal interest but also to add some value for our customers who regularly pick up extra content we share in this way.

Glancing over my bookshelf to spark some inspiration, my eye fell on two books by Edward De Bono, perhaps the world’s leading thinker on the discipline and practices of thinking itself. (Those familiar with his work might note neither book in this case (excuse the pun) was ‘Lateral Thinking’ – the phrase De Bono coined and which has come into such common usage that most don’t realise its origin.)

At that moment, thinking about thinking and thinking about time, it struck me – that moment of inspiration that two somewhat unconnected words can create (this, incidentally, is one of the exercises in ‘How to have creative ideas’ – one of De Bono’s books I was looking at); and I settled in to compose what you are reading now: a blog about how we spend our time travelling through time; sometimes lost in time; sometimes being a victim to time and sometimes using time to great effect.

The ‘moment of inspiration’ (or perhaps more mundanely, the ‘occurring thought’) was the recollection of a TED talk I’d seen years before that explored the concept of ‘time-perspectives’. This was a talk by Philip Zimbardo an American psychologist perhaps best known for the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment but who, on this occasion, was discussing how his work in time-perspectives had shown promise in helping people in various areas such as family conflict, school drop-out rates, combatting addiction, physical rehabilitation, promoting sustainability and enhancing health and wellbeing.

I remembered how this talk had intrigued me at the time and how, even though it has been a long while since I’ve watched or shared it, I can now see how it has contributed to a profound change in my relationship with time and ultimately my approach to life and work over the last few years.

You see, how we experience time and how we think about time is core to many aspects of time management. Time management is not just about what we do, it is about how we think.

Procrastination, in its many various forms, might be the obvious example of this but other things such as planning and deadline setting, prioritisation and even delegation are all impacted by our relationship to time – which is fundamentally a reflection of our relationship with ourselves.

It takes knowledge to understand how minds work and self-awareness to know how our own mind works. The functions are generic to the species, but the content is unique to the individual.

Perhaps the simplest way to put it is, that we are creatures of habit.

And, just as we develop habits of behaviour that are, in a general sense at least, obvious to us; for example, think of any ‘bad’ habit and it’s clear that most of us are perfectly aware that we are carrying out a behaviour that may be undesirable from one standpoint but by definition we are doing it anyway; we also develop habits of thinking.

Our thinking habits are often less obvious to us. You can recognise this fact by noting the clear contradiction in the bad habit example – on one level, we know we shouldn’t do something or don’t want to something, and yet we feel compelled to act out of the behaviour and it is not always clear to us why. The ‘why’ is often deeply embedded habits of mind that are less conscious to us because they may have been slowly built up over a long period of time, or may have their origin in events that we don’t consciously remember. It is these same structural habits of thinking that sit at the heart of time management challenges such as procrastination.

Much work in self-development stemming from Freud’s analytical approach to understanding our unconscious motives aims to delve into the past to attempt to unlock its secrets. Hypnosis, for instance, still defies a proper understanding but for many its efficacy is undeniable. One notable aspect of the hypnotic process is how it uses time perspectives through deep relaxation. By contrast, Zimbardo asks us to notice our time perspectives in our everyday wakeful lives.

Time perspectives, in Zimbardo’s own words is, “the study of how individuals divide the flow of human experience into different time frames or time zones automatically and non-consciously” and this has been shown to vary between cultures, social classes, nations and of course, different individuals.


Past Positive Present Hedonism Future Life Goals
Past Negative Present Fatalism Transcendental Future

Zimbardo shows how, over time, these differences in perspective lead to biases – our habits of thinking – which influence our decision-making which in turn influence our actions, or in the case of procrastination, our inaction. More broadly, Zimbardo posits that an over-emphasis on any particular time perspective has more negative implications than positive. For example, those focussed predominantly on future goals sacrifice family time, fun, time for friends, hobbies and sleep. So, balance is a more important goal than say, a shift towards the future.

In my short accompanying video, I take a slightly different approach to Zimbardo’s 6 categories and simplify for a more practical approach to day to day time management. This includes Future Negative (what many psychologists call ‘awfulising’) which is one way in which procrastination manifests in keeping us stuck rather than moving toward a negatively imagined future.

Past Positive Present Positive Future Positive
Past Negative Present Negative Future Negative

online time management training course

The point is that by consciously shifting our time perspectives we can learn new habits. And this can, in turn, help us to change our behaviour and therefore improve our time management – or as we can now appreciate in the recognition of the biggest misnomer in all of ‘time management’ – this being impossible; we can improve how we manage ourselves.

So how to shift time perspectives? And how to do this flexibility in the demands of the moment such that one perspective takes precedence while others temporarily recede?

Well, the answers to these questions are paradoxically easy and difficult. It takes knowledge to understand how minds work and self-awareness to know how our own mind works.

It only takes a little knowledge to understand that we are creatures of habit, perhaps a little more wisdom to clearly see this as a continual reality emerging over time in our lives, and, I would argue, a significant degree of self-awareness to know ourselves as pattern creating individuals who simultaneously have the capacity become aware of the content of them and change their direction.

One simple exercise to develop self-awareness and an appreciation of time perspectives is to take a real-life scenario (perhaps the global pandemic happening as I write) and play around with it mentally. I don’t mean to take it lightly; I mean to consciously examine it from the 6 different perspectives. What other challenging situations does it remind you of? What did you learn in those times? What problems turned into positive changes over time? How do you feel at this very moment about the situation and how is that changing each hour and each day? How do you imagine the future? What could be the upsides to the crisis? What goals could you set to move into that future?

By paying attention to our thinking, reflecting upon our actions and what prompted them and by observing our mind and body in a conscious way we can learn to understand ourselves more clearly and in this very process begin to take control of ourselves to increasingly greater extents.

And all this doesn’t have to take up much time – it happens while we act – our awareness, like a muscle, grows stronger to more we use it and we can learn to use it all of the time and with that, we gain the power to overcome our procrastination habits, to prioritise our workload more effectively based on a broader sense of future implications, plan and set goals more effectively with a clearer sense of reality and perspective and delegate more effectively with less worry about other people’s perceptions.

For deeper reflection or in taking some initial exploratory steps while you learn, you should seriously consider scheduling time for this as if it was an important appointment for your diary, and do that now. Good intentions for self-improvement often fall short of their potential, not because the intention itself wasn’t strong enough but because it came up against the strength of our own existing habit to put things off until later.

Until the next time…