You’ll hear me and many planners say that we want people to enjoy today and prepare for tomorrow. It’s easy to see why both are important – focus too much on today and you won’t do things to secure your future; focus excessively on tomorrow and you sacrifice too much current happiness. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking and talking about this with clients, so I figured that meant that my balance between now and later was in good shape. That is until I learned about a tool called the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) that showed me my perspective was about as balanced as the federal budget.
The ZTPI was designed by Philip Zimbardo who, among other things, has served as the President of the American Psychological Association. His research has shown that people generally have five different attitudes toward time:
Past-positive: View the past positively; things that have worked in the past are believed to work again in the future.
Past-negative: View the past negatively; past is viewed as a guideline for what to avoid in the future.
Present-fatalist: View the future as “come what may”, believing they have little ability to control it.
Present-hedonistic: Heavily focus on the present and what is enjoyable today; immediate gratification.
Future-oriented: Heavily focus on the future; very willing to delay gratification for future payoff.
People exhibit all of these attitudes at points in their lives; however, they might default to some more than others. Because each attitude is correlated with certain types of behavior, being too firmly tied to one can be detrimental. Let’s take two examples: a person on vacation and a person buying a home. The present-hedonistic person would easily be able to enjoy the vacation and wouldn’t be worried about things like emails piling up back at work, while the future-oriented person might be so worried about the emails they can’t enjoy the vacation. When buying a home, the future-oriented person would likely choose a home they could afford because they would be focused on the future payments, while the present-hedonist might be more focused on the house that makes them the happiest, versus the one that fits in their budget.
To ideally balance happiness between today and tomorrow, we need to shift gears between attitudes that best suits our situation; a more hedonistic attitude during the vacation and a more future-oriented attitude when buying a home. When we let one attitude dominate our thinking and apply it to every decision, that’s when our happiness can be skewed too far in one direction.
In the ZTPI, you are asked to evaluate 60 brief statements on a scale of “very untrue” to “very true”. Answers indicate how influenced you are by each time attitude. You can see your results compared to others and compared to Zimbardo’s ideal score for each category.
Now, on to my scores. Remember, I thought I had this nailed because I’m all about “life balance”. Wrong! It turned out my score for future orientation was in the 99th percentile and the 10th percentile for present-hedonistic. I wasn’t surprised that I was high on the future side, I do have the word “planner” in my job title, but the extent to which I was prioritizing the future over my current happiness stunned me. Then I started to read the typical qualities and behaviors of a future-oriented individual: “focus is on…logical analysis…concern for the consequences…endure unpleasant current situations that have the potential for positive future outcomes…tend to be health conscious…flossing teeth.” I’m thinking, hey this all sounds pretty good, and how do they know I floss religiously? Then I get to the downsides “unable to enjoy present…activities and experiences…they do not allow natural acts…to occur without concern for controlling it.” Yikes. “Set up for mid-life crises”. YIKES!
As jarring as it was to read this, it was also eye-opening. I just assumed I had been giving enough attention to my “today self”. Realizing that maybe I was too focused on the future was powerful because it enabled me to do something about it. I discussed the results with my husband (after he took the survey too) and we decided to do some things that would make us happy now: finish the basement, buy more Reds tickets, take a longer vacation. At first, allowing myself to enjoy these pleasures and taking my ever-present eye off the future felt a little uneasy but I just had to keep telling myself “it’s better than a mid-life crisis!”
The ZTPI showed me that what I thought I was doing and what I was actually doing weren’t the same. Take a few minutes and get your results. Maybe you’ll find that your time perspective is already well-balanced. If not, I hope it will instigate change so that realizing your financial balance is only a matter of time.