Think back to your summer vacation. Regardless of how long it lasted, chances are it felt like time sped by and you were heading home before you knew it. Contrast that with how the clock slows to a seeming crawl when you’re caught in traffic or stuck in a meeting. Of course, time doesn’t actually have variable speeds. Each minute is, factually speaking, the same length as every other. But it often doesn’t feel that way, either when you’re in the middle of an experience or looking back on it years later.
These differing perceptions are evident in the countless — and often contradictory — adages that have sprung up about time over the years. Time flies, but it also drags and occasionally stands still. The days are long, but the years are short. And though time is on our side, we’re nonetheless in a race against it. That last perception frequently sets in as we age. Though time seems to meander at a leisurely pace in childhood, the years now may feel like they’re galloping by.
Ever since the writings of fourth-century philosopher St. Augustine, scholars have sought to understand how human beings perceive the passage of time. Modern-day research shows the way we experience and interpret events — and especially how we record them in our long-term memories — can have profound effects on both our day-to-day lives and our long-term happiness.
“Time is the most precious thing we have,” says Jean Paul Zogby, author of The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count. “It affects how we see things, how we experience things, how we look at our lives in general and how fulfilling our lives are.”
Though it’s impossible to turn back the clock or fast-forward to the future, research shows people can alter their awareness and perception of time. Here are a few keys to understanding time and making the most of it.
It’s easy to grasp why time flies when you’re having fun. Whether it’s dinner with friends or getting lost in a good book, you’re engrossed in an activity and not paying attention to the ticking of the clock. In short, losing track of time has the mental effect of making it pass more swiftly.
But what if you’re performing a tedious or unenjoyable task and wish time would go faster? The same principle applies. Research suggests that focusing solely on the activity itself — in other words, avoiding distractions such as checking your watch or even daydreaming about something fun — can make time seem to pass more quickly.
On the other hand, if it feels as though your days are a blur and life is rushing by, do something new. Research shows that novel experiences tend to slow the perception of time. This even extends to something routine, such as shopping in a new grocery store. A fresh experience — even just wandering down an unfamiliar cereal aisle — tends to be more memorable than subsequent visits, when you know precisely where the oatmeal is shelved.
Compare that with a rote task done every day, such as the morning ritual of getting ready for work. Have you ever left the house only to have trouble remembering whether you fed the cat? The routine nature of daily occurrences creates less of a mental impression, making it feel as though time is hurrying by.
The antidote, researchers say, is to change up routines, both large and small. Take a different route home at the end of the day. If you’re stymied as to why the holidays are approaching so quickly, celebrate them a little differently. And even if you love your annual vacation spot, avoid going to the same place year after year.
“As you get older, you’ve got to decide to stop and slow things down and really savor the good things in life,” says Ronald Riggio, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College who studies the perception of time. “Try to do as many new things as you can to make new memories. Those are the things you’re going to remember.”
Introducing novelty is especially critical for those who feel as though time is accelerating as we age. Several factors cause this perception, but one of the biggest is the repetitive nature of adult life and the corresponding dearth of fresh experiences. Children do many more things for the first time than adults do, and they have more time-related milestones, such as moving from one grade to the next. By contrast, the sheer number of items on the average adult’s to-do list, combined with a general sense of time pressure, can make it seem like life is hurtling by.
New experiences not only stretch the subjective speed of time in the present but tend to elongate it in your memory as well. Essentially, our brains tend to permanently record distinctive experiences while discarding the unremarkable ones, according to Zogby. Even fun experiences that may seem to fly by at the time form an indelible impression that, when recalled fondly years later, effectively slows down in our memories.
“Our brain tends to retrospectively shrink empty or routine minutes, hours and days, while expanding action-packed and interesting ones,” Zogby says. “If your life is now nothing but a constant routine, when you look back at those years they will seem short. Introducing novelty in your life will give you richer memories and make your life seem longer.”
The above article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.