Everyone knows about introvert verusus extrovert, but there’s another axis on our approach to life that makes a much bigger difference. It’s present-focused versus future-focused.
Some people are mostly focused on the present moment. They live for today and do what feels good right now.
Some people are mostly focused on the future. They use today as a stepping-stone and do what’s best for their future self.
I learned about this from the book “Time Paradox” by legendary psychology professor Phil Zimbardo, and it blew my mind. It helped me understand these people that seemed crazy to me, before. It also helped me understand why I act the way I do.
Check out these examples:
- … pursue pleasure, excitement, and novelty.
- They focus on immediate gratification, and especially appreciate life, nature, and the people around them.
- They’re playful, impulsive, and sensual.
- They avoid anything boring, difficult, or repetitive.
- They get fully immersed in the moment and aren’t as concerned with the time.
- They’re more likely to use drugs and alcohol.
- They’re better at helping others than helping themselves.
- … delay gratification.
- They’re driven with self-discipline because they vividly see their future goal.
- They tend to live in their minds, picturing other selves, scenarios, and possible futures.
- They especially love their work.
- They exercise, invest, and go for preventative health exams.
- They’re more likely to be successful in their career, but often at the expense of personal relationships, which require a present focus.
- They’re better at helping themselves, but worse at helping others.
When challenged to solve a maze puzzle quickly, present-focused people immediately began drawing with their pencil from the start, moving forward through the maze. Future-focused people didn’t move at first, but looked for the end then worked backwards to the starting point. (The future-focused people always won.) There’s a good metaphor in there.
Your time-focus is environmental. People who grow up in unstable places are more present-focused because it’s harder to imagine the future. People who grow up in cold climates are more future-focused because they prepare for the winter.
Your time-focus can change in an instant. If you ask a present-focused person to describe their ultimate career, then write down the steps to achieve those goals, their focus will change to the future. If you ask a future-focused person to name every background sound they can hear, or where their body is touching their chair, their focus will change to the present.
Your values change your focus. Being in love or making art pushes someone towards a present-focus. Ambition pushes someone towards a future-focus.
Both are necessary. You need a present-focus to enjoy life. But too much present-focus can prevent the deeper happiness of achivement.
I wish all this was part of a common understanding, like how we understand when extroverts want to go out for excitement, and introverts want to stay home with a book.
It even helps me understand myself when I’m acting out of character. If I’m acting too undisciplined I realize it’s because I’ve stopped vividly seeing my future. I can only see the present. If I’m acting too disconnected I realize it’s because I’m obsessed with my goals. I can only see the future.
I hope you find the idea as useful as I have.Time Paradox