Perception of Time: How Its Assessment Can Create Meaningful Change
Iva Lloyd, ND
How many times have you heard the sayings, “I don’t have enough time,” “I’m too busy,” “I need more time,” or other similar remarks? What I find interesting about these statements is that, at least in vertical time, everyone, irrespective of age, money, status, education, or occupation, has the same 24 hours, 7 days a week. Yet, we speak about time as if it is something that can be negotiated or acquired. In the world of physics and energetics, there is discussion about the relative nature of time, of time travel, and of the space-time continuum.1,2 For this paper we are going to focus on the more conventional notions of time, such as the 24 hours in a day, and the concepts of past, present and future.
Exploring how you view time is beneficial, especially when it is impacting your ability to move forward and when you feel that you are not achieving what you desire but don’t know why. Modifying how we perceive or spend our time may be the missing answer to solving a number of psychological and physical concerns and to addressing issues around treatment compliance. This paper will discuss concepts of time, including vertical vs horizontal time, mental vs physical time, and up-time vs down-time. It will review ways to assess a patient’s perception of time and how to perceive and use time differently.
Concepts of Time
Vertical vs Horizontal Time
Vertical time relates to the here and now. It is a way of exploring how a person perceives and spends his or her time on a daily basis. Vertical time explores how a person lives in the present. For some, the concept of vertical time is narrow and reflects this very moment; for others, it is viewed more broadly and encompasses yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or even the current week. For the sake of this paper, we are going to view the more expanded sense of vertical time. How people view vertical time is a reflection of what they get done in a given day, their routines, their habits, how they spend time on an ongoing basis.
Indeed, the most tangible evidence of the progression of time is the physical fact of our own aging.
Horizontal time relates to the chronological aspect of a person’s life. It is what calendars, history, and chronological age are based upon. It is the accepted belief that there is a past, present, and future – that we are born, progress through a life that is measureable in years, with key milestones such as puberty, getting married, having children, moving up in a career, getting old, and eventually dying. There is a linear progression to each person’s life. Although everyone has a past, present, and future, not everyone perceives them in the same way. If you think of horizontal time as a timeline, the divisions of time are not the same for everyone. For some, last week or last month are mentally similar to the present, whereas for others they seem very far away. Same goes for the future: Some people always feel rushed as the next month approaches, whereas others, especially those that tend to procrastinate, have a sense that next month is very far away. There are some that live in the past and continually dwell on something that happened. Others focus so much on the future that they miss the here and now. How a person views horizontal time is reflected in the degree to which they focus on the past, present, or future. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a field of psychology that puts a lot of focus on assessing horizontal time and recognizing the link between the aspect of time that individuals focus on and how they live their lives.
Mental vs Physical Time
Mental time relates to the mind and what it focuses on, both consciously and subconsciously. Mental time includes what a person talks and thinks about, the choices of words used, and the tone of those words.
Physical time is about a person’s daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. It’s about the list of things that we do at home, work, and play. It involves our habits, hobbies, and lifestyle behaviors. Although physical time is about what we are doing in the here and now, it can reflect activities that are focused on the past or on the future. For example, goal-setting, saving money, or implementing healthy changes are often done with the future in mind. Spending time addressing unresolved issues or conflicts are about addressing the past. How people spend their physical time often highlights the disconnect between what they want and what they do. For example, many people continually struggle with weight loss. If they perceive that the future is far away, they are more likely to delay implementing that new exercise routine or eating well, as there is “lots of time.” The same phenomenon applies to saving money. How a person saves money reflects their perception of the future. Those people that feel that time is rushing forward and there isn’t a lot of time are more likely to save compared to those who don’t. Those that feel that they are young and that there is plenty of time are more likely to spend now, with the idea that there will be enough time “in the future.”
How a person spends his or her mental time and physical time are not always the same. Most people are most productive and have a greater degree of satisfaction and achievement when their mental time and physical time match.
Up-time vs Down-time
Up-time is when people are awake and actively doing something. Tracking up-time is very similar to tracking physical-time. Down-time reflects the transition between different tasks, and reflects how people view rest. Assessing down-time is a great way of identifying non-productive and wasted time. For many people, down-time involves sitting in front of a computer or a television and “numbing out.” The concern with this concept of down-time is 2-fold: first, it is often a waste of time; and second, activities like this do not give the senses a break. When patients experience fatigue or difficulties sleeping, it’s often valuable to explore what they do in their down-time and how that reflects the body’s ability to truly relax and move into parasympathetic mode.
Assessment of Time
The assessment of a person’s concept of time involves primarily 2 steps: assessing both vertical and horizontal time, and assessing mental vs physical time. Some techniques for assessing time include the following…
Eavesdropping on the Mind
Eavesdropping on the mind involves assessing a person’s mental time. It determines how much time is focused on the past, present, or future, and whether the person’s mental-talk is healthy or destructive. There is often a disconnect between what people desire and what they focus on. For example, many people are frustrated because they are not achieving what they want in life, and they have a sense that they are not moving forward, yet much of their mental focus involves dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
Eavesdropping on the mind involves paying attention to how a person speaks, both verbally and internally. Verb tenses such as “talked,” “experienced,” “did,” “had,” etc, indicate the past, whereas terms such as “talk,” “experiencing,” “doing,” and “have” indicate the present, and terms such as “will talk,” “will experience,” “will be doing,” and “will have” indicate a future focus. Is their language positive or negative? Do they use words and phrases such as “I can’t,” “I’m an idiot,” and “I’ll never,” or, do they speak and think more positively with phrases such as “I’m going to,” “I’m good at,” “That was good,” etc? Positive thinking has been proven to have many health benefits, including achieving higher income and personal success, a stronger sense of purpose in life, more mindfulness, higher rates of life satisfaction, as well as decreased rates of depression and physical symptoms.3
Procrastination is the thief of time.
(Edward Young; 1683-1765)
Generally, before patients make any changes, it is valuable to know how they currently spend their time. Awareness is a key step that many patients and practitioners rush through. I encourage patients to spend time tracking their daily activities, writing out what they intend to accomplish on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and then to reflect back on how accurate they were.
Some of the things to be looking for include:
- The degree to which patients are overextended with commitments, and how many of their commitments are linked to what they want to accomplish
- How patients spend their down-time
- What activities get done and in what order, eg, those that focus on self-care and that further their personal desires, vs those that are carried out for others
- Whether a patient wastes a lot of time or is productive
- Understanding what activities in life drain patients, what energizes them, and what preoccupies their mental and physical time
Tracking activities works well as a starting place for assessing and changing lifestyle habits and how a person spends present time.
When people are not satisfied with their lives, there is often a tendency to want to change things. There is nothing wrong with that, but unless you know that what you are doing isn’t working and you figure out what specifically needs to change, doing something else doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to being satisfied or achieving more.
Inquire about past issues that occupy patients’ time and their future plans. Ask about time-management skills and whether or not they set goals. Do they reflect on what works or what doesn’t work in their lives? What are their coping skills when things don’t go well or as planned? What is their degree of self-regulation and self-motivation? This form of assessment is indicated when people seem dissatisfied with their lives and feel that they are not achieving what they thought they would. This is more of a personal assessment of skills, and it can require deep soul-searching. Reflecting on your life and the personal skills that you use to move through life is a great exercise for everyone, especially in a hectic life. Change will always happen, but helping to direct that change in your life takes dedicated time, reflection, and planning.
Deciding on the ideal treatment technique for a given patient depends on what was discovered in the assessment of time. The goal is to find a bridge between what patients are currently doing and what they would like to achieve in the future. For example, if they are spending too much mental time on the past, at the expense of the future, then the treatment techniques would focus on shifting their mental activities from past to future. If, on the other hand, patients are so busy planning for the future that they are missing out on the present, than the focus would be on increasing mindfulness and a way to enjoy and focus more on the present. Often, the awareness that comes from a thorough assessment is enough to create change in the desired direction. Some specific techniques include the following…
Scheduling time is beneficial when people find that they are physically busy but that their utilization of time is not helping them to achieve their goals, or there is too much wasted time. Both mental time and daily activities can be planned and tracked. There is merit to mindfulness and the notion of living in the present, but if the past is “dragging you down” or you are not achieving what you want as quickly as you desire, it probably indicates that you need to shift the amount of time you are spending in each area. I encourage people to schedule a set period of time to plan for the future or to address issues from the past. I find that dwelling on the past or future becomes an issue when there are no boundaries, when thinking about them takes over a person’s life. As a general rule of thumb, I encourage people to sit down and reflect on their goals for a couple of hours on a monthly basis, and once or twice a year for a longer period of time. The amount of time that is required to deal with the past is very individual. There are times, often during a crisis, when the past will be all-consuming, but generally I find that when people set aside time specifically to deal with the past, versus letting it consume them, they are more productive in both their present life and in addressing past concerns.
The old saying, “Whatever gets measured gets done,”4 holds merit even today. The key to scheduling time is to ensure that you are measuring what really matters. In the assessment phase you may have measured all activities; however, in the treatment phase it is best to measure primarily what you want to achieve. For some, that may be a simple as tracking how much water they drink on a daily basis; for others it may involve planning and tracking activities that focus on self-care or exercise. It may involve tracking the number of times people say or think something, or it may involve a more detailed schedule of personal growth or change.
Planning and tracking results is an effective way of keeping the focus on what you want to achieve. John E. Jones, a leadership trainer, states “What gets measured gets done. What gets measured and fed back gets done well. What gets rewarded gets repeated.” The importance of spending time reflecting on what you set out for yourself is key to sustaining change.
Changing One’s Perception of Time
Often, before any technique works for you, you need to change how you perceive time, especially horizontal time.5 Steve and Connirae Andreas, 2 of the early pioneers of NLP, explain in their book, Change Your Mind and Keep the Change, how to determine a person’s perception of horizontal time by thinking of a simple, daily activity – such as brushing one’s teeth – in the past, present, and future, and noticing the differences in those perceptions. For some, the past is very clear and the future is not, whereas for others, the present is clear but it is difficult to perceive the past or the future. What people are paying attention to is where people perceive their past, their present, and their future, as well as the degree of clarity or brightness of each. Although there is no right or wrong, it is common for the past to be perceived either behind a person, or up and to the left. It is common for the future to be perceived in front of a person, or up and to the right. What you are paying attention to are the non-verbal clues such as the amount of detail, transparency, brightness, focus, and color.5
Some people are actually missing aspects of their timeline. The biggest group is composed of people who can’t perceive a future. What is common with these people is that they often struggle with trying to manifest their goals. NLP has some wonderful techniques for working with timelines and teaching patients how to adjust their perception of time and, hence, their manifestation of how they live their lives.
Goal-Setting and Self-Regulation
The focus over the last 10 years or so has been on living in the present. What has been lost is the importance of goal-setting and dealing with past issues. Recognizing the need to plan ahead and properly set goals is a way of managing time. Goal-setting has been shown to play a significant role in changing behaviors associated with health, especially in adults.6 For goals to be effective, they require at least 3 components: cognitive awareness (eg, making plans), affective connection (eg, felt sense or attachment to the goal), and behavioral change (eg, expenditure of effort in a new way).7,10
It is difficult to achieve what you can’t perceive. Spending time daydreaming and planning for the future is important, especially when you compare your future goals to your current state and they seem far apart. The impact of daydreaming falls under the Fantasy Realization Theory, which states that contrasting future goals or fantasies with the present reality often leads to productive change and stronger goal-commitment compared to daydreaming without comparison.8
Many people think of time as something they can acquire more of, versus focusing on the self-regulation of this finite entity. Research shows that those that have the strongest self-regulation skills (ie, they can control their impulses) are better at solving tasks, don’t get bored as quickly, and are better at resisting temptation.9 Inhibiting impulsive thoughts and behaviors is an essential part of mental development and is one of the main changes over the course of a person’s lifetime that contributes to the development of the self.10 Not developing this skill will impact the person throughout his or her life. For example, the inability to emotionally regulate is strongly linked with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) behavior throughout a person’s life,11 and is associated with decreased life satisfaction, achievement of goals, lower self-esteem, increased physical symptoms, and decreased life expectancy. Conversely, the ability to achieve health goals is correlated with self-regulatory skills,12 which can be developed over time.13 Delay of gratification is linked with self-regulation and is a measure of a person’s ability to wait for a bigger reward down the road or to choose a lesser reward today. Research indicates that a child’s academic performance at 14 and 27 years of age, as well as his level of sociability, are strongly correlated to the ability to delay gratification at 4 years of age.14
With current-day social media and consumerism, there is little practice available in the art of anticipation or the value of waiting. It is all about the NOW. New research is starting to question whether or not social media is stunting social interactions, attachments, and levels of personal achievement, especially in adolescents.15 In the last 10 years, the average attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to 5 minutes.16 In Bruce Hood’s book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, he quotes Dana Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft, who referred to the World Wide Web as the “psychological equivalent to obesity,” and social media as “information junk food.”17 When tracking physical time and down-time, it is valuable to focus on how much time is spent on social media and what outcome(s) are achieved.
Language of Time
Changing how you handle time does not only involve doing things differently; it also involves saying things differently. The intentional use of verb tenses can assist patients in achieving desired outcomes.18 For example, using future verb tenses assist a person in being more future-focused. Example: “When you become more patient with your children, they will behave better,” versus a sentence like, “When you get upset with your children, they misbehave.” Patients can be subconsciously confused when the verb tense is inconsistent with the message. This second example can actually program a person to maintain the destructive behavior.18
The focus of NLP and other mindfulness exercises is to first change the way a person speaks, with the realization that behavior follows thoughts and words.
For patients who feel that change is elusive, a great way to approach the problem is to focus on the perception and utilization of time. Discovering how one perceives time and the numerous variables around time opens up new avenues for achieving what one desires. There is value in spending time in the past, present, and future. The aim is to make those choices consciously, ie, to know what one is doing on the mental and physical level at all times.
Iva Lloyd, ND, RPP, is a naturopathic doctor, registered polarity practitioner, and educator and Reiki master. In 2002 she founded Naturopathic Foundations, a clinic with 5 naturopathic doctors. In 2011 she established www.ndhealthfacts.org – a website that focuses on identifying the causes of diseases and natural treatment options. Dr Lloyd is the author of 4 books. She also teaches part-time at CCNM, writes for various journals and magazines, and gives seminars on naturopathic assessment, the psychological aspects of health and disease, and the energetics of health. She is editor of the Vital Link – the journal for the CAND – and sits on the editorial boards for the Natural Medicine Journal and the International Journal of Naturopathic Medicine. She is Past-Chair of CAND and current Interim President of the World Naturopathic Federation.
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- Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, et al. Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008;95(5):1045-1062.
- Williamson RM. What Gets Measured Gets Done: Are you measuring what really matters? 2006. Strategic Work Systems, Inc Web site. http://www.swspitcrew.com/articles/What%20Gets%20Measured%201106.pdf. Accessed February 15, 2015.
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- Shilts MK, Horowitz M, Townsend MS. Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: a review of the literature. Am J Health Promot. 2004:19(2):81-93.
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