Time orientation is yet another problem with self-discipline. Some of us are present-oriented – this will not serve you well because you won’t be able to act in the best interests of future you. Others of us are future-oriented – we think about what we want in the future and work backward to create it. This perspective meshes much better with self-discipline. In the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the diligent ant is future-oriented and survives the winter, while the hedonistic grasshopper is present-oriented and starves.
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Another influence on the level of self-discipline we have in our lives involves our relationship with time – not in the sense of scheduling or “making time,” but how we reflect, act, and react with the notions of past, present, and future.
With time orientation, in Stanford Professor Phil Zimbardo’s (the professor best known for the Stanford prison experiment) book The Time Paradox, it is theorized that each of us can view time in one of three ways: past, present, and future. Our psyches tend to frame our experience using whatever orientation we’re most acclimated to. Put simply, there are actual differences between those of us who are mired in nostalgia, versus those who are continually looking for the next step in life.
Whatever time orientation our mindset reflects relates to how we expect and plan for rewards, which feeds into how self-disciplined we may be. More specifically, our attitudes toward the present and future come squarely into play.
The past-oriented person makes all of their decisions from historical information or recall, and by definition they are generally separated from current situations or events. People stuck in the past don’t have much use for the new and different, regarding them with suspicion, disdain, or even prejudice. Their thinking is almost inactive – which is not conducive to self-discipline. They will say, “Well, this is what I did in the past, so I’ll just keep doing that.” However, this type of thought is extremely rare, and we will spend more time on future- and present-oriented people.
Someone who focuses on the present lives primarily in “the now.” They react most powerfully to what their senses are showing them at the moment. They tend to be very concrete in their thinking, choosing to orient themselves toward “what is” rather than what happened in the past or what could happen in the future. The “present” mindset can be broken down even further into two distinct camps: those who embrace the possibilities of the present (we’ll call them “hedonists”) and those who don’t like the present but feel they have no other choice but to live in it (we’ll call them “fatalists”).
The present-hedonistic person finds opportunities in the current time and is happy to indulge in what’s happening around them now. They’re the ones who go to parties, embrace adventures in unfamiliar places, or interact with society on an ongoing basis. They’re happy to take risks and don’t necessarily care too much about the consequences (or have plans to mitigate the results if they have to).
The present-fatalist person doesn’t really want to be focused on the present, but they don’t feel the future holds anything for them. They sense that somebody or something else – whether it’s their social circle, financial realities, religion, or “luck” – is in control of their lives and consider the whole game of existence to be “rigged.” Their expectations and hopes have been dashed, and they don’t feel any need to work for the future because they don’t believe they have one.
What both of the present mindsets have in common is their attitude toward gratification. Since the past and the future don’t come to mind, all that matters is momentary and fleeting pleasure. Both hedonists and fatalists are oriented toward the notion of instant gratification.
Which one of these present mindsets is more suited to the process of building self-discipline? Neither of them.
Self-discipline and instant gratification are opposing ideas. Self-discipline confers what instant gratification can never bring about: patience, restraint, full understanding, planning, responsibility. When you’re oriented toward immediate reward, none of those other things matter.
This is an appropriate time to invoke the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Briefly speaking, the ant worked long and hard all year and never faltered from storing food and preparing for winter. The ant always knew what would matter in the long-term. The grasshopper, however, only did enough to get by day to day and didn’t think about the winter. He only thought about maximizing his pleasure in the moment. When winter came, the ants fared just fine, if not annoyed at eating the same thing for months on end. The grasshopper starved from a lack of preparation.
Present-oriented people are the grasshopper, while future-oriented people are ants. And you can guess which time orientation is more conducive to self-discipline.
Those with future mindsets frame their lives differently. They aren’t bound strictly to what the present has to offer (or deny) them. They are able to disconnect from it; concrete and empirical reality doesn’t bind them. They focus on the future with all its distant possibilities and consequences.
The future-oriented first think about the outcome they want, then work backward to how their actions create it. They do so without the distractions of the present. And even though they frequently work with abstract ideas and no guarantee of positive results, they still organize their thoughts and actions toward fulfillment of some future goal.
In other words, the future-oriented have no problem with delayed gratification. They don’t need instant affirmation or reward for their efforts. They understand that what’s most important to them might take a little time to develop. Sometimes that means working in something that feels like a vacuum (or might seem like a vacuum to someone living in the present). But all it means is that the futurist is willing to forsake immediate satisfaction now for a more fulfilling and meaningful satisfaction later – possibly.
That mindset is perfectly suited to someone with strong self-discipline. The futurist develops patience as a plank of their long-range planning. They keep the greater goal in mind rather than the annoyances that eventually get them there. This meshes well with other research on the matter showing that thinking about a literal future version of you is helpful in adhering to habits and accomplishing goals.
Let’s talk about this in terms of baseball. Most, if not all, baseball teams are under immense pressure from owners and fans to win now, which leads them to trade away some of their minor-league prospects for proven players who might be able to lead them to the promised land for a season or two. Sometimes it works, and the team makes the playoffs or might even win a championship. But they don’t stay on top for too long because they dealt away too many of their future players for the one big gun that will help them win next week.
But some teams – most recently the Houston Astros – spend a few years taking their lumps with players they developed with an eye toward the future. Their process was so unusual that Sports Illustrated did a cover story on the Astros in 2014: “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Your 2017 World Series Champs.” The Astros wanted to build a core of great players that could help them contend on an annual basis, not just in a one-and-done scenario where they have a one- or two-year window.
So they built up their farm system (their minor-league developing players) to sharpen and develop their skills, keeping them together through years of patience and losing, before they finally bloomed into a contending team with players they didn’t cast off for the big shiny object. This set them back considerably in the short-term but paid off in the end. It required great discipline to not give in to temptations to stem the short-term pain.
Such teams are built for long periods of success, and for the Astros, it brought them a World Series championship – in the year 2017, exactly as SI had predicted.
It should be noted most of us are a blend of present and future-oriented thinking. This means that we end up with two distinct selves that we have to attend to and keep satisfied. They are quite aptly summed up with the hedonist grasshopper (present) and blue-collar ant (future) from earlier. If you compromise the two equally, it results in an ant that takes breaks while diligently working toward a goal and the grasshopper that realizes that discomfort is required in life. That’s really the best we can expect in everyday life.
The concept of time orientations should force you to consider and skew your view toward the future. Future you is trying to build a foundation for their success. He’s the one that has your best interests in mind. Self-discipline is an irreplaceable part of that foundation.