Past, present, future: How to heal your relationship with time

Most of us have felt out of control these past two years, particularly with our time. Somehow, the days seemed to both slow down and speed up at the same time.

More than 80% of participants in a U.K. study said social distancing altered their perception of time in some way. Professor Adrian Bardon explains, in an interview with Vox, that repetitive, obsessive, negative thoughts can make time feel like it’s crawling. Because we are also having to juggle so many changes and adapt to a new normal, it can feel like nothing is being accomplished.

The pandemic isn’t the only moment where we lack control of our time, though. When we leap into tasks just for the sake of finishing them, it can lead to a scarcity mindset. Whether it’s time for sleep, fun, the people we love, or even a breath, modern living seems to strip us of time.

On top of that, most of us who are familiar with mindfulness strive to “be present.” The concept involves being fully aware and participating in what’s happening at the moment—whether good, bad, or neutral—from the company you keep to your breath to every action and sensation you are experiencing.

While being aware of the present is supportive of healthy functioning, focusing solely on the present robs us of the past and the future. Being mindfully present isn’t a cure-all. Our relationship with time is a lot more complicated than that. For optimum mental fitness, we need to master our past, present, and future.

The past

We engage with the past when we remember, reflect, and draw wisdom from it. However, our past can also haunt us in vulnerable moments, like when we beat ourselves up or relive traumatic moments right down to the sights, smells, and sounds. There are things we go out of our way to avoid because we simply cannot face them.

How to reflect on the past: Ask yourself, does my past own me, or am I able to look at it with a mixture of wisdom and gratitude?

How to heal: Body-based therapy can help with trauma, as well as journaling and reflecting for closure. Putting yourself in a controlled environment where you feel psychologically safe (best with the support of a trained professional) can teach your mind and body that you’re able to regulate yourself so you stop avoiding a certain situation.

The present

Remember the last time you were so distracted you missed out on huge chunks of a conversation? Then reverse it, and visualize the last time you were completely immersed in something, down to every sensation. That’s the power of the present moment.

Many of us numb ourselves with anything from work to substances to socialization, just to avoid sitting with ourselves or becoming bored. Mindfulness isn’t simply about experiencing rapturous bliss or enlightenment. It’s also about being comfortable sitting alone in dull moments.

And then there is flow. Unlike mindfulness, which is about being aware of your internal and external experiences, flow is a state of total immersion where time flies by. Your action and awareness merge, and you feel a sense of control and reward. Notably, recent research by psychology professor Kate Sweeney found that those who dealt best with quarantine had found the most flow.

How to reflect on the present: Ask yourself, Can I sit with my own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment? Am I OK with being bored?

How to heal: Learn to sit with your boredom. Become comfortable with the thoughts popping in and out of your head, and be OK with not always feeling OK. Know that life isn’t just about joy, pleasure, or avoiding what we often consider negative feelings (sadness, anxiety, frustration, etc.). Engage in activities that allow you to access the state of flow.

The future

Taoist philosophy says what we mistake for good fortune is really discerning planning. By considering different paths toward the future, we can tweak different variables to get there. Similarly, founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman says that the key difference between optimists and pessimists isn’t having a Pollyannaish view of the world. Instead, it’s about knowing that misfortune is changeable and taking the steps to regain control. On the flip side, anxiety is living life in constant fear of the future.

How to reflect on the future: Ask yourself, Can I see myself enjoying the mundane and having the ability to experience joy and excitement in the future? Do I have discerning plans that incorporate contingencies because life happens? Or is my future predominantly about both real and imagined anxieties?

How to heal: Have realistic plans for your future, and work toward them so you can create a sense of stability to explore and thrive. If you’re feeling anxious, seek out the support of a trained professional who can help you master your anxiety and leverage your neural wiring to serve you.

Bottom line

As the year moves into what we collectively hope will be a better one, one way to master your time is to plan your year ahead. It could start simply with your intention for 2022. What word or words encapsulate it? Draw your year into quarters, and ask yourself what you’d like from them. Then, narrow this down into the different months.

Every month has different demands on your resources like energy and time. For instance, December is typically a month when people wind down, sleep more, and spend more due to festivities. Plan the months where you’ll need more rest before the hectic or active ones so they won’t creep up on you. And with an awareness of how to allocate your resources, your experience of past, present, and future during these times will be considerably smoother.