Change Work March 2009

Which way is next week?

Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week. (Spanish proverb)

There are many proverbs or sayings to the effect that yesterday is gone forever, tomorrow will come all by itself, so live today!

Do you do that?  Or do you find it virtually impossible to shut out the past and the future? The extent to which you live "in the moment" is linked to how you perceive time - or rather - how you represent it in your mind.

When you recall past events, you probably have a good idea of the order in which things happened.  You also know whether something lasted for a long time or was over quickly.  But what is the scale aginst which you measure duration or order of succession?

It seems that most people represent time spatially, as a combination of direction and distance.  And our language reveals this.  For example, we speak of "the far future" or "the distant past", reflecting a concept of distance.  Whilst a phrase like "back then" suggests a direction (behind you) and may be accompanied by gestures or pointing. Many people picture a road or a path, perhaps influenced by the frequent use of these metaphors in literature, or some imagine a chain of pictures, snaphots of events "along the way".  There must be many variations on the form that individual "timelines" take, but they all fall into one of two broad classes.

You either think of time as:

Whichever one of these you "do", you probably hadn't realised it before.  If you did, then you probably assumed that everyone else did it the same way as you.

Most of my clients have turned out to be "in-time", i.e. they think of the past as being behind them and the future in front.  The present, for them, is where they are - they are literally "in the present moment".

The rest, including me, are "through-time", i.e. we perceive time as passing in front of us, with the past to the left and the future to the right.  We feel that we stand slightly outside the present moment.

Does this matter?  Well, there are some important consequences of these differences.

In-timers can't "see" the past very easily without associating into it.  I.e. they relive past experiences whenever reminded of them.  In contrast, it's much easier for a through-timer to remain dissociated from past events because they already have an idea of something off to the left that they can see from a distance.  Whichever of these is a benefit depends on whether the event was pleasurable or traumatic.

Similarly, in-timers often don't have a clear "view" of the future because it's straight in front of them and the far future is obscured by things nearer.  As a result, they often have a very hazy idea of the future which can have detrimental effects on their motivation as well as on their ability to plan effectively. They may habitually turn up late for appointments and be unconcerned: "I'm here now aren't I?"

Again, through-timers can see the succession of events, from the past and in to the future, from their dissociated perspective.  For them, it's a bit like looking at a calendar or a project plan.  They are usually very aware of what time it is and what they should be doing now.

But you have to do lots of things that don't require you to be looking at the past or the future.  If you're in-time then you are likely to be very focused on what you're doing, either enjoying it or hating it, in the moment.  If you're through-time, then you probably find that the past and the future both encroach on the present. It's as if you can always see glimpses of what's already happened - and what's coming - out of the corner of your eye.  They distract you, preventing you from concentrating and from enjoying fully what you're doing.

Now, given this discusion, you'll probably be able to diagnose quite quickly which type of time model you have.  But can you do anything with this knowledge?  Well, yes, you can learn to change your perspective, at will, from though-time to in-time or in-time to through-time and back again. This is usually easier if you make the exercise physical, i.e. act it out.

So, if you're normally in-time, stand in the middle of the room and think about the past behind you and the future ahead.  Now, imagine that your timeline is actually a line on the floor to which your images of past and future are fixed.  (You may only be able to see the future part at this stage.)  Now, take two steps sideways to your right and imagine that your timeline has stayed fixed on the floor - so that you've stepped off it.  If you turn to your left you'll be able to "see" your past, off to your left, and your future to your right.  You'll be detached from the present, which is now two paces away.  This might feel very strange, and when you've studied the sweep of time from this new standpoint, you'll want to step back in-time to where you're comfortable.

For through-timers, imagine the line in front of you and simply step in.  Again, it will probably feel uncomfortable.

So, now you can adopt whichever time-perspective is most appropriate to the situation.  You'll also have laid the foundations for a range of techniques that can change your perception of bad things that happened to you in the past (and that still affect you today) or to make your goals more real and more compelling.

So, why not take a few moments to step in or out of time?  You could have the time of your life!