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Book Summaries Psychology

The Time Paradox Summary (7/10)

The Time Paradox is a book by Phillip Zimbardo and John Boyd that explains how our attitudes towards time shapes the way we live our lives, who we become, and what we value.

Boyd recalls a Crypt of the Capuchin Monks that he once saw, it had an inscription at the foot of a pile of bones:

What you are, they once were. What they are, you will be.

Your time is finite, and it does not care about how you choose to spend it – it will pass by all the same. The first paradox of time is that despite how important your attitude towards it is in shaping your life, you seldom recognize it. You take for granted how you view time, because your society and education have conditioned you to view time in a certain way, and all of your choices are by-products of this conditioning.

This book helps you relieve yourself of your past biases towards time, and helps you understand that you can choose how to view it. The hard-working CEO lives for tomorrow, while the devoted musician lives for the moment, but neither of them questions why they do so, and what impact this has on their lives.

The problem is that every attitude makes sense. If you are aware of the scarcity of time, it makes sense for you to live totally in the present moment, and to forget about tomorrow, and yet, doing so will eventually backfire. The same is true for people who live for the future, they can get away with It for a while, but they will realize that the present moment – the only real time they have – is constantly being sacrificed for something that never comes.

The Past and Transcendental Future

There are two other time perspectives, the past, and the transcendental future, and they also influence how you think about life. If you see the past negatively, then you will be less excited about the present and future, you will make poorer choices. A belief in the afterlife, however, arms people with resilience in the face of annoyances and brings a calmness of mind, but too much investment in the transcendent can steer people towards ignoring the present too much, and not deriving enough joy from it.

Dealing with Mortality

It seemed to me, while reading this book, that our attitudes toward time are all manifestations of different mechanisms that we have developed, consciously or unconsciously, to wrestle with the tragedy of being. Time perspectives, as the authors have noted, have defined cultures as well as individuals. Different countries deal with time differently, some are extremely punctual, and focused on the future, while others are more aligned with the present. Others are attached to the past or the transcendental future, and these societies tend to be more religious and traditional.

Of course, each time perspective comes with a cost, but each is an attempt to deal with inevitable passage of time. The only time perspectives that don’t make sense and are never beneficial are past-negative and present=fatalistic. When you remember the past as a horrible series of events, then you are unlikely to invest energy in the present or the future to improve your situation. The same is true for being fatalistic about the present. The authors argue that each person should work at ridding themselves of these attitudes, for they bring no good.

They argue that avoiding extreme attitudes towards the past, present, and future, are key to a healthy psyche.

Finding Balance

Working hard for the future is great, but only if it is tempered with pleasurable experiences in the present. You need to experience pleasure in the present to be energetic and excited about the future. Living hedonistically is sensible, but only if you balance your hedonism with future planning and hard work. The paradox of time is that achieving this perfect balance is extremely difficult (there are always going to be trade-offs), and time consuming, which makes our relationship with time ironical as well as paradoxical.

Plan for Leisure

“Remember that people are more likely to regret actions not taken than actions taken, regardless of outcome.”

If you are very conscientious, you are naturally aversive to hedonism. You will not have much fun because “fun” is not a priority – it is never urgent, in Stephan Covey’s words, but it is certainly important. The way to overcome this problem is to be vigilant about fun the way you are about work, that is, to make sure that parts of your day or week are reserved for personal leisure and enjoyment.

Make Smarter Choices

If you are a present hedonist, you must take the future more seriously. You must think more about the consequences of your present decisions and accept that your lifestyle will not be sustainable over time. You must learn to structure your time better, to work more effectively, and to sacrifice leisure more regularly.

Be Self-aware

You are shaped by the attitudes your own culture and society has towards time, and it is very difficult to de-program that out of your mind. To make a conscious effort to mitigate for the consequences of being extremely attached to that time perspective or another is the valiant and effortful mission that this book calls on you to take on.

“Your emotional state, personal time perspective, and the pace of life of the community in which you live all influence the way in which you experience time.”

The only defence against being too biased towards a time perspective is to be mindful, and self-aware. Once you force yourself to constantly examine your behaviours, despite the added stress it might bring, you will find yourself able to more easily dodge the dangers of converging too strongly to one pattern of behavior.

People will continue to do the things they are doing if they are happy with the outcome. Future oriented people will continue to work hard, because they have seen their efforts pay off. They make more money and are more secure, they are also healthier. The stress and anxiety they feel are by-products of the good choices they have made, so they will see no reason to change. But over time, the stress that they accumulate will make them unhappier, they will be less capable of enjoying the present moment. Their brains have been wired to only think about tomorrow.

You can exhibit pathological behavior even if your environment appears to be stable. This takes a high degree of self-awareness, and for this reason, it may be even more difficult for hedonists to check their behavior.

If you are high on present hedonism, you are probably less self-aware. For you, every moment is enjoyable, and as long as you are experiencing pleasure and not pain, you are will not change anything. But you will have to contend with the inevitability of suffering. Things will not always be so great.

If you don’t take care of yourself, your health will deteriorate, and you will be unable to enjoy life’s pleasures. If you don’t save for a rainy day, you will find yourself scrambling for ways to make money that prevent you from enjoying the present moment.

“Our scarcest resource, time, is actually much more valuable than money.”

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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