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The Concept of Time: Specific Patterns and Person’s Perception of Time


It is hard to disagree that the concept of time is one of the most essential and influential components of this world and individuals’ life paths. The past, present, and future are combined with some other factors and take a colossal role in shaping a person’s fate. All people make plans for the future and have specific aspirations and ideas concerning their lives. Humans, either consciously or subconsciously, evaluate their social and family background, current status, past, education, and many other factors in order to imagine the future (Flaherty et al.). Interestingly, the concept of time and context has a significant impact not only on destiny itself but also on these plans and ideas.

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Moreover, some well-established and time-tested beliefs are so strong that even centuries later, they continue to affect women and men. For example, many people are sure that there is a certain and universal scheme according to which one should build a life. First, finish school, then get a diploma, find a good job, buy an apartment, get married, and have children (Lahad 170). Strict adherence to this scheme and a particular time for the implementation of these actions are encouraged by society and give individuals a kind of sense of control over their lives and futures (Brannen and Nilsen). The sociology of time studies the concept of time’s influence on the way people build their lives, as well as tries to explain how exactly plans and goals for the future can vary depending on a person’s perception of time.

Particular Division between Plans, Hopes, and Goals

When people analyze their thoughts regarding their future lives, including career, children, marriage, education, and other aspects, it may become possible to divide these ideas into plans, hopes, and goals. The distribution of various events into these three groups is based on how real, thoughtful, and feasible these events seem and how easily they can be destroyed by external factors (Brannen and Nilsen 154). Multiple studies revealed that such division indeed exists, and young people, when asked about their future, distinguish between these three different terms sometimes even without noticing it (Brannen and Nilsen 155; Hassard 54). It is possible to suggest that previous experience, as well as current circumstances, influence people’s ideas concerning these three concepts. In other words, most persons are aware of their abilities, fears, weaknesses, and strong sides, and they also know that some particular conditions are more likely to shape their future than others (Flaherty et al. 67). Basing on this knowledge, which is mostly intuitive, people dream about their lives, make plans, establish goals, and build hopes.

Plans and Goals

To begin with, it is necessary to discuss how young individuals describe their future lives and the necessity of differentiating between several concepts before taking action. Goals are the desired results or aims that are potentially achievable and real but require certain efforts (Flaherty et al.). In other words, a goal is an end measure, and to accomplish this aspiration, a particular plan and a strong answer to the question “why” are needed (Brannen and Nilsen 154). Therefore, plans are specific sets of actions that are more or less thought out and can either lead to the desired result or fail.

To be especially clear, plans, both long- and short-term, are always more concrete, thought through, and achievable. They usually have a set place, space association, and a time horizon and are generally made in relation to something over which people have a particular feeling of control (Brannen and Nilsen 155). Simultaneously, “a goal is something that can only be achieved by careful planning” but can also be destroyed by an unforeseeable event (Brannen and Nilsen 155). Therefore, when setting goals and making plans, it is also necessary to take into account a number of external factors that may have an effect on the process of achieving.

Unforeseen Events

First of all, people tend to make certain distinctions between unforeseen events that currently they cannot possibly regulate or affect and future events about which they feel having enough information to be in control of. Indeed, establishing an objective and creating a specific plan is not enough, and though it may be possible to regulate life’s circumstances so that they contribute to the scheme, some external factors still can ruin it (Hassard). Therefore, “young people are well aware that unforeseen events can interfere with current plans made in order to achieve their goals” (Brannen and Nilsen 155). Noticeably, men and women tend to have different attitudes to such factors, and this idea will be discussed further. Thus, the distinction between plans and goals is evident, and confusing these concepts, especially when talking about one’s future, may lead to disappointments.


As the time horizon expands, people generally become less sure about their current plans’ feasibility, and these plans become more like dreams and acquire apparent aspects of uncertainty. Out of the three groups of events, precisely dreams and hopes are less thought through and specific (Hassard). Researchers note that “where the feeling of control ends and uncertainty begins, hoping takes over for planning in the personal sphere” (Brannen and Nilsen 155). Therefore, precisely the level of certainty or uncertainty defines whether a specific idea of the future is a plan, goal, or hope. Noticeably, despite the fact that most young people strive to gain control over their lives, many of them still love to dream no less than to set goals (Maines and Hardesty 110). It is probably a distinctive feature of the inconsistency of the younger generation and an interesting topic for further research. Finally, depending on the circumstances, people’s ambitions and motivations, time, and other factors, hopes may become objectives and vice versa.

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Purpose of the Distinction

Nevertheless, all these differences between the discussed concepts do not mean that people have no feelings of control over their lives or never make plans. On the contrary, knowing that planned goals are more accomplishable than hopes allows individuals to soberly assess their capabilities and distribute values to achieve everything gradually. In other words, this distinction is simply aimed at conceptualizing various ways of envisaging the future and thinking ahead (Brannen and Nilsen 156). Everyone tends to have their own way of viewing any domain of life, and the present context, as well as a well-planned future, appear to be of vital importance for it.

Planning and the Concept of Time

It is quite interesting that the concept and perception of time has a significant effect on one’s plans and the process of planning itself. Because of the existence of various social norms and standards, people typically grow up with this idea of “scheduled” life and the necessity of following the determined scheme (Machung 35). In other words, social foundations dictate to persons that certain events and decisions must occur and be taken at a particular time of their lives (Machung 35). A “scheduled” life is a specific scheme that shapes one’s and his or her close people’s expectations around this person’s life-course.

For example, one must definitely go to college after finishing school, get married after receiving an education, and have children only with his or her wife or husband. Usually, any deviation from the scheme, either intentional or accidental, is not welcomed by society and may make the person feel anxious or even ashamed. For example, young women who have reached the age of twenty-five and have not married or given birth to children are often condemned by society, which dramatically lowers their self-esteem.

Consequently, people feel the need to make plans for future life not only depending on their own desires and needs but also because of the conditions that society imposes on them. Time changes the world around, and the “schedule” of life also becomes different (Machung 37). For instance, new crucial elements are added to the scheme, including education and work for women. Compared with the past, the modern world requires much more from women than just to get married and have children, so the time frame for completing these “steps” is increasing or shifting (Greene and Wheatley). However, the judgment level a person encounters if they move away from this “schedule’s” main elements or makes them at the wrong time remains as strong as it used to be ages ago.

The Seven Day Circle

Interestingly, while years, months, and days were given to humans by nature, they invented weeks themselves. According to Zerubavel, “there is nothing inevitable about a seven-day cycle…; it represents an arbitrary rhythm imposed on our activities, unrelated to anything in the natural order” (84). Since the conception of time is circular, it determines the way people’s lives are structured around the week. Zerubavel notices that the week concept protects humans from “the frightening truth that the sequence of days is not circular at all, but linear” (84). Indeed, when persons organize their activities along the weekly cycle, they stop perceiving time in terms of historical days and specific dates that will never repeat again. Instead, they think in terms of “seven nonhistorical types of days that recur regularly according to a fixed periodicity” (Zerubavel 85). This is another and more universal example of how humans’ fear of death makes them perceive the timeline of life differently.

Men’s and Women’s Perception of Time and Future

Researchers and scientists note that there are apparent differences in the way males and females percept the future and the concept of time. According to Maines and Hardesty, “men live in linear temporal worlds and women live in contingent temporal worlds” (102). In other words, linear temporal perception of time makes men make their plans for the future depending on whether they think an event is likely to eventually come true. They also usually analyze the present and the future and think in a formula that a condition will become true if another factor also is real (Maines and Hardesty 102). As for women, they typically need to experience two or more events close together in time in order to form an association and make plans for the future. Certainly, these assumptions are quite general and may have exceptions.

If asked about what they will look for after finishing school, men typically mention all possible details, and their speeches mean that they have already planned and analyzed everything. As for women, their answers are not specific, and they tend to talk in more general terms (Machung 40). This is also the sign of men and women precepting time, future, and present on different levels.

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Young People’s and Adults Planning for the Future and Perception of Time

It is possible to suggest that the model of what is expected by young people from their future lives is a unique composite of the new and the old. All these people used to grow up during the years that were marked by extensive and rapid social changes (Machung 37). They had their parents as the examples and models upon which they would have to pattern their own adult choices and decisions (Machung 37). Simultaneously, the behavior of the peers and the newly emerging social norms that vary from the old ones can confuse young people. Therefore, they begin to mix their own identities and the expectations of the older generation. Many young individuals may shape their future according to their parents’ ideas or because of the fear of being not as everyone.

What is more, current circumstances can also significantly influence the plans and aspirations for life. Specific activities in the present can shape how young people think about their future (Brannen and Nilsen 156). For example, being seriously sick, studying in the first or last year of university, or becoming a single mother may make a person see the future differently (Maines and Hardesty 108). It may be viewed either as an extension of the present or the specific result from a plan laid in the past.

Significant differences may be found in the ways young persons and adults perceive their lives and the passage of time. When making plans for the future, many adolescents forget about various factors and are guided by maximalism (Greene and Wheatley 672). That is why their hopes and goals may seem either too unrealistic or selfish. On the contrary, adults tend to overthink, consider all possible factors, consequences, and outcomes, and make plans that are more focused on the distant future (Lahad 169). As for the perception of time, most young people forget that their presence in this world is limited, and the years go by faster and faster (Maines and Hardesty). Thinking about the present is important, but it also may lead to a moment when one suddenly realizes that more than half of life has passed. At the same time, adults and elderly people perceive time as a limited resource and usually use it reasonably.

Human Individual Perception as a Way of Slowing Down or Accelerating Time

The social sciences, when studying the concept of time, are usually preoccupied with causality. According to Flaherty et al., “despite the standardization of time, a particular interval can seem to pass slowly or quickly from the standpoint of human perception” (3). Indeed, it is well-known that two persons going through the same situation may have extremely different feelings about the time passing by and the duration of the event. Therefore, the question of what exactly brings about variation in people’s temporal experience arises.

There are two primary determinants of the way various individuals perceive time. First of all, it is possible to suggest that the current emotional and even physical conditions of a person can have an effect on whether time slows down or accelerating (Flaherty et al. 5). Indeed, tiredness, stress, nervousness, panic, excitement, joy, anger, anticipation, and other emotional states can affect how an hour or a week goes by for a person (Flaherty et al. 5). For example, it often happens that time for people in a state of confusion or shock flies by unnoticed, and the situation ends relatively quickly, not allowing them to figure out how to act. On the contrary, when looking forward to an exciting event, most individuals notice that time slows down or even stops.

As for the second factor, it is thoroughly connected with the previous one. Within an analytical framework that belongs to the natural sciences, “it is assumed that the situation determines the perception of time” (Flaherty et al. 3). Researchers also believe that this factor is more important than the previous since “one’s objective circumstances are thought to be antecedent, external, and coercive to one’s subjective temporal experience” (Flaherty et al. 3). For instance, “the temporal experience of a bystander during a terrorist incident” is an excellent example of how one notices significant time dilation (Flaherty et al. 3). Though there may be only five minutes between the beginning of the attack and the police’s arrival, bystanders may feel like an eternity has passed. Such temporal distortion is easily attributed to the sudden violence effect (Hassard). People who find themselves in critical situations often observe the slowing down of time due to the fact that they experience the fear of death and have limited or no resources to change the circumstances.

Overall, there is an inevitable and robust connection between a person’s emotional condition and the situation he or she is in. In other words, the inner states of people affect the way they see and react to an event, and vice versa – an occasion can greatly change a person’s feelings and emotions (Lahad 165). Therefore, it is possible to suggest that these two factors together significantly influence time perception in a unique moment.

Inflicted and Desired Perceptions

It is also necessary to mention that individual perceptions of time may be divided into inflicted and desired. Generally, inflicted temporal experiences were discussed above, including people during terrorist incidents or those who are looking forward to an event. Indeed, in such cases, they usually have no resources to change their perception and slow down or accelerate the time (Hassard). In situations like these, time is imposed or inflicted on people.

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Nevertheless, there are certain cases that severely contradict the deterministic framework. For a man witnessing a terrorist incident and a girl spending the last two weeks with her boyfriend before separating for summer, there is a comparable distortion in temporal experience: time is perceived to slow down (Flaherty et al. 4). However, the vital difference is that such perception is orchestrated and desired by the girl, while witnesses to an attack cannot avoid it. These examples prove that “people construct their own circumstances with the intention to modify their experience of time” (Flaherty et al. 3). Consequently, depending on the specific situation, individuals’ inner states, and the influence of other persons and external factors, time perceptions become either inflicted or desired.


To draw a conclusion, one may say that the concepts of time and future are quite relative and depend on an extended number of various factors. In different situations, people can perceive the passage of time in a slowed down or accelerated form, and this perception can be imposed or desired. Moreover, there is a big difference in the perception of time and future between men and women. When it comes to life planning, people’s desires and decisions are determined by the current circumstances, social norms and rules, and their own ideas and aspirations. Overall, despite numerous articles and research, the sociology of time is such an extended and interesting science that requires further thorough study.

Works Cited

Brannen, Julia, and Ann Nilsen. “Young People, Time Horizons and Planning: A Response to Anderson et al.” Sociology, vol. 41, no. 1, 2007, pp. 153-160.

Flaherty, Michael G., et al. Time Work: Studies of Temporal Agency. Berghahn Books, 2020.

Greene, A. L., and Susan M. Wheatley. “‘I’ve Got a Lot to Do and I Don’t Think I’ll Have the Time’: Gender Differences in Late Adolescents’ Narratives of the Future.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 21, no. 6, 1992, pp. 667-686.

Hassard, John, editor. The Sociology of Time. Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.

Lahad, Kinneret. “Singlehood, Waiting, and the Sociology of Time.” Sociological Forum, vol. 27, no. 1, 2012, pp. 163-186.

Machung, Anne. “Talking Career, Thinking Job: Gender Differences in Career and Family Expectations of Berkeley Seniors.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 1989, pp. 35-58.

Maines, David R., and Monica J. Hardesty. “Temporality and Gender: Young Adults’ Career and Family Plans.” Social Forces, vol. 66, no. 1, 1987, pp. 102-120.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. Free Press, 1989.

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