Effective leaders live in the present, plan for the future and learn from the past. That concept sounds simple, but allocating the time in one’s mind to accomplish this is easier said than done. Human nature is being anywhere but in the present. Too many people find themselves stuck in the past dwelling on bad stuff that happened to them or actions they took that they now regret, or how good the good old days used to be. Others find themselves constantly thinking about the future; “As soon as I win the lottery, things will be different” or “As soon as the employees embrace this program our profits will soar!” There are many ways to be focused on the past, present or future, and anytime you are thinking about the past or the future, you are not living in the present. For leaders, that can be a problem.
There are times when you need to spend time in the past. Experience is the best teacher and experience takes place in the past. Reflective thought is very much a part of the learning process, therefore, leaders do need to reflect on the past to learn and evolve. The key is how much time one spends in reflective thought and what one spends time thinking about. Both positive and negative experiences and people provide learning opportunities. The important thing is to not get stuck spending too much time in reflective thought, particularly negative reflective thought about the past.
Being focused on the future is the other end of the spectrum. Reflective thought includes the future, mentally piecing various schemes together and predicting various outcomes. Leaders always need to be focused on the future as leadership is all about moving toward some future goal or objective. The key once again is balancing the amount of time of mentally being in the future as compared to being in the present. Effective leadership must balance the time spent in the past, present and future.
Psychologists John Boyd and Philip Zimbardo conducted a study to discover the time perspectives that people spend their time engaged thinking about. Their research suggests that the time perspective that individuals spend the greatest amount of time contemplating has a significant influence on their behavior.
The time perspectives they identified were: 1) past-positive, 2) past-negative, 3) present-hedonistic, 4) present-fatalistic and 5) future. A past-positive time perspective is a warm and sentimental attitude toward events that occurred in the past. A past-negative time perspective includes “bad things,” that happened in the past, but also includes a negative perspective of the past like, “I should have done things differently” or “I missed out on that opportunity.” The past-negative time perspective may or may not include actual negative events, the key is that the thought process is negative. The present-hedonistic time perspective reflects an attitude of live for today, don’t worry about tomorrow; consequences in the future are disregarded for pleasure now. A present-fatalistic time perspective is an attitude of helplessness or a lack of hope. The future time perspective, as the name suggests, is oriented to the future, suggesting an attitude of perseverance and self-discipline to strive for goals to be achieved at a later point in time.
Boyd and Zimbardo concluded that balancing time between the past, present and future is the key to psychological and physical well-being. Balance is defined as the mental ability to switch between time periods as needed and not spend too much time in any one time period. A focus on the future provides the opportunity for achievement, a positive focus on the past provides an establishment of core values and worldview and a focus on the present provides happiness and fulfillment along with the nourishment of life and living. The flexibility to move between the past, present and future and balancing the amount of time spent in each segment is essential to effective leadership.
Leaders need to be aware of where they spend their time mentally. A minimal amount of time should be spent on negative people and events of the past, yet it is important to learn from those negative people and events. Reflective thought is essential to learning and evolving as a leader. A leader who spends too much time in the past or the future will experience an impact on his or her effectiveness in the present. I recommend leaders spend about 20% of their time in the past-positive time perspective, about 20% of their time in the future time perspective, about half of their time in the present-hedonistic time perspective and less than 10% of their time in past-negative and present-fatalistic time perspectives.
So where do you spend your thinking time?