Leadership Insights: Perceptions of Time

When I was pregnant, my fabulous hairdresser, Jason (who Blogs about Barbering and basically anything), said to me: “the truest thing I ever heard about having kids? The years fly by, but the days last forever!”.

Truly the most useful advice I received about parenting!  And believe me, everyone has advice.

This post is the first in what will be a regular series called “Leadership Insights“: sharing practical interpretation of new or significant research that can help you enhance your deliberate leadership practice.

I have previously talked about the vital importance of understanding that your perceptions may not be the same as everyone else’s.

Nowhere is this more fascinating and compelling than in the way people perceive the passage of time.Warped Clocks

It would be easy to think that time is a fact.  A quantifiable, measurable ‘thing’ that isn’t subject to interpretation.  But our brains perceive its passage differently at different stages of our lives, during different activities, and even due to chemical imbalances associated with mental illness.

Before we get started, if you want to know more about your own time perspective, there’s a great test you can take, designed by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

Leadership Insights: Four things you need to know about Time

Insight One: Everyone’s time signature is different

As in music, we all beat to a slightly different drum.  According to Zimbardo and Boyd’s work, we each have a particular pattern, or signature of thinking about time, made up of some combination of the following six  time perspectives:

  • Past-negative – your attitudes about past events are largely negative
  • Past-positive – your attitudes about past events are largely positive
  • Present-hedonistic – focused on feeling good right now
  • Present-fatalistic – believes it doesn’t matter what you do right now, what will be will be
  • Future – weighs costs and benefits and plans for the long-term
  • Transcendental future – believes that death is not the end, and therefore concerned with future consequences of actions

Time SignatureDepending on an individual’s ‘pattern’ of these six perspectives, they will likely respond differently to a range of different scenarios in the work place.

For example, someone who is high in past-negative and high in present-fatalistic is likely to have very low self-efficacy, and is therefore unlikely to volunteer to lead a challenging project – bad things have happened to them before and nothing they do will make any difference, so why should they put themselves out there?

Someone who is high in present hedonistic couldn’t care less about the consequences of their actions, so long as they’re having a good time!

These time profiles have profound consequences for policy makers, marketers and a range of other professions that aim to impact human behaviour.  Understanding the predominant ‘time signature’ of your target demographic/market will improve your chances of successfully creating change.

Insight Two: Your time signature changes as you age

Have you every noticed that teenagers are terrible at assessing risk accurately?  We’ve all heard the terrible statistics about teenagers (especially young men) dying in traffic accidents or doing what, to us more sensible folk, seem like blatantly stupid things (crowd-surfing off a balcony, riding on the roof of a car down the freeway – unfortunately there are plenty more examples).Ageing Clock

The pre-frontal cortex, which is the rational, logical, risk-assessing part of your brain, isn’t fully developed until your early twenties.  This accounts for most of the silly behaviour we see from high-school kids.  It also means that appealing to their better judgement around risky behaviour (like unprotected sex, or drug-taking) has limited impact, because these approaches require someone to be concerned about the future enough to make the calculation, and agree that the benefit doesn’t outweigh the potential future consequences.

As we move into our late twenties, we generally become better equipped to plan for the future and balance risk and reward.  We take out mortgages, start families, seek promotion, save for retirement…  We make plans.  But being too focused on the future, can be a bad thing.  You don’t notice the present so much – you forget to stop and smell the roses.

And as we age, we become less concerned about the future (which is after all, considerably shorter than it used to be) and more concerned about enjoying the time we have…  Mid-life-crisis anyone?

Insight Three: Your perception of time is affected by your mental health

Clock BrainPeople experiencing mental illness often report ‘sensing’ time differently.  For example:

  • Schizophrenia can cause jumbling of past, present and future
  • Mania causes time to pass very quickly
  • Depression causes time to pass very slowly
  • Paranoia creates a bias towards the future (and what is going to happen there)
  • Anxiety disorders create a bias toward the past (dwelling, ruminating)

If people you work with experience these conditions, understanding that time is different for them can be helpful in trying to support them in the work place.  Someone suffering from depression, for example, is unlikely to be encouraged by an event/opportunity/reward that will occur more than a few days in the future.

Insight Four: Time flies when you’re having fun

We’ve all heard the adage – and hopefully experienced it a few times ourselves.

Even more profound is the idea of ‘flow’, of being lost in the moment.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  is the leading guru on Flow (you can watch his brilliant TED talk here), which he describes as being “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work”.  Being completely immersed in an activity in which you are both skilled, and suitably challenged.Time Flies

When in this state of flow, you lose your sense of self, and time passes quickly without you noticing it.  You lose awareness of your physical state (for example you won’t notice if you are hungry, or need to go to the bathroom).

Csikszentmihalyi argues that it is by increasing time spent in a state of Flow that we can find happiness.  And who doesn’t want that!


For more information:

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, Harper Collins)



The Time Paradox: The new Psychology of Time, by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd (2008, Random House)



Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, by Claudia Hammond (2012, Canongate Books)



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.