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Past, present or future...
what do you focus on?

by Alex Doudy

Shruti Sardeshmukh, Erich Fein and Christina Scott-Young.Your habits in setting and achieving workplace goals are influenced by whether you devote most of your mental energy to thinking about the past, present or future.

Erich Fein and colleagues Shruti Sardeshmukh and Christina Scott-Young from the Centre for Human Resource Management (CHRM) in the School of Management, have found evidence for these connections in a recent study into temporal focus, or the way people think about time. This research was recently presented at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting in Canada.

The researchers found there were distinct advantages and drawbacks for each type of temporal focus.

“People that were high in future-focus were good at planning and good at re-engaging with goals that they had had to abandon previously,” Dr Fein said.

“Those with a current focus, who were mindful of the present, had the strongest inclination to apply goal-directed effort without hesitation.

“If you’re past-focused, it doesn’t seem to buy you a whole lot in re-engagement or hesitation but it gives you the strongest advantage in planning because you can look back at what has and hasn’t worked,” he said.

A fourth category of people whose temporal focus encompassed all three timeframes and who were most successful at achieving their goals, also emerged in Dr Fein’s study.

“These people seemed to have a particularly strong ability to meet goals effectively because when you’re using goals it’s not just about thinking of the future, but you have to pay attention to what’s happening in the present by comparing your goals to feedback so you can make adjustments,” Dr Fein said.

Dr Fein said the chance to present the research at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, the world’s largest organisation of management scholars, held this year in Montreal, Canada, was a great opportunity.

Dr Sardeshmukh and Dr Scott-Young presented the research to an audience of about 30 academics and practitioners, and they were encouraged by comments regarding the potential usefulness of this research in organisations.

The research team is currently engrossed in two further studies on temporal focus and is preparing to publish their findings.

Centre for Human Resource Management Director Professor Carol Kulik has been appointed to the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) College of Experts (2010-2012). The College’s members assess and rank ARC grant applications, make funding recommendations, and provide strategic advice to the ARC.

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