Your time orientation dramatically changes how you live your life. So what’s time orientation?
Basically, it’s whether you focus on the past, present, or future.
Being oriented mostly on the past means paying attention to where we’ve been. It’s defining situations as continuations of a historical story. You can go way far back, or just back to your own personal history, such as your childhood. An extreme example of this is the elderly man or woman who has decided that they’re finished–no new contributions to the world and no new experiences–and they literally spend all day remembering their past.
Stop and smell the roses is the motto of this orientation. This orientation places pleasure and peace at the top of the priority list. This thinking results in a focus on the journey rather than the destination.
Focusing on the future manifests as thoughts about the legacy you’re trying to create (not an existing legacy you’ve already built, mind you–that’s past-orientation). It drives people to sacrifice today’s pleasures to purchase tomorrow’s accomplishments. This orientation emphasizes progress (not preserving the past) and goal setting.
Your Personal Combination
We all consider all three at times, but each person prioritizes them differently. We all have personal histories that define us, and have at least some awareness of global history shaping our identity and our life story. We all enjoy pleasure and have made choices to make the moment better. And we’ve all set at least a few goals–even if very short-term–and worked to accomplish it. The question is which of these gets the most thinking time (and which gets the least).
If you could put a percentage for each–in a typical week, how much of it do you spending thinking about the past, the present, and the future?
Seriously, take a second and come up with a general number for each category (hopefully adding up to 100%).
This answer isn’t just an academic curiosity. Your time-orientation profile, if you will, leads to very different life choices.
Is one better than the other? Depends on what kind of life you want to live.
Pros & Cons of Past-Orientation
Focusing on the past keeps you grounded in the larger story, increasing humility and adding a lot of wisdom from the lessons of history. The Bible does give us a lot of history, not just theologies. The events of the past do matter. But past-orientation can also mire you in illusion of the better days of yore–and equate change into decline. Jesus fulfilled history–and began a new, unprecedented era, too. In literally every generation, there is a cadre of intelligent past-oriented thinkers who bemoan society’s fall from past excellence and prophecy we will destroy ourselves. An objective view of history (I think) shows a more mixed reality. We’ve gotten much better, much worse, and stayed the same–all at the same time. Plus, no matter how old you are, there’s more of life to explore and more to contribute, so allowing the past to become all–and shutting down your life–is a great waste of the gift of life you still have.
Pros & Cons of Present-Orientation
There’s great wisdom here–and great danger. The Bible does call us to abandon worry for the future and focus on today (Matthew 6.25-34). We can’t control the future, and we’re even discouraged from being too bold in making plans for the future (James 4.13-16). But it also tells us to be like the ant and work hard today so that we’re ready when winter comes–the sluggard who only enjoys himself today is treated harshly (Proverbs 6.6-11; 20.4). And at it’s extreme worst, present-orientation leads to selfish hedonism, including substance abuse and extreme obesity.
Pros & Cons of Future-Orientation
Defining yourself in terms of your future goals leads to exceptional accomplishments–and high blood pressure. This is the classic type-A personality, always going, going, going and never resting. The same biblical passages apply above, including Jesus’ example of fixing our eyes on the future and enduring the difficulty of the moment to accomplish the greater goal (Hebrews 12.1-2). But exclusive focus here can cause you to live without most of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23), such as love, joy, peace, kindness, and gentleness.
The Best Combination?
So what’s the right mix of orientations? My honest answer: I’m not sure. Certainly, we shouldn’t get stuck in one mode only–all three should show up at some level. But I’m not sure that the answer is an even 1/3 each, either. In fact, I’d love your opinion on what the best mix is and why.
What’s your time-orientation profile? (Mine–for better or for worse: Future, 60%, Present: 30%, Past: 10%.) What do you think is the ideal profile and why?