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Our relationship with time impacts willingness to work for a shared future

People's perception of time is becoming increasingly condensed into the present moment. What does that mean and how does it impact our future?


Sari Laine

Senior Lead, Nature and daily life

Lotta Toivonen

Specialist, Nature and daily life

Sharon Greene

Co-founder, Alice Labs

Oskar Korkman

Co-founder, Alice Labs


The often-cited reason for why we do not make choices that are smart in the long run is being too busy. Many feel that the present moment has become increasingly short-sighted and fast-paced, and the lack of time is a constant struggle. This idea (short termism) has been increased by technological transformation, capitalism and the quartile economy. Instead of long-term outcomes and far-reaching actions, priority is being given to quickly implemented projects and short-term results.

At the same time, we are encountering long-term challenges of an unprecedented scale. Solving the current sustainability crisis requires us to quickly make long-term changes to our way of life in order to ensure the prerequisites of a good life for future generations.

Issue mentioned above raises the question of how a better understanding of people’s perceptions of time can promote a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles.

What is our relationship with time and how does it impact our ability and desire to work for a better future?

Inspired by these questions, the Nature and daily life -project commissioned in the autumn of 2023 a study on people’s changing relationship with time. The objective was to understand how a changing relationship with time impacts attitudes towards the future. It was clearly highlighted in the interviews that the interviewees’ perception of time is changing and specifically becoming condensed into the present moment.

Changing perception of time -study

In the autumn of 2023 , the Nature and daily life project commissioned a policy paper on people’s changing relationship with time. The objective was to understand how the changing relationship with time impacts attitudes towards the future. We also wanted to investigate how different perceptions of time impact the way we want to act for a shared future.

The study was commissioned to provide background for the work of Nature and daily life project. The results of the study will be utilised during the spring in a development group, which will focus on imagining a good and sustainable future.

The study was realised by interviewing 15 people from different parts of Finland. They were asked questions related to the use of time in relation to current phenomena. The study was commissioned by Sitra and carried out by the consulting company Alice Labs.

Discussions with the interviewees concerned their experiences of daily life, focusing on six areas: consumption, technology, work and finances, human relationships, society and politics, and nature.

It was clearly highlighted in the interviews that the interviewees’ perception of time is changing and specifically becoming condensed into the present moment. Instead of creating images of the future, people rather focus their thoughts and activities on the present moment and friends and family.

How is the perception of time changing?

The belief in the constant progress of humankind has been a key pillar of modern thinking. According to this idea, the history and development of humankind is defined by constant progress towards improvement. This leads to a hopeful and clear vision of the future.

However, this logic of progress is currently in crisis.

Threat scenarios, such as the climate crisis, war and the poor economic outlook make the future increasingly uncertain. Based on the interviews, as threats and uncertainty increase, people focus more on the present than on the future.

9 reasons for why time is condensing to the present moment:

1. Experience of uncertainty

War, climate change, financial worries, refuge crises and pandemics increase the uncertainty, anxiety and powerlessness that people experience. At the same time, there is little trust in societal and political decisions, while daily life overshadowed by threat scenarios and crises becomes normalised. An increasing number of people protect themselves from these threats and crises by focusing on the present moment and their own lives.

“I feel like maybe you rather retreat into your own foxhole and look for an identity through consumption and Netflix series and not show interest in politics” (Man, 45)

2. Individualism

The heightened role of individualism in society, along with the related attitudes and expectations, make it difficult to set shared goals, such as mitigating climate change. Obtaining an overview of shared future is often considered nearly impossible, because people are seen as selfish and unwilling to think about others.

However, this does not mean that people only focus on themselves. The interviews clearly demonstrated that personal and family matters, for example, create a sense of responsibility and motivate agency.

3. The lack of convincing and relatable visions of the future

While the crises and threat scenarios are felt as very severe, it is seen that there is little societal and political ability to solve them. The interviewees were critical of external images of the future because they often feel disconnected from daily reality, which estranges people from them.

    At worst, different types of attempts to “enlighten” people using advertising or other communications, such as about climate change or a healthier lifestyle, is seen as intrusive and even demeaning.

    “Why is it that in politics these days they just argue with each other over there. Especially now, when there is a war in Europe and we don’t know what our Eastern neighbor will do. It feels simply awful to me that there is this constant arguing in parliament.” (Woman, 63)

    4. Working life norms and requirements

    The efficiency paradigm that prevails in working life makes work an endless series of tasks to be completed. This constant job of putting out fires often feels very taxing, which leads to short-sightedness and rapid decision-making. Short-sightedness can easily spread to other parts of daily life and for example have an impact on consumption habits.

    “How to be able to reduce [work] and have more of a say on how much time you use, to not have it be from Monday to Friday each and every week, to be able to have a greater impact on everything else and free up time for other things.” (Man, 32)

    5. Performing in different areas of life

    The efficiency mindset is increasingly having an impact on areas of life other than just working life. For example, influences taken from social media create an image of a good life that is based on achievement in various areas of life, such as the idea that vacationing must be done in a certain way. Similarly, tasks related to consumption and relationships are carried out in everyday life in the same manner as work tasks. Examples of this include buying a new blouse or having lunch with a friend.

      “It was exactly so that when you’re waiting for the bus, you eat a little something while also typing a message to someone to ask how they are doing, all at the same time.” (Woman, 28)

      6. The traditional concept of success is changing

      For a long time, success was strongly linked with financial accomplishments. Even though many still strive to be wealthy, an increasing number of people also challenge this idea of success. The slowdown of social mobility and a generally more uncertain future lead to many people finding it difficult to discover suitable ways to succeed.

        Many people prefer to focus on the present moment and find goals for themselves, such as personal well-being or having enough leisure time.

        “Perhaps the next generation has already realized that the same amount of wealth cannot be expected. They have to settle for something else, and from that stems the notion that they manage personal well-being better.” (Man, 55)

        7. Constant flood of distraction

        Distractions “restrict” our focus to the present moment and make it difficult to commit to demanding tasks. Many feel that various applications and smartphones diminish our ability to function and manage our time.

          Because of constant distractions, many people have difficulty concentrating and taking the time to think about matters thoroughly.

          “Even that [Duolingo] was so addictive that I couldn’t go to bed before I had used the app for 5 minutes. That’s when I realized that this is no longer really healthy, adult behaviour if I can’t just let go and study when I actually feel like it, and that’s why I should remove the app now.” (Woman, 37)

          8. Accessibility and ease

          When an increasing number of things are easily accessible in our daily life, accessibility and ease become self-evident. When everything works smoothly, people don’t stop to think about things, but just receive them passively and without thinking.

            When everything is always available, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to wait for something to happen in the future. The present moment becomes the time in which we live and onto which we project our expectations.

            “You stare at the device that just keeps pushing out a steady flow, which doesn’t maybe require a lot of effort from you. Of course, you will easily gravitate to something that is easier and doesn’t require effort.” (Man, 36)

            9. Personal crises and challenges in daily life

            When working life and daily life become too demanding, some will stop to reflect more closely on their own daily choices and use of time. This may lead to a more conscious way of life that more clearly prioritises choices and the use of time, instead of mere reactivity.

              However, this change does not necessarily mean that one would pay more attention to the future and societal challenges. Rather, the reflection will focus on the present moment and one’s own well-being. Many seek peace of mind from the present moment using tools like mindfulness.

              “To be able to live a life that is fairly unhurried. Of course, there will occasionally be things you have to take care of quickly, but to mainly have more time to spend with that cup of coffee and just be. Not to always be going from one place to another at full speed.”(Man, 36)

              These are the reasons why we use our time more consciously and effectively

              These changes are not occurring right now, instead they are the results of long-term developments. Based on the interviews, this is leading to a situation where time is increasingly condensing into the present moment rather than the other way around.

              The interviews demonstrate that we relate to the present moment in two different ways:

              1. More efficient use of time, which condenses the relationship with time into the present moment. Working life is demanding and life becomes a series of tasks that compete for one’s time. The perception of time is defined by performing daily tasks. The future is opaque and difficult to define due to a constant sense of urgency. Life is a series of “tasks” to perform as they come along. A sense of agency arises when performing tasks.
              2. More conscious use of time and focus on well-being lead to living in the present moment. Attitudes towards work and other requirements are more conscious and people are clearer about pursuing self-actualisation. The relationship with time is defined by flexibility and priorities in life that are important to oneself and consciously chosen. Agency is experienced through the feeling of better time management. Objectives are loose and focused on one’s own well-being.

              The direction towards a better future is found in the present moment

              We can describe two different approaches that can help us better understand what life in the present means and how it impacts our ability to look into the future and make positive changes in our own lives.

              More efficient use of time makes us overstressed and causes difficulty in setting priorities. We carry out changes in our daily lives as one “task” among others. In this case, influence could happen in the form of nudging or gamification.

              In more conscious time management, influencing should start with personal reflection. People cannot be taught new lifestyles; instead, it is beneficial to promote and create situations where individuals can themselves pause and slow down their own lives, and through this, find reasons and justifications for change.

              If people view the future as too bleak and colored by various crises, do we as a society even have a shared, clear, and hopeful vision of the future on which to build our common positive visions for tomorrow?

              We often think that the objectives of the individual and the community are in conflict with each other. However, interviews have shown that an individual’s willingness to act is strongly linked to personal matters and issues related to their immediate life. Societal and global challenges are often felt as distant and beyond one’s own sphere of influence.

              Before starting the study, we held some expert discussions and would like to thank the following people for their expertise and the inspiration they provided related to this topic: Arto O. Salonen from the University of Eastern Finland; Valtteri Arstila from the University of Turku; Sanna Ahvenharju from the University of Turku; Juha Haaramo from Statistics Finland; Riitta Hanifi from Statistics Finland; and Petteri Repo, Jenny Rinkinen, Santeri J. Räisänen, Anna-Riitta Lehtinen, Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Kaisa Matschoss, Matleena Frisk, Markus-Petteri Laine and Eva Heiskanen from the Centre for Consumer Society Research studies.

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