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Help me visualize future time
August 19, 2013 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me visualize future time.

I have problems making a mental picture of what future time looks like - or, more specifically, how I can imagine it to make it work for me.

When someone says, "Can I have that by next Tuesday?" and it's Thursday, I cannot get a feeling or an image of when "next Tuesday" will be. I know mathematically that it's four days away, but all I see in my head is the word "Tuesday". Other friends of mine speak of visualizing blocks of time floating around, calendars in their heads, or even one who thinks in hours.

How do you visualize time? How do you make some connection in your head of when something should be done, the time available, and then the steps each day to make it happen (a wider question, I know, but I'm thinking of what goes on in your head).

I also have a mental block with diaries or day planners: when you see a whole week or month in front of you, again, it's hard for me to visualize time after that week or month unless I turn the page, but then the previous week/month is gone out of my head.

And what about those people who say, "Oh, yes, next Wednesday is the 25th" without even looking at a calendar. What do they have that I don't!
posted by stenoboy to Work & Money (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I always have to look at a calendar. I'm not a visual person, so I don't "see time". So before committing to something, I look at my Outlook calendar.

I'll ask a probing question, "So, how long do you think it will take to complete this?" or "To get this to you the ABC reports need to be released by finance, and that doesn't happen until the 10th, is that going to be okay?"

You can block out chunks of time on your calendar for each project, that way, you CAN look at your calendar to see if you have the requisite time to do it.

Sometimes you've got to employ hacks.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:18 AM on August 19, 2013

Days, to me, go in a line from left to right: S M Tu W Th F Sa. If someone says, "Next Tuesday," then I see myself jumping down from the current line and across three spaces.
posted by xingcat at 7:18 AM on August 19, 2013

I visualize time as a calendar stretching out before me. If you say 'next Tuesday' I can actually see these squares/days stretching out. Two of these squares are Saturday/Sunday so I can 'see' that there's a weekend in between.

I can also see weeks and months in the future or in the past by 'zooming' in our out. So I can still see Today and 'next Tuesday' but now they are smaller and have entire months beside them.

Basically think of a big wall calendar where all the months and days of the year are laid out. Even if I'm using a day planner or week-planner, I still revert to the image of that big wall calendar.
posted by vacapinta at 7:22 AM on August 19, 2013

I don't even know what day of the week it is without checking, much less the number of the day, much less the number or day of the week of some arbitrary point in the future. Visualizing any of it is a lost cause, and I feel if you're a functional adult that's gotten through life to this point, it may be for you as well.

I have completely given up on trying to do any of this in my head. Literally the only way I can keep my schedule is by obsessively keeping a calendar -- GCal/WeekCal on iOS -- that's permanently set to display month-at-a-time. The reason I use WeekCal on iOS is that the default calendar doesn't do month-at-a-time in any useful way.

Whenever anyone so much as mentions a date that is somehow important to me, I whip out my phone and bring the calendar up in front of me as I speak to them. It still screws me up when I'm going from month to another month, but that's something I only have to worry about rarely. I also go through my calendar once a week, looking at future dates. I don't actually memorize any of them, but it does seriously cut down on the "oh fuck I only have a month to do X" situations.

Also I have reminders set up for everything. Whether it's picking something up after work, or making sure I know about a thing in two months a week before it happens.
posted by griphus at 7:24 AM on August 19, 2013

Taking it a step back, it helps to really get a handle on how long individual tasks take. So when you get something that's due next Tuesday, step back and think about how long each part is going to take (e.g., I need to find a few articles so that search will take 30 minutes, reading them will be 2 hours, etc.). Then once you've made those predictions, actually time yourself doing them to see if your guess is anywhere close to accurate. I know that this has been a chronic problem for me that I'll underestimate how long it actually takes me to do something. Once you have an accurate sense of those tasks, you can start plugging them into your calendar and get an idea of whether it's realistic to promise something on Tuesday or not. Over time, it usually gets a little easier to visualize those little blocks of time between now and some "future time," but having the little pieces to move around can certainly help.
posted by goggie at 7:35 AM on August 19, 2013

Oh, hai, this thread. I still don't even know.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:38 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

As far as the numbers of upcoming days go, sometimes it's just a coincidence that people know. Maybe the 25th is their birthday, or they have a big thing planned on Friday the 27th. It also helps to wear a watch with the date so you can check on today and add however many days to it.

The visualizing floaty calendars thing I suspect is more innate -- that's not at all how I think of time, and thinking about it feels confusing. For projects large or small, I try to estimate how many hours they'll take by breaking them into pieces (and then thinking about whether my overall number seems reasonable!), then open Google Cal and Tasks to see how those hours fit into my upcoming days. I don't actually put everything into the calendar hour-by-hour, but I do add just about everything and its due date to Tasks. Then it doesn't matter what you know in your head, because the mandatory and/or important stuff is all in front of you in one list, and in the calendar view you see what is "due" each day and can use that when planning future commitments.
posted by teremala at 7:41 AM on August 19, 2013

When someone says, "Can I have that by next Tuesday?" and it's Thursday, I cannot get a feeling or an image of when "next Tuesday" will be. I know mathematically that it's four days away, but all I see in my head is the word "Tuesday".

Future time is just the same as past time flipped in another direction. So if someone asks you about doing something in four days, just think backwards to four days past and consider - if you had started the job then do you feel like you would be done with it today?
posted by mikepop at 7:45 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I visualize a week as an (asymmetric) oval loop, where days move counter-clockwise. Saturday and Sunday are at the top of the loop, with Saturday on the right, the Sunday to the left of it, and then days proceed around the loop, counter-clockwise, reconnecting with Saturday. Wednesday is in the middle on the bottom. It's probably not "logically" consistent, visually. I've never attempted to draw it.

If it's now Thursday and someone says "next Tuesday", then, looking forward, it is at the next cycle of the loop, four days ahead.

I suspect these are mental habits/tricks we develop as children when we are still trying to understand what we're taught about days, weeks, and months, and get ingrained in us. I am not sure they can be developed from scratch. I have a weird structure in my head visualizing how months proceed over the course of the year, as well.
posted by deanc at 7:57 AM on August 19, 2013

Days for me are rectangular blocks that go left to right. Then weeks are bigger blocks, and months even bigger. Months go in in a circle, clockwise with December and January on top. When thinking of a future time I kind of scan forward through these blocks to the right time.

So if I'm thinking about next Monday, I'll see seven blocks, with the weekend kind of a double wide block.
posted by catatethebird at 8:15 AM on August 19, 2013

For days of the week: I think of them as words arranged, one behind the next, almost like little plaques or signs hanging in the air.

So when someone says "next Tuesday," I first immediately have to think "Where am I now?" It's now Monday. So then the next week stretches before me in terms of those plaques and I think about that next Tuesday as a location I will be in at some point.

The same is true with months, though I sometimes think of months as a vertical list, with the months of each next year behind the last. So for example if someone said "May 2014" I'd see a list of:


in the mental air and then behind that I'd see


And that May might be bolded or something.

Of course, I think it also works a little like peripheral vision: your eye only focuses on a particular aspect of the scene, and your brain fills in the rest. And the same is true with these visuals. They come up very quickly, most of the visual probably isn't really filled in, but it seems like it is. And also the visuals interact with more abstract, word-based meanings. Like if someone said "three weeks from now," I might get a visual, but the real important information would probably be stored in the date: September 9.

Fascinating stuff.
posted by shivohum at 8:24 AM on August 19, 2013

Absolutely no sense of time whatsoever. I get confused about what day of the week it currently is even while I'm using that information! (For example, say it's Monday. I can be mentally making plans which revolve around the fact that it's currently Monday while at the same time telling someone that I can't do X because I have to do Wednesday Activity).

So, I have to write everything down, absolutely everything in a pen-and-paper hourly planner- plus check the calendar frequently. It doesn't help much, either. Time is a mystery to me. I had no idea that people could conceptualize it so easily! No wonder they think it's strange that I'm so scatterbrained!
posted by windykites at 10:09 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think about time and a calendar the same way that I think about physical space and a map.

When I am walking around an unfamiliar area, I use a real map to figure out where I am and which direction I am going. Once I've done that a few times, then next time I walk there, I can (sort of) see the map in my head and therefore I can tell where I am.

The same with the calendar. I start by picturing a wall calendar (month-style) with 7 boxes across and 4 or 5 going down. It's easy to think about just one box going down - that represents "this week" - and don't worry about the future ones unless I need to. So when someone says "Next Tuesday" I can see the boxes that finish out this week, then the new row starts with Sunday and goes to Tuesday. It's not floating or magic - it's a calendar, the same as you have on your wall and look at every day.

However, if I need to know what date is 5 days from today, I use the fingers on my right hand. The thumb is Monday and it goes in order to the pinky as Friday. I touch "today's" finger on the table, then touch each of the next fingers as I count the days. If I need to go into/past the weekend, I do it mentally, but I literally look at the spot past my pinky and bob my head at it as I count one day past it, then move my eyes left to look at the spot before my thumb and count that spot as Sunday before I keep touching the rest of the fingers to get to the total count.
posted by CathyG at 2:06 PM on August 19, 2013

I haven't the slightest idea what this visualizing of time without looking at a calendar thing is that you are referring to. Really, I just can't understand what you are even asking. It seems like it would be really, really difficult to just imagine I'm looking at a calendar... I mean, I can imagine a month calendar in my head, and I can draw that on paper as just empty boxes, but it doesn't have all the stuff on it that's on my real calendar, so it's not very good for saying I can do x on y day.

How do you make some connection in your head of when something should be done, the time available, and then the steps each day to make it happen

If I'm planning out over a longer time period, say 3 months or more, I will lay out page-a-month paper calendars on a desk, draw boxes 7 wide on a large sheet of paper, or something like that. Many things on that time scale will have a lot of intermediate meetings or deadlines, and I'm not keeping track of all that in my head.

If it's more complex than that, have you heard of Gnatt charts? Pictures are tools. Why does it have to all be in your head, instead of someplace you can just visualize it by looking at it with your eyes?

If you have something due on a certain day, and there aren't any natural milestones of when certain things would be done, it's helpful to set those up for yourself. If you get to decide when the thing will be done, this is exactly what "underpromise and overdeliver" was made for.

General tips:

When someone says, "Can I have that by next Tuesday?"
... I say "Just a minute, I'll check", and pull out my daily calendar that I do scheduling on.

You don't have to do it all in your head. Most people are happy to see that their thing is important enough that you are entering it on your calendar. Just don't let them peer at your calendar while you are figuring out when you'll do the thing, that way lies madness.

It's also good to confirm what exactly is meant by "next tuesday". One person's next tuesday is another person's this tuesday.

I've literally had only one person ever get upset at me for getting out the calendar.

If you put it on your calendar, you know what you promised when, and you'll give an impression of being much better organized than someone who knew Wednesday was the 25th but forgot all about it before the 25th.

What do they have that I don't!

Perhaps they have an incredibly boring hobby of memorizing calendars.
posted by yohko at 3:14 PM on August 19, 2013

OK, I just looked at the previous possibly related question.

Only a few people there mentioned picturing calendars with actual scheduled events on them.

So do you calendar-visualizing people keep your whole schedule in there? Meet X at place Y and be sure to bring Z on Sunday next, dentist appointment in 3 months, vacation on Nov 22 flying out on United #1234 at 6:34 am??

OP, is that what you want to do?

My head hurts now.

Or were most of those joke answers? Maybe a reference to a movie I missed seeing?
posted by yohko at 3:40 PM on August 19, 2013

Just in terms of highlighting something different, there was one message in the other thread people have been linking to that suggests a verbal instead of visual conceptualization. That might be helpful for people like you -- and me, I have trouble with this, too -- who don't find this kind of thinking as natural.

I also like the try-it-backwards idea you highlighted.
posted by spbmp at 7:00 PM on August 19, 2013

And what about those people who say, "Oh, yes, next Wednesday is the 25th" without even looking at a calendar. What do they have that I don't!

I've studied history at university. It's useful to remember some Big Important Dates and work your way out from there. Works something like "Well it was after the American Revolution and before the French one, so probably early 1780s or so".

Works the same way with contemporary dates for me nowadays. "Ah, I've got that birthday Sunday, which I know is the 22th, and the aforementioned Wednesday is 3 days after that: 'Oh, yes, next Wednesday is the 25th!'".

Don't know if it makes a lot of sense. With "can it be done in this time?" I try to visualize the empty blocks of hours I have free between now and the due date. The number of days isn't really relevant to the calculation, it's just the end result of "Alright it takes 18 hours, I've got my usual activities which take two hours a day, and no other projects going on, so it can be done in about three days, give or take".

I don't picture calendars. I hardly use them as it is, they're useful for automatic reminders mostly.
posted by Marcc at 1:38 AM on August 20, 2013

And what about those people who say, "Oh, yes, next Wednesday is the 25th" without even looking at a calendar. What do they have that I don't!

Skills of addition? It's just the date of the nearest Wednesday, which is at most only a few days away, plus 7.
posted by deanc at 11:47 AM on August 20, 2013

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