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Time and its influence on motivation

Ian Smith explains how an athlete's psychological relationship to time will influence their motivation.

Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist whose seminal work on human motivation resulted in his Hierarchy of Needs, made two profoundly important statements about achievement: "Man is an ever-wanting animal" and "All behaviour is goal-oriented." These are my jumping-off point for this article; they can be combined in a single question, what do we want to achieve? That is, and more explicitly about the athletes whom you coach, what is it that at a deep emotional level drives them and, by implication, needs satisfying?

Carrot or stick

An athlete's psychological relationship to time will influence their motivation; equally, it will inform their response to your coaching style and further, it should direct whether you emphasise the "carrot" or the "stick" when coaching them to convert athletic potential into actual achievement.

People can be divided broadly into "In Time" or "Through Time" types. What differentiates them is the direction of their Time Line. A Time Line is an imaginary or virtual line linking a person's past, present and future. People will "see" their Time Line running in one of two alternative directions, relative to the position of their body; it is where their Time Line runs that defines whether a person is "In Time" or "Through Time".

With "In Time" people their Time Line dissects their body: they are, as it were, "In Time". "In Time" people not infrequently see their past and sometimes a part of the whole of their presence in front of them. It is not uncommon for "In Time" people to also 'see' their future behind them: their past, which can be in front of them, can be so influential it continues to inform, colour and shape what an "In Time" person 'sees' when they look ahead to tomorrow.

There is a high likelihood that an "In Time" person will apply the usual distinguishing definitions of 'past', 'present' and 'future' less strictly; that is, 'past' is not always 'behind', 'gone' and 'future' is not always 'ahead', 'yet to happen'. Such a person's psychology can mean these three periods can be found in front of, or inside or behind their body. An "In Time" person must therefore metaphorically turn their head, to look behind themselves, to 'see' some part of their Time Line. On the other hand, a "Through Time" person will 'see' the whole of their Time Line in front of them, and whether it is organised horizontally in front of them, vertically in front of them or, for some individuals, in a V-configuration on a horizontal or vertical plane in front of them, past, present and future are always in view without any need to metaphorically turn their head to 'see' a part of their Time Line.

A person's Time Line configuration will affect their perception of time; indeed, a Time Line's course, plus the proximity of past, present and future to each other on it, plus the psychological nearness in space of these periods on the Line to the person's body will have a predictable effect on time-related behaviours and practices. (Note, my use of the word 'time' can be about hours and minutes or years.) The major distinction, however, is that for an "In Time" person a part of their Time Line will be behind them and for a "Through Time" person the whole of their Time Line will be in front of them.

In Time people

If, as I have suggested, a person's Time Line influences their behaviours and practices, how might we generically describe "In Time" and "Through Time" people? "In Time" people typically:

  • Fully associate themselves in memory; that is, they can see themselves in the memory through their 'real time' eyes and again hear the sounds, taste the tastes and feel the feelings vividly that were experienced originally
  • Are less aware of duration (passing time) than "Through Time" people
  • Get caught up in the 'now' and are not troubled by lateness or overruns; indeed, the 'now' for "In Time" people can run on and on and this allows them to stay intensely focused for long periods
  • Prefer Encore-endedness and to keep their options open. This can make them seem undependable to others
  • Have difficulty prioritising tasks, because to do so limits their options and gives their activities a finite structure and definite end, rather than an open-end
  • Stray from the 'track', due, mostly, to the 'track' shifting (i.e. priorities changing, thus switching a present priority to a past or future priority) but leaving the "In Time" person still in their 'now' and focused on the old, superseded priority
  • Have strong memory recall, and rely on experience to inform them; they are thus not infrequently liable to be motivated by 'Away From' goals (see below under Goals)
  • Tend to live a less orderly, more spontaneous and flexible existence
  • Tend to dislike rigorous planning, preferring to take things as they come and adapting to life and work as they go. They tend to avoid closure and deadlines
  • Identify with sensations such as 'perceiving', 'feeling', 'thinking', 'touching' and 'tasting'. In a word, "In Time" people are Kinaesthetic

Through Time people

On the other hand, "Through Time" people typically:

  • 'See' time as continuous and uninterrupted: time for them is linear.
  • Are acutely aware of duration and judge their relationships and involvement in activities according to how much time was spent and whether they got value from their investment of time. Time and value are often synonymous to "Through Time" people.
  • Stick rigidly to appointment times, and instinctively judge fairly accurately such factors as travelling time (to get to a meeting, for example), elapsed time and even the time of day, without looking at a clock. ("In Time" people can also, of course, feel bad when they are late, but their feeling is more related to the concept and courtesy of 'timeliness' than to time itself).
  • Use time as a life reference point. (As all of time is always in front of a "Through Time" person this should come as no surprise: the past is a proximity reference to the present and the present is a proximity reference to the future, and as a "Through Time" person does not have to look behind them to 'see' a part of their Time Line their time is laid out like a panorama. However, a downside of this is when a "Through Time" person's past is characterised by negative experiences: in such cases, because their past is always there on view it can colour their evaluative feelings about their present).
  • Tend to be dissociated from their memories; that is, they see themselves in the memory as a 'third person' rather than looking through their eyes. Consequently, they can be less able than an "In Time" person to feel the feelings, taste the tastes, etc experienced originally.
  • Experience difficulty in recalling and accessing a specific memory, since they tend to collapse several experiences into a single experience.
  • Set and keep to deadlines.
  • Foresee, plan, schedule and complete activities on time. However, some "Through Time" people can have difficulty focusing on the 'now' because their future is there, always there, on full view. Thus, "Through Time" people can dislike working in an untidy environment (it's unstructured) or in a role where priorities change rapidly (or without any apparent rhyme or reason): to them, this is chaos, which to people who need the security of sequence, planning and order can be quite unsettling.
  • Differentiate work and play (unlike "In Time" people, who typically experience work and play as a blend).
  • Need finite and closed-end projects.
  • Identify with sensations such as 'judging', 'value-for-money' (or 'value-for-time') and 'visioning'.

"In Time" and "Through Time" people have different perceptions of time. Consequently, they tend to behave differently, not least due to the influence of their deep-lying emotional drivers - those that spur them on to achieving their goals. So now let me turn to the subject of goal achievement.


Every person moves either towards their future or away from their past; which movement is predominant will depend on their Time Line and the influential power of their past, present and future. It is the predominant direction that is important: whether most of the time in most situations the person is motivated by the approach, attraction and reward, i.e. a "carrot"; or avoidance, repulsion and punishment i.e. a "stick". In other words, a "Towards" person will move towards what they like and want to achieve in the future, whereas an "Away From" person will move away from what they don't like or from some troubling past. The outcome could well be the same, that is a notable achievement, but what drives a "Towards" person will be the magnet of a seen future, and what drives an "Away From" person will be the repulsion of their seen past. Consider two world-class boxers, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Expressed very, we might say that all of Tyson's behaviours speak of someone whose past is always with him, whose past is a constant influence and from which he ceaselessly tries to move away from; whereas Ali's behaviours spoke, and still speak, of someone whose future is the attractor and to which he constantly moves towards. Of course, at some level or other everyone will experience a drive to move towards or away from something; but (i.e. most of the time in most situations) "Through Time" people are driven by moving towards future goals and "In Time" people are driven by moving away from their past.

"Towards" people

A "Towards" person will be motivated by their desires; so, to motivate them, they need a reward or a goal (a 'carrot'). In terms of achievement, a "Towards Goals" person will be motivated by a strong desire to improve personal efficiency even more - to get more value from an activity or life in general. Any system or technique that will help them do this will be welcomed. On the other hand, motivating a "Towards Goals" person with a 'stick' will only serve to make them antagonistic.

"Away From" people

As "Away From" people move away from what they don't like, they can best be motivated by their fears. Trying to motivate such a person with a 'carrot' will rarely work well: they will care little for it. In terms of achievement, then, the 'carrot' of greater personal efficiency, or of winning per EPS, might not be as powerful a carrot as assumed because they are not motivated by "Towards" goals. They could well be motivated, however, by something significantly negative that they want to move away from, for example, a memory or a negative life experience.

Some people can convince themselves they are a "Towards" goals person, but their direction is merely apparent (an illusion) for their inner representation, their deep and truer psychological or emotional stimulus, is "Away From". Hence, they repeatedly sabotage their efforts to achieve a sustainable "Towards" goals direction or outcome by acting according to the "Away From" motive. In a sense, they behave like the Moon circling the Earth: The Moon is always attempting to shoot off into outer space (a "Towards" goals ambition) but is held back, in a fixed orbit, by the Earth's more powerful force. The Moon can thus be said to be in a stuck state. People in a stuck state will never resolve their dilemma until they can free themselves from whatever is preventing them from seeing their future unencumbered by the influence of their past. Again somewhat simplistically, we might suggest that all Tyson's achievements have been motivated by his drive to get away from his past, but because his past is probably always there in front of him he will see his future through the influential lens of his past, and until he is helped to change the configuration of his Time Line his behaviours will continue to be coloured by what he is trying to get away from. In Macintosh language Tyson's goal-oriented behaviour is designed to dwell upon his past, not to achieve a future, but as his past continues to anchor him in a stuck state he replays his self-sabotaging behaviours.

The question is, are your athletes "In Time" or "Through Time"?

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SMITH, I. (2004) Time and its influence on motivation. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 18 / December), p. 9-11

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SMITH, I. (2004) Time and its influence on motivation [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Ian Smith has qualifications in psychology and emotional intelligence assessment. He runs his training and development consultancy based in the UK, working with both corporate and private clients. Ian also works one-to-one with athletes, as their coach and counsellor, helping them to work through the immense pressures some of them face, due to performance issues, the media, relationship problems, fame, wealth, conflict etc.